The CIW’s Anti-Slavery Campaign has uncovered, investigated, and assisted in the prosecution of numerous multi-state, multi-worker farm slavery operations across the Southeastern U.S., helping liberate over 1,200 workers held against their will. The U.S. Department of State called the CIW a “pioneer” in the worker-centered and multi-sectoral approach to slavery prosecution, and hailed the CIW’s work on some of the earliest cases of slavery as the “spark” that ignited today’s national anti-slavery movement. Since those early cases, the CIW has continued shape the national movement against slavery, between playing a key role the passage of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, being appointed by the Florida legislature to the Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, and co-founding the national Freedom Network USA and the Freedom Network Training Institute (FNTI). Through the FNTI, the CIW trains state and federal law enforcement and non-governmental organizations throughout the U.S. on how to identify and assist people held against their will in slavery operations.
At the same time, the CIW believes that the ultimate solution to modern-day slavery in agribusiness lies on the “demand side” of the U.S. produce market — the major food-buying corporations that profit from the artificially low cost of U.S. produce, picked by workers in sweatshop and, in the worst cases, slavery conditions. Ultimately, those corporations must leverage their vast resources and market influence as major produce buyers to end slavery and other labor abuses in their supply chains once and for all. Both aspects of the Anti-Slavery Campaign — the day-to-day investigative efforts and the longer-term work to eliminate the market conditions that allow modern-day slavery to flourish — operate on the common principle that the most effective weapon against forced labor is an aware worker community engaged in the defense of its own labor rights.
Today, the implementation of the Fair Food Program has ushered in the newest phase of the CIW’s anti-slavery efforts, that of prevention, whereby the market consequences built into the FFP, including zero tolerance for forced labor, encourage participating growers to actively police their own operations, and the worker-to-worker education program at the heart of the FFP informs and empowers tens of thousands of workers to serve as monitors to identify and expose slavery operations wherever they might be present.
The CIW and its members’ anti-slavery efforts have gained national and international recognition, including the 2000 National Organization for Women (NOW) Woman of Courage Award; the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award; a 2005 letter of commendation from F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller; the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award from Anti-Slavery International of London; and the 2010 U.S. Department of State’s “Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award” by Secretary of State Clinton, in recognition of “perseverance against slavery operations in the U.S. agricultural industry” and “determination to eliminate forced labor in supply chains.”
Slavery in Agriculture
In one of the most recent case to be brought to court, a federal grand jury indicted six people in Immokalee on January 17th, 2008, for their part in what U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called “slavery, plain and simple” (Ft. Myers News-Press, “Group accused of keeping, beating, stealing from Immokalee laborers,” 1/18/08). The employers were charged with beating workers who were unwilling to work or who attempted to leave their employ picking tomatoes, holding their workers in debt, and chaining and locking workers inside u-haul-style trucks as punishment (“How about a side order of human rights,” Miami Herald, 12/16/07).
This case became the seventh such farm labor operation to be prosecuted for servitude in Florida — involving well over 1,000 workers and more than a dozen employers — in the past decade. Since then, the federal government initiated two more prosecutions, bringing the total to nine as of 2012. Here below is a list of the nine cases, in chronological order:
U.S. vs. Flores — In 1997, Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion, and firearms charges, amongst others. Flores and Gomez had a workforce of over 400 men and women in Florida and South Carolina, harvesting vegetables and citrus. The workers, mostly indigenous Mexicans and Guatemalans, were forced to work 10-12 hour days, 6 days per week, for as little as $20 per week, under the watch of armed guards. Those who attempted escape were assaulted, pistol-whipped, and even shot. The case was brought to federal authorities after five years of investigation by escaped workers and CIW members.
U.S. vs. Cuello — In 1999, Abel Cuello was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison on slavery charges. He had held more than 30 tomato pickers in two trailers in the isolated swampland west of Immokalee, keeping them under constant watch. Three workers escaped the camp, only to have their boss track them down a few weeks later. The employer ran one of them down with his car, stating that he owned them. The workers sought help from the CIW and the police, and the CIW worked with the DOJ on the ensuing investigation. Cuello worked for Manley Farms North Inc., a major Bonita Springs tomato supplier. Once out of prison, Cuello supplied labor to Ag-Mart Farms, a tomato company operating in Florida and North Carolina.
U.S. vs. Tecum — In 2001, Jose Tecum was sentenced to 9 years in federal prison on slavery and kidnapping charges. He forced a young woman to work against her will both in the tomato fields around Immokalee, and in his home. The CIW assisted the DOJ with the prosecution, including victim and witness assistance.
