A 15-year-old Guatemalan girl, identified by the initials LFD, was rescued from slavery in Immokalee more than a year ago.
Now, Francisco F. Domingo, 46, has been arrested on charges of arranging for the girl to be smuggled from Guatemala, enslaving her for sex, filming her having intercourse with other men and forcing her to work in the fields throughout Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Domingo is a legal U.S. resident.
Most people may doubt that such dehumanizing acts still occur. With its traveling Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is trying to introduce consumers to a dark side of Florida, the degrading conditions in the agricultural industry that make cases such as LFD's possible.
"Unfortunately, sexual slavery and indentured servitude are right in our neighborhoods and the fields adjacent to our neighborhoods," Douglas Molloy told the Fort Myers News-Press. He is chief assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Myers and a member of the Lee County Human Trafficking Task Force.
Slavery still occurs mainly because most residents in the areas in question are farm hands who are afraid to talk, too many growers simply turn their backs as long as their fields and groves are picked, and many lawmakers are aligned with agricultural interests.
The museum, which began touring in Collier County three weeks ago, includes a replica of the 24-foot cargo truck that five field bosses, members of the Navarrette family, used to enslave and brutalize 12 Mexican and Guatemalan farmworkers. Led by Cesar and Geovanni, the Navarrete clan took the workers' IDs and locked the men in boxes, shacks and trucks on their property. The men were chained, beaten and forced to work on farms in the Carolinas and Florida.
A 2008 indictment said the migrants were forced to pay rent of $20 a week to sleep in a locked furniture van, and they were forced to urinate and defecate in a corner of the vehicle. The Navarretes charged the men $5 each to bathe in the backyard with a garden hose. To keep the workers obligated to them, the Navarretes devised drug, alcohol and food schemes to trap the men in debt. The Navarretes were convicted and received 12-year sentences.
The cases of Domingo and the Navarretes are not unusual. Since its founding in 1993, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the CIW has been involved in slavery investigations that have brought prosecutions and the freedom of more than 1,000 field hands.
All of the violators were employed by powerful growers, including Consolidated Citrus, Lykes Brothers, Manley Farms North Inc., Ag-Mart Farms, Pacific Tomato Growers and Six L's that sell produce to many Florida businesses. Until this year's freeze wiped out Florida tomato supplies, Publix, for example, was buying tomatoes from two farms involved in the most recent slavery cases.
Four other cases featured in the traveling museum:
• In 2007, Ron Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison and two others received lesser sentences. Evans recruited homeless U.S. citizens from shelters in Florida and North Carolina with promises of good jobs and housing. Once they were in his camps, Evans deducted rent, food, crack cocaine and alcohol from workers' pay, holding them in a camp surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
• In 2004, Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery and firearms charges. The men, who had more than 700 farmworkers in the citrus groves of Florida and fields of North Carolina, threatened to kill workers if they tried to leave. They pistol-whipped and assaulted van drivers who gave rides to farmworkers trying to escape.
• In 1999, Abel Cuello was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison on slavery charges. He had held more than 30 tomato pickers in two trailers in swamps west of Immokalee. Three workers escaped but were tracked down weeks later. He hit one worker with his car, claiming the worker was his "property."
• In 1997, Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion and firearms charges. They had more than 400 men and women picking vegetables and citrus in South Carolina and Florida. Under armed guard, the migrants were forced to work up to 12 hours a day, six days per week, regularly earning $20 per week. Those who tried to escape were beaten, pistol-whipped, even shot.
Along with the history of forced labor in Florida, the museum features a blood-stained shirt worn by a 16-year-old Guatemalan tomato picker who was brutalized for not working "hard enough" to satisfy the crew chief; scenes of cramped, filthy living facilities; and artifacts such as tomato buckets and actual chains that bound workers.
CIW leaders hope the museum's stark reality will reveal to people an inhumane side of the Sunshine State, ground zero for slavery in America.