Slavery: Collier county’s connection

Modern-day slavery reaches from Immokalee farm fields to prostitution in Golden Gate

With only two bags of chips to sustain them for four days, more than a dozen immigrants were smuggled into Arizona and later forced to work in Immokalee tomato fields.

A man used the threat of witchcraft to pluck a girl from her Guatemalan village. He later kept her in his clutches in Immokalee.

Mexican females were shuttled through Southwest Florida to have sex with as many as 30 men a night.

Detectives are still investigating a case in which Mexican females — one 13, the other 23 — sought help from Immokalee law enforcers in August after they said they were promised work picking berries and instead told they’d be prostitutes.

Experts blame the insidious spread of human trafficking in Collier County on what draws most people to this corner of Florida.

There’s money — wealthy residents can snip expenses with indentured servitude.

There’s sun — unscrupulous hotel, spa or restaurant owners leaning on thriving tourism can cut corners with forced labor.

There’s a bevy of unskilled jobs — such work attracts immigrants who are easier to exploit. Many don’t know their rights or may fear calling authorities if they’re here illegally.

Such cases put Collier on the map for trafficking long before most agencies had heard of the crime.

The Cuello case

Abel Cuello Jr. was an Immokalee farm labor boss whose victims said he and his accomplices trapped 24 workers in a single trailer with physical and psychological threats and forced them to work in 1999.

Guilty: One felony count of conspiracy to violate U.S. laws barring involuntary servitude, harboring illegal aliens and failing to ensure migrant safety during transportation; sentenced to 33 months in prison and 24 months of supervised release.

Status: Released from prison in February 2002. Until recently, worked as a crew leader for Ag-Mart/Santa Sweets in Immokalee.

The smuggler, known as “El Chacal,” or the jackal, to victims, offered only plastic jugs for bladder relief for the 18 illegal immigrants as he drove from Arizona to Immokalee in a nearly four-day trip.

Workers gave this account of their corrupted introductions to the American Dream, according to Collier County Sheriff’s Office reports and court records:

They came in one van and were told to lie on the urine-drenched floor during the journey so they wouldn’t be spotted by police or immigration officials.

“El Chacal” told the immigrants they’d be charged $700 for the trip on top of smuggling fees they had already paid.

Early one morning, the van rolled into Immokalee, where the workers were met by Abel Cuello Jr. and Bacilio Cuello, his brother.

“Here are the people,” “El Chacal” told Cuello Jr.

Cuello Jr., a farm labor contractor and the accused ringleader, then gave the smuggler a check.

•••

Growers hire contractors — often Spanish-speaking workers who have moved up the ranks in farm work — to recruit and manage crews. This system shields growers from liability and can easily lead to exploitation or forced labor, farmworker advocates say.

Some workers are paid directly by the contractors, not growers. That opens the door for bad contractors to cheat workers out of their pay and abuse them in other ways.

Farmworkers are often illegally in the country so they’re scared to report even the most egregious labor violations to authorities, experts say. Some trafficking cases have sprouted from farm fields to courts after workers reported abuse to nonprofit groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

•••

The Cuello brothers took the workers to a roach-infested trailer tucked off Sanctuary Road between North Naples and Immokalee. There were two bathrooms, mattresses flopped on the floor and a handful of dishes to share among 24 people living there.

Holes in the floor revealed snakes and other reptiles crawling beneath.

The Cuello brothers and Herman Covarrubias, an accomplice, constantly watched the men at the trailer while they worked four or five days a week — 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the fields starting in February 1999 and often making only 40 cents an hour.

Workers said the trio drove them to the fields by day and locked them in the trailer at night.

The brothers and Covarrubias trapped workers with threats of calling immigration and physical violence if they left the Sanctuary Road camp. One worker said Covarrubias told him he’d shoot him and leave him in the groves when he complained about carrying heavy tomato pails.

An elderly man cried because he wanted to leave but feared for his life, workers told authorities. When another worker tried to escape, Cuello Jr. chased him down.

GRAPHIC: Slavery in the States

Photo by Chad Yoder

GRAPHIC: Slavery in the States

On Fridays, Cuello Jr. delivered checks from Manley Farms North Inc. but the checks were never in the workers’ names and were payable to people the workers didn’t know.