U.S. vs. Lee — In 2001, Michael Lee was sentenced to 4 years in federal prison and 3 years supervised release on a slavery conspiracy charge. He pled guilty to using crack cocaine, threats, and violence to enslave his workers. Lee held his workers in forced labor, recruiting homeless U.S. citizens for his operation, creating a “company store” debt through loans for rent, food, cigarettes, and cocaine. He abducted and beat one of his workers to prevent him from leaving his employ. Lee harvested for orange growers in the Fort Pierce, FL area.
U.S. vs. Ramos — In 2004, Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery and firearms charges, and the forfeiture of over $3 million in assets. The men, who had a workforce of over 700 farmworkers in the citrus groves of Florida, as well as the fields of North Carolina, threatened workers with death if they were to try to leave, and pistol-whipped and assaulted — at gunpoint — passenger van service drivers who gave rides to farmworkers leaving the area. The case was brought to trial by the DOJ after two years of investigation by the CIW. The Ramoses harvested for Consolidated Citrus and Lykes Brothers, among others.
U.S. vs. Ronald Evans — In 2007, Florida employer Ron Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison on drug conspiracy, financial re-structuring, and witness tampering charges, among others. Jequita Evans was also sentenced to 20 years, and Ron Evans Jr. to 10 years. Operating in Florida and North Carolina, Ron Evans recruited homeless U.S. citizens from shelters across the Southeast, including New Orleans, Tampa, and Miami, with promises of good jobs and housing. At Palatka, FL and Newton Grove, NC area labor camps, the Evans’ deducted rent, food, crack cocaine and alcohol from workers’ pay, holding them “perpetually indebted” in what the DOJ called “a form of servitude morally and legally reprehensible.” The Palatka labor camp was surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, with a No Trespassing sign. The CIW and a Miami-based homeless outreach organization (Touching Miami with Love) began the investigation and reported the case to federal authorities in 2003. In Florida, Ron Evans worked for grower Frank Johns. Johns was 2004 Chairman of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the powerful lobbying arm of the Florida agricultural industry. As of 2007, he remained the Chairman of the FFVA’s Budget and Finance Committee.
U.S. vs. Navarrete — In December 2008, employers Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete were sentenced to 12 years each in federal prison on charges of conspiracy, holding workers in involuntary servitude, and peonage. They had employed dozens of tomato pickers in Florida and South Carolina. As stated in the DOJ press release on their sentencing, “[the employers] pleaed guilty to beating, threatening, restraining, and locking workers in trucks to force them to work as agricultural laborers… [They] were accused of paying the workers minimal wages and driving the workers into debt, while simultaneously threatening physical harm if the workers left their employment before their debts had been repaid to the Navarrete family.” Workers first reported the abuse to Collier County police, and additional workers sought help from the CIW. The CIW collaborated with the DOJ and the police on the year-long investigation and prosecution.
U.S. vs. Bontemps — In July 2010, Cabioch Bontemps, Carline Ceneus, and Willy Edouard were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit forced labor. DOJ officials accuse the three of holding over 50 guestworkers from Haiti against their will in the beanfields of Alachua County, Florida. The indictment states that Bontemps raped one of the workers in his employ and threatened her if she were to report it. The employers held the workers’ passports and visas, and forced them to work in fields recently sprayed with harsh pesticides, causing permanent scarring. The grower, Steven Davis, asked the judge during the court hearing to release Bontemps since he was key to the harvesting operation. “All these people [the workers] look up to him,” Davis said. “All these people respect him. All these people worship him.” The CIW trained local law enforcement and church groups shortly before the workers were rescued, and assisted in referring the case to the DOJ. The DOJ dropped the charges in January 2012.
U.S. vs. Global Horizons — In September 2010, staff of guestworker recruiting giant Global Horizons were charged with operating a forced labor ring active in 13 states, including Florida. Global Horizons CEO Mordechai Orian and six others were accused of holding six hundred guestworkers from Thailand against their will in what prosecutors called “the largest human trafficking case in US history.” FBI Special Agent Tom Simon described the case as “a classic bait-and-switch… They were telling the Thai workers one thing to lure them here. Then when they got here, their passports were taken away and they were held in forced servitude working in these farms.” Of the eight people originally indicted, three pled guilty; a Global Horizons manager pled guilty to conspiracy to violate the forced labor statute, and two field supervisors pled guilty to document servitude. A fourth defendant pled guilty in Thailand to recruitment fraud. In July 2012, the DOJ dropped the charges against CEO Orian and another Global Horizons executive.
For a printable list of modern-day slavery cases, download Slavery in the Fields and the Food We Eat.