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    Fear and knowing in Immokalee

    Tired of the abuse some farm workers face at the hands of immigrant-labor traffickers, one group has decided to fight back.

    [Times photo: Jamie Francis]
    A farm worker walks past a mural in the headquarters for the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. The Statue of Liberty holding a tomato is featured prominently.

    By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 1, 2002


    IMMOKALEE -- The four men told an almost unbelievable story of abuse.

    They picked buckets of fruit from sunup to sundown. A seven-day week in the citrus groves might bring in $15. Hired hands on tractors drove up and down the rows of orange trees, watching their every move. Escape, they were told, would bring a beating or a bullet.

    But when the four men told their story to Francisco Martinez, he believed every word.

    "The same thing happened to me," Martinez said. "I didn't know who to trust and who not to trust."

    Martinez managed to escape the human trafficking networks that each year snatch tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants from desolate stretches along the U.S. border with Mexico.

    Now, for scores of workers at Florida farms, sweatshops and brothels, Martinez represents hope. He and other members of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, a grassroots organization trying to improve conditions on Florida farms, counsel trafficking victims and play a key role in pressing criminal cases under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

    Five times in the past five years the coalition has helped the federal government successfully prosecute Florida cases.

    It was Martinez's personal connection and counseling that persuaded the four farm workers who arrived at the coalition's offices in April 2001 to testify against their former bosses.

    "I told them whatever path they chose to take they shouldn't feel fear," Martinez said. "That they were in a safe place where no one could hurt them."

    Their testimony last summer helped federal prosecutors convict brothers Ramiro and Juan Ramos, and their cousin, Jose, of conspiring to enslave hundreds of workers on citrus farms near Lake Placid in Highlands County. Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced last month to more than 12 years in prison. Jose Ramos was sentenced to 10.

    "When I was working with tomatoes," said coalition co-founder Lucas Benitez, "one of my bosses tried to hit me. In that case I was basically alone. Now if that happened, 20 other workers would have been there to help."

    Gaining trust

    They hail from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries.

    At 5 p.m. each day, hundreds arrive in converted school buses. They work 14-hour days, picking oranges and tomatoes for about 40 cents a bucket.

    Once a week, Martinez and other coalition members head to Immokalee's "24 Hour Camp," one of hundreds of makeshift temporary communities along two-lane highways in South Florida farming towns.

    Walking along narrow dirt paths between squat white mobile homes, Martinez and a friend, Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, carry green fliers with photos of protesters and a few words about the coalition.

    Reyes-Chavez takes a deep breath before ducking down a long corridor strewn with garbage and a discarded mattress. Clean-cut in corduroys and a plaid shirt, he is not your average door-to-door salesman.

    "Buenos noches, senora," he begins, addressing a young woman peering out from behind a door. He tells her about the coalition's weekly meeting, about the fight for better wages and better treatment. The door swings open wider.

    "It's actually relaxing," he said. "It gives me a sense of peace to do this because I'm helping people like me."

    Francisco Martinez, rights, talks to a farm worker about the coalition. The group provides a safe haven for abused farm workers and has been key in pressing criminal cases against traffickers.

    Making the case

    It's minutes before a weekly meeting as dozens of men, and a few women, gather outside the coalition office.

    On a wall is a brightly colored mural showing the Statue of Liberty hefting a giant tomato, and the earnest images of workers carrying baskets of produce.

    Dressed in T-shirts, blue jeans and baseball caps, the 75 men and women come in off the street and hunker down in folding chairs in a small room. The crowd quiets as Benitez strides to a big TV and pops in a tape.

    The black and white melodrama, called La Ciudad, is a wrenching tale of four undocumented Latino immigrants cheated out of their wages and struggling to make ends meet in New York City. Though these workers are thousands of miles from the clamor of a subway, the film is a moving mirror for the men and women who crowd around the set.

    Not all of these workers are here to protest the trafficking network. Most have come to the meeting because they are tired of inadequate wages and substandard living conditions.