Cuello Jr. shaved a healthy cut from checks. Workers told authorities they weren’t earning enough money to pay for food.

From one $110 check that Cuello Jr. gave a victim for five work days, he sliced off $60 for himself. Another worker said he worked six days and wasn’t paid.

Suffering silently in the isolated woods for about two months, five of the workers plotted. The workers pretended to make a long-distance call during a weekly Winn-Dixie trip monitored by the Cuello brothers. Once near a phone, they sprinted 20 minutes to escape and flagged down a van and begged the driver to help them leave the United States.

The next day, two of the five headed back to Mexico and the other three found an Immokalee home where they could stay.

Life at the work camp was “hell,” the pair who returned to Mexico told authorities when interviewed by phone.

About three weeks later, Cuello Jr. and Covarrubias hunted down one of the three escapees after spotting him at an Immokalee coin laundry. The worker ran out the back door.

Cuello Jr. and Covarrubias followed the man to the Immokalee home where the trio was staying.

“What dumb asses! You escape and you stay here!”

Cuello Jr. said. “Get into the van!”

Cuello Jr. told the trio he owned them. He told them they belonged to him. He had bought them. If they didn’t return to the Sanctuary Road work camp, they’d owe him $5,000 each.

The man who gave the workers refuge called the Collier Sheriff’s Office after Cuello Jr. came to his house demanding the workers return to the camp.

A deputy scribbled the name Manley Farms North Inc. from a pay stub of a victim and faxed a report to immigration.

After investigating and interviewing the workers, a U.S. Border Patrol agent called Cuello Jr. by phone.

He admitted to his part in smuggling workers from Mexico, collecting smuggling fees and rent. He said he and his brother beat one illegal immigrant who tried to escape.

Cuello Jr. was convicted in 1999 of conspiracy to violate federal laws barring involuntary servitude, harboring illegal immigrants and failing to ensure migrant vehicle safety. His brother was convicted of bringing in and harboring illegal immigrants.

Cuello Jr., now 41, was sentenced to three years in prison in September 1999 and two years of supervised release. He was released in February 2002 for good behavior, said Mike Truman, Federal Bureau of Prisons information specialist.

Bacilio Cuello, now 40, was sentenced to two years in prison in September 1999 with two years of supervised release and was allowed to leave prison in June 2001 because of good conduct, officials said.

Covarrubias was convicted of withholding information on a crime after cooperating with authorities, court records state, and sentenced to 48 months of probation in September 1999.

Cuello Jr. would have received more time if he were convicted today, said chief assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy, the government’s lead on prosecuting cases in Southwest Florida.

“I would like to put people involved in trafficking under the jail,” he said. “El Chacal” hasn’t been found yet, Molloy said of the smuggler he believes is still active.

The case also came before Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. It offers three-year visas for trafficking victims who cooperate with law enforcers and authorities in trafficking investigations. They can then apply for permanent residency.

“It didn’t really go very well with the victims. They were deported in the end,” said sheriff’s Lt. Bill Rule, head of Collier’s anti-trafficking unit.

But at least one victim stayed and is trying to gain permanent U.S. residency after working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the nonprofit group that assisted him with victims services during the case.

Federal law says you can’t be a farm labor contractor or crew leader for five years after you’re convicted of such serious crimes as smuggling and harboring illegal aliens.

But it has been more than five years since Cuello Jr. was convicted.

In 2004, he obtained a federal farm labor contractor’s license again and is up for renewal in 2006, said John McKeon, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

Until a few months ago, Cuello Jr. worked as a contractor for Ag-Mart/Santa Sweets in Immokalee. He was let go, said David Sheon, a company spokesman.

Sheon wouldn’t give the reasons for Cuello Jr.’s dismissal but said there were no complaints against him.

Ag-Mart, based in Plant City, markets its grape tomatoes under the Santa Sweets brand and is one of the largest tomato growers in the state.

Asked why the company did business with Cuello Jr., Ag-Mart’s president said he didn’t see a reason not to.

“The guy has a federal crew leader license,” Don Long said.

Long said if the federal government didn’t think Cuello should have a crew leader license, then he wouldn’t have one and he wouldn’t have worked for Ag-Mart.

Ag-Mart had hired E&B Harvesting in 2003 before Cuello Jr. was involved in the company.

