updated 8/16/2007 9:07:11 PM ET 2007-08-17T01:07:11

A crime wave is intensifying in this city already beset by a flagging recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and Hispanic immigrants helping to rebuild are common targets, according to police and to statistics released Thursday.

Despite an infusion of money and manpower into the justice system, the number of homicides is climbing, and armed robbers are preying on Hispanic day laborers flush with cash from rebuilding jobs, the Police Department says.

The city, which led the nation in murders per capita in 2006, is on track to do the same this year, according to data presented Thursday for April through June.

The report shows a 14 percent increase in murders and 44 percent leap in armed robberies for the first half of 2007 compared with the same period in 2006.

“It’s obviously not good,” said police Superintendent Warren Riley.

National Guard continues patrol
Crime has gotten so out of hand that Louisiana National Guard troops continue to patrol streets and the U.S. Justice Department has taken on a bigger role in fighting street crime, one that had largely been left to the city before Katrina.

The increase in armed robberies correlates to a spate of muggings of Hispanic workers, many of them undocumented, in the city’s devastated eastern section, Riley said. Much of the area, flooded by Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, remains a wasteland and is difficult to patrol.

The workers are easy prey because they often don’t have bank accounts and carry large amounts of cash, Riley said. A team of officers has been working on catching the robbers, he said.

Katrina’s damage to jails, court buildings, police facilities and a shortage of police officers have been blamed for the rise in crime. In January, a march on City Hall by as many as 5,000 people demanded action to stem a wave in killings. Police responded by putting more officers on the street and setting up checkpoints at high-crime hours.

Some blame leadership
But Peter Scharf, a criminologist with the University of New Orleans, said Katrina-based arguments are harder to make now that the city has had time to repair damage and received so much support.

“The hurricane theories, morphing of drug groups, or that the NOPD is in a trailer, really don’t make sense,” Scharf said. “You look at the leadership in this city to the leadership in cities that have been reasonably successful, and it’s night and day.”

Recently, Mayor Ray Nagin reignited complaints about his leadership when he said news of two killings, while sad, “keeps the New Orleans brand out there.”

Nagin’s office did not return a message left after business hours Thursday.

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