EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – A nearly 60-page-long indictment is charging two dozen people with conducting what is being described as a “modern-day slavery” scheme, a human smuggling and labor trafficking operation involving Mexican and Central American workers.
The newly unsealed indictment accuses the Patricio Transnational Criminal Organization of using a work visa program to traffic foreign workers into U.S. farm jobs. The organization has made more than 200 million dollars along the way.
According to prosecutors, the group engaged in mail fraud, international forced labor trafficking, and money laundering, among other crimes.
The group operated across Georgia, Florida, and Texas, recruiting migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The alleged conspirators are accused of raping, kidnapping, and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers of their families.
In many cases, the workers were sold or traded to other conspirators. At least two of the workers died as a result of workplace conditions.
According to the indictment, five of the 24 charged are in the country illegally.
From the website of the Department of Justice:
The activities took place within the Southern, Middle, and Northern Districts of Georgia; the Middle District of Florida; the Southern District of Texas; and Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and elsewhere. The conspirators required the workers to pay unlawful fees for transportation, food, and housing while illegally withholding their travel and identification documents, and subjected the workers “to perform physically demanding work for little or no pay, housing them in crowded, unsanitary, and degrading living conditions, and by threatening them with deportation and violence.”
Exploitation of the workers included being required to dig onions with their bare hands, paid 20 cents for each bucket harvested, and threatened with guns and violence to keep them in line. The workers were held in cramped, unsanitary quarters and fenced work camps with little or no food, limited plumbing and without safe water. The conspirators are accused of raping, kidnapping and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers or their families, and in many cases sold or traded the workers to other conspirators. At least two of the workers died as a result of workplace conditions. In the Southern District of Georgia, these activities were alleged to have taken place in the counties of Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware as farmers paid the conspirators to provide contract laborers.
More than 200 law enforcement officers and federal agents from around the United States convened in the Southern District of Georgia to execute more than 20 federal search warrants at target locations.
Those indicted in USA v. Patricio et al. and their charges include:
The charges of Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor, and Forced Labor, each carry statutory penalties of up to life in prison, while the charges of Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud, Mail Fraud, Money Laundering Conspiracy, and Tampering with a Witness each carry statutory penalties of up to 20 years in prison. Each of the charges also includes substantial financial penalties and periods of supervised release after completion of any prison term. There is no parole in the federal system.
Criminal indictments contain only charges; defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
The case was investigated under the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) operation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Operation Blooming Onion also is designated as a Priority Transnational Organized Crime Cases.