State records show Cuello Jr. and his wife, Yolanda, operate E&B Harvesting and Trucking Inc. in Naples.

She still works as a crew leader for Ag-Mart. She approached the grower and offered her contracting services, Sheon said.

It wasn’t fair to assume that Abel Cuello Jr. would go back to his old ways, Sheon said.

“Our criminal justice system, despite the pros and cons of it, is certainly set up to rehabilitate individuals and hopefully it does serve that purpose.

Many people put great effort into making sure that purpose is served,” Sheon said.

The Department of Labor doesn’t have the resources to watch over convicted traffickers such as Cuello Jr.

“Obviously if we found him working on a farm that we were investigating, we would investigate him also,” McKeon said.

But that doesn’t mean he’s completely off the authorities’ radar.

Collier sheriff’s officials said they’re keeping an eye on Cuello Jr.

The Tecum case

Jose Tecum trapped a teenage girl in Immokalee in his home in 1999 and forced her to work in farm fields after scooping her from her native Guatemalan village.

Guilty: Kidnapping, sale into involuntary servitude, bringing in and harboring aliens and fraud and misuse of visas and permits.

Status: Locked up until October 2007.

Jose Tecum had stalked the teenage girl for years in a Guatemalan village and decided he wanted her to live with him in 1999. He threatened to murder her or any of her family members who tried to stop him.

He used witchcraft, or brujeria, native to their culture, to scare her into submission.

A Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights 2003 trafficking study, court records, a victims’ advocate on the case and sheriff’s reports weave this account:

To shackle her to his side for good, Tecum snatched a lock of the girl’s hair and her shoe, then told her they were used in witchcraft ceremonies. She thought he held control of her soul or spirit. He guarded the hair in a plastic case in his wallet.

“He would use that lock of hair to remind her, ‘Now you’re under my control,’” said Anna Rodriguez, the former Collier Sheriff’s Office victims’ advocate who was instrumental in the girl’s rescue.

The girl believed she and her family would be hurt by witchcraft if she didn’t comply with Tecum’s demand to live with him in his home in Guatemala. He locked her inside. She couldn’t leave without him. With no police in her village, she had no place to get help.

Tecum decided to smuggle the girl to Immokalee in the summer of 1999 to live with him and his wife, Maria Tecum, and do domestic chores in the couple’s home. He destroyed her identification papers.

Upon arrival in Immokalee, Tecum told the teenager she’d have to work in farm labor and in his home for a year to pay off the smuggling debt. He demanded the girl sign over most of her paychecks to him. She told authorities she was forced to have sex at night.

A domestic dispute between Jose, then 44, and Maria, 46, first brought authorities to the couple’s Immokalee home in November 1999.

When Maria Tecum returned from the grocery store with her three children, she found her husband, Jose Tecum, with the teenager in the bedroom. When Maria Tecum confronted him, Jose Tecum pushed and grabbed his wife.

A deputy responding to the domestic call to the couple’s Immokalee apartment asked the girl what she was doing and “she started to cry for an unknown reason … When I asked her why she was crying, she would look down and say nothing.”

Jose Tecum was arrested on a battery charge that night. Maria Tecum was considered the victim and told deputies the girl lived with them. Deputies left the teenager in the home and booked Jose Tecum into the Collier jail.

The next morning, Rodriguez — who now runs her own nonprofit organization to assist trafficking victims — was told by her bosses to check on Maria Tecum in Immokalee after Jose Tecum’s battery arrest.

There, she noticed a girl in native Guatemalan dress — the teenager Maria Tecum had found with her husband the night before. Deputies thought the girl was Jose Tecum’s mistress.

But the teenager wouldn’t look Rodriguez in the eyes so the victims’ advocate ushered her from Maria Tecum’s earshot to talk.

“She basically started telling me how she felt like a slave,” Rodriguez said. “She said, ‘I don’t even have money to buy a Coca-Cola because he takes my money.’”

Rodriguez returned six times that day to piece together a sliver of the girl’s story and convince the teenager she was free to leave the Tecum home.

Rodriguez told the frightened teenager she broke the spell with an Immokalee witch doctor and that she would pay off the girl’s debt.

Only then would the teenager leave with a single plastic grocery bag that held all of her belongings.

The girl was coached by Jose Tecum to tell investigators she was 15 but later admitted to being 19, officials said.

