Posted on Sat, Dec. 06, 2003  



Investigators delving into new claims of farmhand abuse

Federal officials are investigating new allegations that Florida farmworkers have been

criminally abused by labor bosses.




LAKE PLACID __ The ragged compound is just off U.S. 27 in this Central Florida outpost.

Unimposing from afar, it was terrifying up close for the farmworkers abused and enslaved here.

Three crew bosses went to prison.


Today, the case serves both as a snapshot of the mistreatment Florida farmworkers suffered and

as a sign of tougher enforcement that is likely to come.


Federal investigators and prosecutors are now probing new allegations that other farmworkers

have been criminally abused in the nation's second_richest agricultural state.


''Our office is committed to the investigation of allegations of farmworker abuse,'' said Douglas Molloy,

managing assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Myers, who has prosecuted two farmworker slavery cases and is investigating others.


While prosecutors and FBI agents say they can't discuss ongoing investigations in detail, some are

chasing tips from worker advocates who brought the prior cases to light. Others are following reports

in a Herald series, Fields of Despair, that documented fresh abuses and long_standing ills in the state's

second_biggest industry.


For instance:


In North Florida, investigators are focusing on farm_labor contractors who recruited

from homeless shelters in cities like Tampa and Jacksonville __ only to cheat or threaten

some of the laborers they lured to the fields.


In South Florida, the Miami FBI office said it has 10 open farmworker abuse investigations

in a region stretching to Fort Pierce. Often, such investigations focus on scofflaw farm bosses

who hold workers against their will until they pay smuggling or other debts.


In addition, Miami FBI agents said they plan to explore The Herald's report and follow up on

civil rights and other violations. ''This is definitely something that should be addressed,'' said

one agent, who asked not to be named.


The scrutiny comes in a state where oranges adorn license plates but where the men

and women who pick Florida's bountiful crops sometimes reap pain and poverty.




In five cases since 1996, a dozen Florida farm_labor contractors, smugglers and their

associates have been sent to prison for enslaving and exploiting farmworkers.


In another sign of the scope of abuse, Florida leads the nation in the number of farm_labor

bosses who have had their contractor license revoked because they cheated laborers or

skirted federal migrant_worker laws.


Most victims were foreign workers susceptible to mistreatment because they lacked proper

work authorization and were reluctant to speak out.


''They're not on the radar. They don't have status. Oftentimes, they're not familiar with the rights

they do have,'' said Fort Pierce FBI Special Agent Alex Rivas, who helped investigate the case in

Lake Placid. ``They're fearful of the repercussions if they're found.''




Renegade labor bosses use the workers' status __ and fears __ against them, charging

exorbitant smuggling fees, then making them work off debts harvesting crops. Some

threatened or committed violence. Others charged outrageous amounts for food, shelter and loans.


In Lake Placid, for instance, contractors Ramiro and Juan Ramos crammed farmhands into

''filthy'' housing off U.S. 27, then had them work off $1,000 smuggling fees picking fruit for some

of the state's largest growers. Threats, federal authorities say, kept the pickers working.

The brothers and their cousin, Jose Ramos, were also convicted last year of beating a van_

service owner they alleged whisked workers away.


The farmworker victims included a laborer who left Mexico to raise money

for a cancer_stricken child.


''These are people who are trying to better their life,'' said FBI Special Agent Jeffery Serna,

the lead investigator. ``It gave us a great feeling to help people.''


Serna also investigated Fort Pierce labor boss Michael Allen Lee, who recruited homeless men

and plied them with drugs, then beat one farmworker bloody for not paying a debt. He went to

prison in 2001.


''It's rampant. It's out there,'' Serna said.




Still, the cases pose challenges.


For one, they take time __ several years in complex investigations. Building the trust of victims takes

persistence. Following paper trails can be daunting since many labor in an underground industry

with phony IDs.


With federal investigators chasing terrorism, drug, public corruption and other issues, farmworker

exploitation is not always top priority. Watchdogs and agents agree more investigative force is needed.


The Miami FBI office has four agents assigned full time to civil rights issues, for instance. The agents

have little time to initiate their own cases but rely on complaints to trigger their inquiries.


The Miami office has 143 open civil rights investigations, spokeswoman Beverly Esselbach said, with

''probably 10 percent'' involving agriculture issues.


Advocates see progress.


''The Department of Justice prosecutions have stepped up enormously over the past decade,''

said Laura Germino, with the nonprofit Coalition of Immokalee Workers. ``We're working quite well

with the DOJ Civil Rights Division on issues of indentured servitude. The FBI, it would be good for

them to have more resources and training to have additional civil rights agents assigned.''


Investigators laud the Immokalee group for bringing the Ramos and other cases to light, and for

encouraging victims to cooperate. Three Coalition leaders __ Julia Gabriel, Lucas Benitez and

Romeo Ramirez __ were recently awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work.




While advocates praise the government for imprisoning corrupt bosses, they note that growers

employing the bosses were not prosecuted in a single case.


Critics say growers use go_between labor contractors to ''buffer'' them from problems.

The Agriculture Institute of Florida Inc., representing major growers and industry associations,

recently issued a statement saying it, too, wants to stamp out abuse. It intends to make sure growers are

``aware of existing avenues to report suspected farmworker abuse.''