Coalition of Immokalee Workers secures conviction against slave holders
West Palm Beach--The conviction of three citrus contractors on federal slavery charges could help end the violence and farmworker mistreatment that has plagued the industry, a human rights group said Friday.
"It's time now that the agriculture industry take a look at itself and decide that it's not going to operate under the rules of the past and continue beating and holding workers by force," said Laura Germino, a representative with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Brothers Ramiro and Juan Ramos and their cousin, Jose Ramos, were convicted Thursday in U.S. District Court in Fort Pierce on charges of conspiring to hold hundreds of workers as slaves, threatening them with violence and holding them hostage over alleged $1,000 debts.
They could forfeit more than $3 million in property and face up to 25 years in prison after being convicted of involuntary servitude, harboring undocumented workers, interfering with interstate commerce by extortion and using a firearm. They will be sentenced in November.
"We're very pleased that justice was done because it was a very coercive and violent operation," Germino said.
A call to defense attorney Joaquin Perez was not returned.
Workers, who mainly picked citrus in Lake Placid, said the Ramoses kept them under constant surveillance to prevent their escape, tried to keep them in debt and threatened violence to create a climate of fear.
In one instance, the defendants pointed guns at a group who operated a van transportation service and attacked them to keep their workers from leaving.
"When you prevent the van drivers from picking up passengers who are farmworkers, you're effectively cutting off the escape route," Germino said. "It's the same as putting up a fence around people."
One worker who testified in the case says he watched as the defendants beat his boss with their guns and smashed in the windows of the van.
"Everyone was very scared. They were running, hiding," said Alejandro, who was identified by his initials ABP in court documents and refused to give his last name. "They treated me badly. They pointed the pistol at me and said they would kill me."
The FBI and the U.S. Border Patrol in West Palm Beach investigated the case for two years after the coalition called attention to the abuses.
Germino said Florida has seen at least five slavery cases in as many years.
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