NEWS: US:Two men plead guilty in southwest Florida slavery ring

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Subject: NEWS: US:Two men plead guilty in southwest Florida slavery ring
From: Jyothi Kanics (jkanics@igc.org)
Date: Thu May 27 1999 - 22:55:19 EDT


Two men plead guilty in southwest Florida slavery ring
May 26, 1999

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) - Two men have pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling
Mexican migrants into the United States, holding them against their will
and forcing them to work in southwest Florida tomato fields.

Abel Cuello Jr., of Immokalee, and German Covarrubias, of Bonita Springs,
were charged last month with the smuggling and slavery conspiracy in U.S.
District Court.

The plea deals were announced Wednesday by the National Worker Exploitation
Task Force of the U.S. Department of Justice.

In his plea, Cuello admitted that the workers were not free to leave until
their smuggling debt was repaid and described one of his co-conspirators as
having threatened to shoot escaped workers.

``There is no place for forced labor in America, today or any other day,''
said Charles R. Wilson, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

Cuello faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine
for harboring aliens, unsafe labor practices and ``peonage,'' holding an
individual in involuntary servitude in order to collect a debt. Peonage has
been a violation of federal law since the 1870s, according to the Justice
Department.

Covarrubias could get up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine for
admitting that he continued to assist Cuello even though he knew about the
forced labor.

The case against a third defendant, Basilio Cuello, is pending, and a
fourth suspect has not yet been arrested.

An investigation by federal agents in the Fort Myers area found that more
than 20 migrant farm workers had been brought to the Cuello farm labor
contracting operation and forced to remain there until they repaid a
smuggling fee, usually about $800 each.

Once they were brought to the Immokalee area, they were forced to pick
tomatoes for the Cuello operation as they repaid the smuggling fee over
time. Escaped workers described threats made against them to keep them there.

Cooperating on the investigation were the U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration
and Naturalization Service, U.S. departments of Labor and Justice and the
U.S. Attorney's Office in Fort Myers.


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