Florida farm-labor recruiters sentenced for racketeering, human trafficking scheme

Two managers of a Florida farm-labor contracting company are going to federal prison for their role in a multi-state racketeering and human trafficking scheme. Between 2015 and 2017, federal prosecutors say, the company forced more than a dozen workers on H-2A visas to harvest crops against their will, while paying them less than they were owed.

According to the Department of Justice, Christina Gamez, Efrain Cabrera Rodas, and Guadalupe Mendes Mendoza operated Los Villatoros Harvesting LLC (LVH) as a “criminal enterprise.” On Thursday, Florida District Court Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell sentenced Gamez to 37 months and Cabrera to 41 months in prison. Mendes, who faced less serious charges, will serve eight months of house arrest. Judge Honeywell also ordered Cabrera and Gamez to pay nearly $25,000 and over $9,000, respectively, in restitution to the victims.

The managers’ sentencing is the latest twist in a sprawling investigation of LVH that involved a dozen different government agencies, legal aid organizations, and advocacy groups across the country.

LVH’s owner, Bladimir Moreno, pleaded guilty last month to his role in the criminal conspiracy. Moreno has already agreed to pay more than $173,000 in restitution to former H-2A workers, and faces up to 20 years in federal prison, as well as a fine of $250,000.

“Using coercive, deceptive, and fraudulent practices to exploit individuals’ immigration status to engage in a pattern of forced labor for financial gain is appalling,” said U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg for the Middle District of Florida in a press release yesterday. “Thanks to the diligent work by our human trafficking task force partners, this criminal enterprise was stopped in its tracks.”

LVH was an agricultural middleman, recruiting and hiring large numbers of farmworkers, then contracting out their services to farms that needed the labor. The company hired its workers through the federal H-2A visa program, which provides temporary work visas to more than 300,000 agricultural workers every year.

According to the Department of Justice, Cabrera served as a recruiter, supervisor, and manager for LVH, where he illegally charged Mexican H-2A workers fees as high as $2,000 as part of their recruitment. This drove many workers into debt, which prosecutors say Cabrera then used to coerce workers to continue working for him. Gamez, a bookkeeper, manager, and supervisor for LVH, confiscated the workers’ passports and falsified payroll records, which made it possible for LVH to get away with paying workers far less than they were contractually obligated to.

The DOJ said that both Cabrera and Gamez repeatedly threatened workers with arrest and deportation if they “attempted to escape the company.” When federal agencies set their sights on LVH, investigators say that Mendes, who worked as a supervisor and manager, made false statements to them.

LVH was also involved in a range of other racketeering activities, said the DOJ, including committing fraud in foreign labor contracting and submitting fraudulent visa-related documents to federal agencies.

Cabrera, Gamez, and Mendes pleaded guilty to their role in the racketeering and trafficking scheme earlier this year.