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Exploited Labor: Forced Labor Ringleader Sentenced to Nearly 10 Years in Federal Prison

source: Coalition of Immokalee Workers


United States District Court in Tampa sentences Bladimir Moreno — ringleader of Florida-based forced labor operation and last of four defendants to be sentenced — to nearly 10 years in prison.

“These defendants exploited their victims’ vulnerabilities and immigration status, promising them access to the American dream but then turning around and confiscating their passports and threatening arrest and deportation if they did not endlessly toil away for their profit,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in a press release earlier this year announcing the sentencing of Moreno’s partners in modern-day slavery operation.

“Using coercive, deceptive and fraudulent practices to exploit individuals’ immigration status to engage in a pattern of forced labor for financial gain is appalling,” said U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg for the Middle District of Florida. “Thanks to the diligent work by our human trafficking task force partners, this criminal enterprise was stopped in its tracks.”

Sentencing marks the latest of more than a dozen forced labor prosecutions in which the CIW Anti-Slavery Program helped federal agencies uncover and bring the criminal operation to justice…

The United States District Court in Tampa has sentenced Bladimir Moreno, the leader of a multi-state forced labor conspiracy based in Florida, to nearly 10 years in prison. Moreno has also been ordered to pay $173,125.44 in restitution to the farmworkers — brought to work in US fields under the H2A “guestworker” visa program — whom he and his co-conspirators subjected to extreme coercion and abuse.

Moreno’s three co-conspirators received their sentences in October, 2022: Christina Gamez was given 37 months in prison; Efrain Cabrera Rodas, a citizen of Mexico, was handed 41 months in prison; and Guadalupe Mendes Mendoza was ordered to serve eight months of home detention.

A prior release by the Department of Justice (DOJ) laid out the specifics of their forced labor scheme:

“… According to court documents, the defendants each conspired to operate and manage Los Villatoros Harvesting LLC (LVH) – a farm labor contracting company that brought large numbers of temporary, seasonal Mexican workers into the United States on H-2A agricultural visas – as a criminal enterprise engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity. The enterprise’s racketeering activity included subjecting LVH’s H-2A workers to forced labor, harboring many of LVH’s H-2A workers for financial gain, committing fraud in foreign labor contracting and submitting fraudulent visa related documents to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers assisted the DOJ with the case, uncovering and reporting the operation to federal agents after two workers escaped from their employers’ control by hiding in the trunk of a car and called the CIW for help. Together with Moreno’s sentencing, these court rulings mark the end of a lengthy legal process to bring justice to their many victims.

Moreno’s sentencing marks the final chapter in a sordid story of abuse and exploitation, and serves as a stark reminder of the darkness that looms just beyond the protections of the CIW’s Fair Food Program — and of the urgent need to expand the FFP to cover more workers, more states, and more crops.

On Fair Food Program farms, workers are protected from forced labor through several interlacing mechanisms designed to monitor and enforce the Program’s standards, including: worker-to-worker education on their rights under the FFP’s code of conduct; a 24/7 complaint investigation and resolution process where workers can report violations free from the fear of retaliation; regular and substantial farm audits; and legally-binding agreements with 14 of the world’s largest buyers of produce that serve to hold growers accountable for violations through swift market consequences for abuse.  If a zero tolerance violation such as forced labor were to be found on an FFP participating farm, the grower would be automatically barred from selling its produce to Fair Food Participating Buyers, creating a powerful market incentive that has effectively eliminated abuses like those prosecuted in US v. Moreno within the FFP.  Beyond the Program’s gold standard protections, however, unethical farm bosses like Moreno are free to operate with little or no fear of being held accountable for their actions.  And the growing H-2A visa program, the program used to hire the workers in the Moreno case, is particularly susceptible to this problem.

 Guestworkers are not permitted to change employers, which places tremendous leverage in the hands of the farms that facilitate H2A workers’ visa applications and creates a strong disincentive for workers to complain about abuse or exploitation, as they can be fired and sent home at the employer’s whim, without recourse to any protective process. 

 Of course, the continued prevalence of forced labor in the US agricultural industry is not a problem without a solution.  Quite simply, if all major buyers of produce were to join the Fair Food Program, the market for the produce of farms that operate without regard to US law and fundamental human rights would dry up overnight, and forced labor rings like that run by Bladimir Moreno and his associates would have nowhere to operate.  But as long as major corporations like Wendy’s, Kroger’s, and Publix continue to turn their backs on worker-driven social responsibility and refuse to join the Program, unethical farm employers like Moreno will continue to operate away from the scrutiny on the FFP’s best-in-class monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, and farm labor abuse affecting tens of thousands of farmworkers from Florida to California will continue unchecked.

 The Fair Food Program was the vision of farmworkers in Immokalee who, nearly three decades ago, came together, stood up, and refused to accept even one more day of abuse.  The worker-driven model for human rights protection that the FFP gave birth to, and that today is protecting workers on the job in multiple industries and multiple continents around the globe, is the fruit of those workers’ decades-long struggle for dignity and respect in the fields.  But the FFP, and the broader WSR model, never would have become a reality without your generous support.  In short, your donations make our work possible.