By Drew Favakeh, Savannah Morning News
Troy Warren for CNT #EditorsPicks
According to a newly unsealed indictment revealed last week by acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia David H. Estes, 24 people conspired for three years to smuggle Mexican and Central American workers and forced them to work in brutal conditions on farms located across the world, including the southern, middle and northern regions of Georgia.
At a news conference at the Cay Building, Estesstood at a podium alongside the federal law enforcement officers who were involved in cracking the case.The 54-count indictment, titled “USA v. Patricio et al.,” discloses a federal investigation into what Estes called “modern-day slavery.”
Operation Blooming Onion
After receiving a tip from a trafficking hotline in November 2018, federal law enforcement officers from the Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation started investigating multiple agricultural organizations registered under the agent Maria Leticia Patricio. The officers discovered that, since 2015, these organizations conspired together to bring more than 100 foreign workers into the United States, exploit them and imprison them under inhumane conditions. The multi-agency investigation came to a head on at 6 a.m., Nov. 17, when 200 federal officers executed more than 20 search warrants across three jurisdictions and performed a dozen seizure warrants of financial institutions.
Estes called “Operation Blooming Onion” the “largest organization of law enforcement to go after this particular offense ever.”
The trafficked workers primarily labored on onion farms, digging with their bare hands, and paid only 20 cents for each bucket. The conspirators forced the workers, despite making very little, to pay for transportation, food, and housing.
According to the indictment, the network of organizations used the H-2A program, which allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. When the workers arrived, they were placed under the guise of “contract agricultural laborers.”
Estes noted that the investigation may reveal the fraud as part of a larger conspiracy and could illuminate a larger issue: the misuse of the H-2A-program en-masse.
“I think that this investigation has identified some things that need to be looked at,” said Estes.
In the indictment Patricio is accused of mailing “multiple false petitions to the United States government seeking over 71,000 foreign workers to enter the United States to work for an agricultural employer, and fraudulently caused the United States to issue thousands of H-2A visas to foreign nationals.”
Patricio is a U.S. citizen, according to the indictment, and served as the registered agent for 10 individual agricultural companies in Georgia.With those companies since dissolved, Patricio is one of the 24 conspirators who faces charges of forced labor, which could result in life in prison, as well as other charges that could result each in up to 20 years in prison along with monetary fines.
H2A program fraud
“There could be others [victimized by the fraud committed by the conspiring organizations under the H2A-program],” said Estes. “The investigation is ongoing.”
The 24 conspirators reaped reaped more than $200 million over three years from the illegal scheme, which involved laundering the funds through cash purchases of land, homes, vehicles and businesses, and through cash purchases of cashier’s checks. Millions of dollars were funneled through a casino. Farmers who owned properties in the southern district of Georgia — specifically in Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware counties — paid the conspirators to provide contract laborers, according to the indictment.
The indictment stated that if a worker stepped out of line, the conspirators threatened them with guns, torture and deportation. The conspirators kept the workers 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 As a result of workplace conditions, at least two workers died, according to the indictment.
The conspirators tried to keep their operation running, even as federal authorities closed in. Three conspirators, in late 2019, attempted to intimidate and persuade a witness to lie to a federal grand jury and deny any knowledge of the illegal activities of the conspiring organizations.
“It’s very concerning,” said Estes. “Obviously, we have victims here. So we’re very concerned about moving out and making sure that we were able to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s and provide safety for the victims as soon as possible, while at the same time, maintaining our investigation as such that we can eventually prosecute and convict individuals.”
If you or someone you know are a victim of human trafficking, call the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
In Other NEWS