It would take six months after she told Rodriguez a chapter of her story before the girl would give the entire script to federal agents.

Jose Tecum was arrested by federal agents in January 2000.

A federal jury convicted Tecum of kidnapping, slavery, immigration violations and fraud and misuse of visas in February 2001, court records show.

Maria Tecum was arrested in April 2000 after admitting to authorities she knew her husband was illegally smuggling people into the country. She was found guilty on a count of withholding information and freed after an October 2000 sentencing.

During his trial, Jose Tecum told the jury the teenager owed him $1,000 in smuggling fees. His court-appointed federal attorney from Fort Myers, Roy Foxall, said the pair were boyfriend and girlfriend.

“There were amorous situations. She was going around with him. They were more or less dating,” said Foxall, admitting Tecum did hold her papers. “He had some control over her, but it was more or less a boyfriend-girlfriend case.”

Jose Tecum, now 50, is locked in a minimum security camp with an October 2007 release date. Rodriguez hopes to limit his freedom.

She’s pushing for Guatemalan lawmakers to prosecute traffickers once they’re deported, which is what she hopes and expects will happen to Tecum after his prison term.

She’s pitching Tecum as the pilot case.

Rodriguez said the victim is now married and living with three children in Fort Myers.

Prostitution case

Leopoldo Velasquez and Angel Ambriz-Rojas shuttled Mexican women between homes in Golden Gate, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers to have sex with as many as 30 men a night.

Guilty: Both were convicted in 2003 for bringing in and harboring illegal immigrants; Velasquez for importing illegal immigrants for immoral purposes and Ambriz-Rojas for re-entry of a deported illegal immigrant.

Status: Two possible trafficking victims fled.

Investigators are still eyeing the case. Velasquez and Ambriz-Rojas were deported.

Coming from a country where most make less than $10,000 a year, a job in a Southwest Florida restaurant was an office-with-a-view career move for women from Mexico.

Court records, Collier sheriff’s reports and the former sheriff’s victims’ advocate who interviewed the women cobbled together this story:

One young woman met two men in her native Puebla, Mexico, while scrubbing floors and taking care of children. The men promised her restaurant work in Southwest Florida to make more money.

The duo arranged to smuggle her to Fort Myers. There, her job description switched to prostitute. She said she was 18, though she gave a date of birth two years older. The other woman was in her late teens or early 20s. They were suspected trafficking victims who later skipped town after a prostitution bust.

Authorities broke up the ring with the help of a 20-year-old Golden Gate man from Puebla who called the Collier Sheriff’s Office after recognizing one of the women who showed up at his door with a pimp late one night.

The story began to unfold when “Javier” knocked on the door of a Sunshine Boulevard apartment where the 20-year-old lived in February 2003 to ask the Golden Gate resident if he and his roommates wanted to sleep with some girls.

“Javier” was later identified as Leopoldo Velasquez, then 32.

His roommates agreed. The 20-year-old invited “Javier” and a girl in — recognizing the female framed in his door as a classmate from Puebla.

The Golden Gate resident paid $25 to get her into his bedroom. He locked the door and cranked up the radio so Velasquez couldn’t hear the girl reveal this horror story:

She and the other women arrived in Florida in early 2003. The girls must have sex with 15 men a night, six days a week. Later accounts pegged the number as high as 30 a night.

They were told they had to be prostitutes for two years before they could go home to their families in Mexico. “Javier” threatened to have their families killed in Mexico if they tried to escape or told their families they were prostitutes.

The girls were rotated around the country so they couldn’t be tracked by law enforcers or the girls’ families.

Carne fresca, fresh meat, was written on small pieces of notebook paper with a phone number and posted in ethnic stores to advertise the girls’ services.

When they made phone calls home to Mexico, the girls were monitored and battered if they said anything suspicious.

If clients weren’t happy with the women’s service, the two men would mistreat them, one of the women told authorities.

Another woman had a bump on her head where she was thrown down the stairs. Someone had complained she was cold during sex, Rodriguez said.

The women lived together in a Fort Myers apartment and weren’t allowed to leave without the men.

Two of the women said they weren’t paid, but were given food and clothing and told money was being wired back to their families in Mexico. The men didn’t give them receipts to prove it.

