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Exploited Labor: Justice Department Announces 3 Florida Farm Bosses “Sentenced in Exploited Labor: Multi-State Racketeering Conspiracy Involving Forced Labor”

BREAKING: Justice Department Announces 3 Florida Farm Bosses “Sentenced in Multi-State Racketeering Conspiracy Involving Forced Labor” of H-2A Workers

Posted on November 2, 2022, origianally published by Coalition of Immokalee Workers

“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. 

“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.”

Last week’s announcement 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…

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell for the Middle District of Florida sentenced Christina Gamez to 37 months in prison; Efrain Cabrera Rodas, a citizen of Mexico, to 41 months in prison; and Guadalupe Mendes Mendoza, to eight months of home detention.  The three defendants were supervisors at Los Villatoros Harvesting LLC (LVH), a labor contracting company that recruited and managed workers from Mexico to harvest produce on U.S. farms through the H-2A “guestworker” visa program.  In reality, LVH was a criminal organization designed to systematically exploit vulnerable workers, charging exorbitant recruitment fees in Mexico and holding workers in debt bondage here in the US, confiscating workers’ passports and threatening to deport any worker who spoke out while systematically stealing their wages and lying to authorities.  The owner of LVH, Bladimir Moreno, has also plead guilty in federal court to charges of conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and conspiracy to commit forced labor.  He will be sentenced on December, 28, 2022. 

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers assisted the Department of Justice 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. 

Here is an excerpt from the US Justice Department’s press release announcing last week’s sentencing: 

… 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.

Cabrera worked as a recruiter, manager and part-time supervisor for LVH. Cabrera successfully recruited approximately 40 workers to work for the criminal enterprise. He charged them fees of between $1,000 to $2,000 prior to coming to the United States to work for LVH, lied to them by telling them that LVH would reimburse them after their arrival in the United States, and misrepresented how much money LVH would pay them for their harvesting work. Cabrera understood that the workers had gone into heavy debt to pay the fees he had charged them, and that he and his co-conspirators could use those debts to coerce the workers into continuing to work for LVH. Cabrera also understood that co-conspirators in the enterprise confiscated workers’ passports for the purpose of discouraging the workers from fleeing so that they would continue laboring for LVH. Cabrera also threatened workers with arrest and deportation if they attempted to escape from the company.

Gamez worked as a bookkeeper, manager and supervisor for LVH. Gamez committed several overt acts in furtherance of the criminal enterprise. She confiscated the workers’ passports and knowingly submitted fraudulent payroll documents to LVH’s payroll company to make it possible for LVH to pay its workers only a very small fraction of the pay they were entitled to under their contracts for the many hours of physically demanding work they had done. She threatened workers with deportation if they did not continue to labor for LVH. Later, in an effort to mislead Department of Labor employees, she falsified payroll records and participated in preparing falsified reimbursement receipts and distributing them to H-2A workers.

Mendes worked as a supervisor and manager for LVH. In order to conceal aspects of the criminal enterprise from investigators, Mendes made false statements to federal investigators.

“For their own personal enrichment, Christina Gamez and her co-defendants illegally conspired to victimize Mexican H-2A workers who came to the United States to participate in the harvest of fruits and vegetables,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Robert M. DeWitt of the FBI Miami Field Office. “Their actions are unconscionable.”

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

While this sentencing offers a measure of good news, there remains a vast and dark ocean of farm labor exploitation in the US, an ocean entrapping tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of immigrant workers in brutal working conditions including wage theft, harassment, assault, and forced labor.  Without careful oversight and labor rights enforcement, the current H2 visa program only offers already unscrupulous labor contractors and farm employers additional leverage to hold workers through fear and intimidation and force them to work against their will.  Only a system-wide prevention program, one that can match the scale of the abuses workers are experiencing by enlisting and empowering workers themselves as frontline monitors of their own rights, can stop the abuse before it begins.

The stories of workers entrapped in this latest forced labor operation serves as a tragic reminder that all too many farmworkers remain vulnerable to unchecked exploitation.  Stories like theirs are why the Coalition of Immokalee Workers began organizing for better pay and protections in the 1990s and pioneered the Fair Food Program over a decade ago.  Since then, the FFP has given tens of thousands of workers under its protections — including thousands of H2 workers — a real voice and dignity on the job.  

If we are to finally put an end to outrageous abuses in US fields once and for all, abuses like those detailed in the latest DOJ press release, we can’t hope to prosecute our way to a more modern, more humane agricultural industry.  Instead, food system leaders — from local farm owners to the multi-billion dollar brands that buy their produce — must use their immense power to embrace a program of enforceable human rights standards, monitored by workers themselves through effective and protected complaint systems and comprehensive audits, and backed by market consequences for those who continue to treat workers as disposable harvesting machines and not human beings with inalienable rights, a program like the Fair Food Program.  

The Fair Food Program is already protecting H2 workers on farms today.  Indeed, it is the only program doing so, and the only program built for the task.  The expansion of the Fair Food Program — requiring real commitment from retail food brands to the human rights standards they already claim to support — is urgently needed if we hope one day to put stories of debt bondage, assault, and wage theft in the food industry firmly behind us.