After three years and the efforts of a multi-agency investigation, dozens of victims of human trafficking are free from the fetters of “modern-day slavery” on South Georgia farms.
The over 100 victims were smuggled from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras and brought to the farms where they were “imprisoned” under “inhumane” and “brutal” conditions, and forced to work for little or no money. At least two workers died, and one was allegedly raped repeatedly.
The indictment is dubbed “Operation Blooming Onion,” and a spokesperson from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia told VICE News, it may be one of the largest-ever human trafficking and visa fraud investigations in the country.
According to the 54-page, newly unsealed indictment, workers were often required to dig onions with their bare hands and were paid only 20 cents for each bucket harvested. They were threatened at gunpoint and held in fenced-in work camps in “cramped, unsanitary quarters” and given “little or no food, limited plumbing,” and no safe water.
Two dozen accused members and associates of the “Patricio” crime ring face myriad felony charges. The alleged scheme netted over $200 million, laundering the funds through cash purchases of land, homes, vehicles, and businesses, after buying cashier’s checks and then funneling the millions through a casino.
The defendants are additionally accused of “raping, kidnapping, and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers or their families.” In many cases, victims were sold or traded to other conspirators.
“The American dream is a powerful attraction for destitute and desperate people across the globe, and where there is need, there is greed from those who will attempt to exploit these willing workers for their own obscene profits,” David Estes, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, said in a statement.
Sadly, although this bust in Georgia is significant, according to Solimar Mercado-Spencer, a senior staff attorney at the Farmworker Rights Division of the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit law firm that represents low-income farmworkers in Georgia, “This has been happening for a long time.”
“And these people that were arrested are not the only ones doing these things,” Mercado-Spencer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I hope [law enforcement] keeps busting these operations because that’s not the only one going on in Georgia.”
She adds: “Because it’s happening in rural areas, nobody sees the victims. All you see is, you know, your onions at Kroger. You can go buy them. You don’t know where they came from. But this is happening, and nobody notices it. And these are essential workers that have been keeping us fed through the pandemic.”
As described in the indictment, investigators from Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the FBI began investigating the organization in November 2018.
The indictment alleges that in or before 2015, the conspirators and their associates “engaged in mail fraud, international forced labor trafficking, and money laundering, among other crimes,” fraudulently using the H-2A work visa program to smuggle foreign nationals into the U.S. under the pretext of serving as agricultural workers.
The AJC reports that the bust is part of a shift in priorities by President Biden’s Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Instead of targeting undocumented workers via raids on workplaces, today, authorities are targeting “exploitative employers” and businesses that violate labor laws.
“We will not tolerate unscrupulous employers who exploit unauthorized workers, conduct illegal activities, or impose unsafe working conditions,” Mayorkas said in a news release about the shift.