Collier sheriff’s officials estimated the traffickers made up to $500 a night, $3,000 a week and $156,000 a year on one girl.

Other detained women claimed they were prostituting voluntarily and were getting paid half of what the men were charging. So they weren't considered trafficking victims, though one said her smuggling debt was $1,200.

“The two most beautiful, youngest girls were the two victims. The other girls were more aggressive,” Rodriguez said.

The 20-year-old Golden Gate man called law enforcers in early March 2003 and worked with authorities to help nab the two suspects before they could leave town. The Golden Gate resident called “Javier” and asked him to bring the girl to him.

Soon, “Javier” said, but first the girl had to have sex with the 10 men waiting.

Authorities tracked a white Dodge Caravan driven by Angel Ambriz-Rojas, then 24 and now, 27, carrying four young females from Golden Gate to Bonita Springs and then to Fort Myers, where they were stopped. A gold Honda Accord with two females arrived at the same spot. Velasquez — or “Javier” — was driving.

Velasquez and Rojas told authorities the girls were free to leave and paid. Both admitted to driving the girls to have sex for money in spots in Collier County, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers.

The ringleader was a Fort Myers man, Ambriz-Rojas said.

Molloy declined to say if his office is pursuing the ringleader.

“There are still some things to accomplish in that case,” he said. “The investigation is not over.”

Authorities left the victims, the two youngest girls, at an Immokalee shelter. Shelter officials bought them bus tickets to return to Mexico. By the time authorities found out, the bus carrying the two girls had passed into Mexican territory. The FBI then backed out of the investigation.

With the victims gone, it spoiled the potential for trafficking charges and authorities didn’t try to find the girls.

“Once they left, that was it. We lost the (trafficking) case,” Rodriguez said.

The other women with Velasquez and Ambriz-Rojas were detained as witnesses and deported after the two men were sentenced, officials said.

Velasquez was sentenced in August 2003 for importing illegal immigrants for immoral purposes and bringing in and harboring illegal immigrants. He was released in January 2004 to immigration officials.

Ambriz-Rojas was convicted of transporting illegal aliens and an illegal re-entry by a deported alien and sentenced in September 2003.

Velasquez was deported to Mexico in March 2004 and Ambriz-Rojas was deported there in January 2004, said Barbara Gonzalez, spokeswoman with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami.

Collier sheriff’s officials acknowledged their blunder of leaving the victims without educating the Immokalee shelter officials about trafficking and use it as an example for why the entire community must be trained.

“Unfortunately, maybe we didn’t educate them enough.

Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Our case literally went south. The victims were gone,” Rule said. “I’m not afraid to admit our mistakes.”

A current case

A 13-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman from Chiapas, Mexico, came to Southwest Florida for work picking berries and were told they’d work as prostitutes in August 2005.

Status: Active investigation.

The two friends came to the Collier Sheriff’s Office in Immokalee in August 2005 visibly upset and looking for help, reports state.

A 28-year-old Hispanic man contacted deputies when he saw one of the females crying as she walked down East Main Street in Immokalee.

She told him a man drove them from Mexico, crossing the border at Arizona before arriving in Florida, the man informed authorities.

The girls didn’t have to pay up-front for the trip, reports state. The pair were placed in a shelter and later escaped.

Authorities found the girls and placed them in federal protective custody. Rule wouldn’t comment on their whereabouts.

He said the case is the only current active trafficking investigation with federal officials and the Collier Sheriff’s Office.

Epilogue

With these cases as their training, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the workers rights group that provides victims assistance in many farm labor cases, Rodriguez, Molloy and Collier sheriff’s officials have become sought-after trafficking experts.

Advocates said there’s no current gauge of the extent of the problem.

“There’s just no way of knowing. As more people become aware of it, the more information we get. Right now, we could be scratching the tip of the iceberg,” Rule said.

“By counties such as ours and Lee County being so proactive, we may reduce the caseload eventually. They may move to other places where people don’t know so much about it and people have a chance of getting away with it.”

Trafficking victims could be changing the sheets at beach hotels, filling your order at a Chinese restaurant down the street or have picked the tomatoes in your salad, experts say.

They just haven’t been found.

“We’re dealing with the invisible victims,” Rodriguez said.

Staff writer Laura Layden contributed to this report.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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