Fred Grimm, The Miami Herald
Dec. 16, 2007
Immokalee — Cheap tomatoes start here. At the slave house on Seventh Street.
The squat beige stucco house three blocks off Main Street in Immokalee hardly suggests that the Navarrete family was getting rich using intimidation, locked doors and the strong-arm tactics to maintain their low-wage undocumented work crews.
The only signs of opulence are a Cadillac Escalade and a chromed-out black pick-up truck parked in the driveway. The house is small, in need of paint. The interior decor, from what can be seen through a window by the front door, is decidedly Spartan.
The lawn is mostly dirt. A picnic table has been fashioned from plywood and cinderblocks. But the oversize lot is big enough to accommodate the armada needed to transport farmworkers. Three old vans, one with a blue hand-painted grill, share the yard with three SUVs and two pick-up trucks, one decorated with an incongruent “City Boy” decal.
THE BIG TRUCK
But the most important vehicle in the Navarrete fleet was the delivery truck with a cargo door that can be locked from the outside. That big box truck — that’s where the cheap tomatoes come from.
Early Nov. 19, a disaffected worker named Mariano Lucas hung from the ceiling inside the box truck’s cargo hold, punched his way through a ventilator hatch and scrambled to freedom. Two others also escaped. They took their story to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies and federal immigration agents raided the house on Nov. 26, finding a dozen more workers living in the back of the truck, in the vans and in a wooden shed hardly fit for goats. On Dec. 5, brothers Cesar, Geovanni and Jose Navarrete and their mother, Virginia, were indicted in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers on charges of “harboring illegal aliens.” The term “harboring” was a tepid euphemism for the crimes described in the federal complaint.
The workers trapped on the Navarrete work crew told of a harrowing existence, forced to work for meager wages while accruing charges for two meager meals a day, with extra charges tacked on for beer, soda, even water, until the debits outstrapped their wages.
Quitting was no option. Anyone who attempted to leave the Navarretes, they said, were hunted down, beaten, brought back to the slave house.
At night, the cargo door was locked shut with the most troublesome workers inside. If they needed to relieve themselves, the only option was a designated corner.
Sick days were unthinkable. Lucas told investigators he tried to take a day off a few weeks ago and was beaten until he bled. The investigators heard similar stories and cataloged other lumps, bruises and cuts on the bodies of the workers.
Navarrete’s crew of undocumented immigrants said their bosses (also undocumented) arranged to have counterfeit IDs created, with fake Social Security numbers, but the brothers kept the fake papers locked inside the slave house so their workers didn’t use them to abscond for better working conditions.
The details coming out in federal court made for a shocking story, except farm crew slavery stories and the brutal exploitation of undocumented workers have long since lost their shock value in Florida. The Navarrete case made The Naples Daily News, but the state’s major media outlets paid little attention.
No one really wants to know about the origins of those cheap tomatoes.