    But the coalition's reputation for taking action and getting results with abusive farm owners has traveled far and wide. The coalition is a trusted name in the community and members learn about many of the trafficking cases from messages passed along the migrant workers grapevine -- sometimes secretly.

    Jose Martinez-Cervantes hears those rumors.

    A coalition supporter, Martinez-Cervantes, 44, runs a taxi-van service in Immokalee. Every Tuesday, he heads out on five-day journeys to pick up migrant farm workers at labor camps in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. He is the eyes and ears of a modern day underground railroad.

    "We drive a long time sometimes," Martinez-Cervantes said, "so we hear these stories of people who are being held against their will. Sometimes I bring those people to the coalition and explain their situation can be remedied."

    The coalition holds a weekly meeting in its headquarters.

    It was his travels that alerted him to the Ramos brothers' trafficking ring.

    He and his co-worker Alejandro Benitez, 22, spent hours on the witness stand describing the night in May 2000 when the Ramos brothers and several of their workers held them at gunpoint.

    The brothers accused Martinez-Cervantes of helping workers escape the farm. Before he could reply, Martinez-Cervantes said he felt the butt of a pistol crash down on his skull. A second blow cut a wide gash across his mouth.

    "I lost consciousness after they pistol-whipped me," he said.

    Days before the Ramos' sentencing on Nov. 20, Martinez-Cervantes said he was too afraid of reprisals to attend the court proceedings, but he was sure justice would be done.

    "Now maybe the farm contractors will realize that they better straighten up," Martinez said.

    'We have to fight'

    About 3,600 farm labor contractors are licensed to recruit workers for Florida farms, says the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

    In most trafficking cases, federal investigators have focused largely on these contractors. They say the contractors force victims to work brutal hours to pay off bogus debts.

    But farm worker advocates insist that large commercial farms' dependence on the cheap labor is at the root of the trafficking problem.

    Florida Rural Legal Services attorney Lisa Butler, who has handled dozens of farm workers' legal cases in recent years, is encouraged by recent prosecutions but believes the government should do more.

    "There needs to be a mechanism that requires businesses to make sure that this doesn't happen. Many agricultural employers use labor contractors as shields," Butler said.

    Kevin Morgan, a spokesman for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, a private nongovernmental organization that advocates for Florida's farmers, acknowledged that many of his group's 150,000 members rely heavily on documented and undocumented migrant workers during harvests.

    "We would be in sorry shape without them," Morgan said.

    Morgan disputed the suggestion that trafficking abuses are widespread in Florida and said illegal immigrants were the government's responsibility.

    "Farmers are not document experts but we have to hire people for the harvest. We can't tell if people are legal or illegal," Morgan added.

    While some Florida farms might be unaware of the trafficking problem, the numbers are hard to ignore.

    Fifty-three people have been convicted for human trafficking since Congress made smuggling a federal felony in 2000. More than 120 trafficking investigations are under way around the country, the Justice Department says.

    Al Moskowitz, chief of the Justice Department's civil rights criminal division, acknowledged that many investigations have targeted farm labor contractors rather than farm owners.

    Prosecutors have a hard enough time convincing trafficking victims to testify as it is, he said. Many are afraid to talk to authorities for fear of being deported.

    "Victims tend to naturally distrust law enforcement," Moskowitz explained. "Traffickers play on those fears by telling them (victims) they're the ones who are going to get into trouble."

    In January, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft signed a regulation that allows trafficking victims who cooperate with investigations to remain in the United States for up to three years. After that, they may be eligible to seek permanent residency.

    Prosecutors hope the new regulation will encourage more migrant workers to come forward.

    But Martinez believes it will take more than a rubber stamp on a visa to put an end to human trafficking.

    "We have to fight for ourselves," Martinez said, "if we don't do it, who will?"

    -- Times staff writer Jocelyn Wiener and researchers Caryn Baird, Cathy Wos and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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