FORT MYERS NEWS-PRESS
January 18, 2008
In one of the largest slavery prosecutions Southwest Florida has ever seen, authorities arrested a sixth suspect Wednesday, charging her with making money off unpaid illegal immigrant farm workers.
Antonia Zuniga Vargas appeared in court for the first time Thursday to listen to the charges: conspiring to make money off workers from Mexico and Guatemala, forging documents and committing identity theft. The details are laid out in a 17-count indictment filed Wednesday.
Vargas, along with her co-defendants, are connected to an Immokalee business operation allegedly designed to hold workers in involuntary servitude and peonage.
“Slavery, plain and simple,” said Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy.
Answering questions “yes” and “no,” Vargas listened to the charges and said, “None of that is true.”
For two years, federal prosecutors claim, Vargas, along with Cesar, Geovanni, Jose, Villhina and Ismael Navarrete held more than a dozen people as slaves on their property. They made them sleep in box trucks and shacks, charged them for food and showers, didn’t pay them for picking produce and beat them if they tried to leave.
Molloy, who’s been a prosecutor in this region for more than two decades, said he’s never seen a similar case. Both the number of cooperating law enforcement agencies – six federal agencies and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office – and the number of charges are unprecedented, he said.
“They really did cover the gamut in a criminal enterprise for slavery,” Molloy said of the defendants.
In the past 10 years, prosecutors have handled several slavery cases, but none as large as this. In 1999, Abel Cuello pleaded guilty to buying smuggled workers from Mexico and holding them captive. In 2005, three Guatemalans were arrested in Fort Myers for holding a 13-year-old Guatemalan girl as a slave.
According to the federal indictment, the Navarrete family and Vargas threatened the immigrants, held their identification documents, created debit accounts they couldn’t repay and hooked them on alcohol to keep them working. The documents list 13 instances when the workers were beaten. Molloy said he couldn’t reveal where they are today, but said they’re safe.
“Some of the folks have been there for years,” Molloy said. “It is the hope to send back money to their families, and they hang on to that hope. It’s just a situation that’s difficult to get out of.”
Molloy said it’s too early to estimate how much prison time each defendant could face. The first 10 counts, which apply to Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete, each carry a penalty of up to 20 years. Penalties for some of the other charges range from 5 to 10 years.
According to the documents, physical abuse of the victims goes back to 2005 and occurred in Collier and DeSoto counties and as far away as North Carolina and South Carolina.
“Sadly, this is the worst of what happens when you have across-the-board degradation of labor and conditions that allow slavery to take root and flourish,” said Laura Germino of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has helped prosecute six slavery cases that freed more than 1,000 workers in the past decade.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is in Immokalee to meet with farmworkers who want Burger King to pay a penny a pound more for tomatoes.
“The idea that in the year 2008 in the United States of America people are being indicted for slavery is almost beyond comprehension. Yet this indictment sheds a light on the kind of conditions tomato workers in Florida are forced to live in,” Sanders said.
“For a major company like Burger King not to pay that additional penny and raise workers’ wages and improve their conditions is unconscionable.”
— The News-Press staff writer Amy Bennett Williams contributed to this report