Fla. family charged with enslaving immigrant workers


Published: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 9:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 9:19 p.m.

MIAMI - Six family members were indicted for enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants and forcing them to perform farm labor, federal authorities said Thursday.

Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete beat, threatened, and locked workers in trucks to force them to work in the fields, picking tomatoes and other produce, according to the 17-count indictment filed in the U.S. District Court in Tampa.

The Navarretes were farm crew leaders who brought the workers to pick produce in various fields.

They were also were charged with underpaying the workers, forcing them into debt and physically threatening them if the workers left their jobs before paying off the debts.

The two Navarretes and four relatives were additionally charged with harboring illegal immigrants for private gain, and several face charges related to re-entering the country after being deported.

If convicted, Geovanni and Cesar Navarrete, the alleged ringleaders, could face maximum sentences of more than 200 years in prison.

Messages left for lawyers representing all but one of the defendants were not immediately returned.

Tampa Attorney Mark O'Brian, who is representing defendant Villhina Navarrete, said the case was "overblown."

His client faces charges of harboring illegal immigrants, visa fraud and social security card violations. She faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

O'Brian said the group was initially charged with the lesser crimes in December and that the enslavement and other additional charges were added Thursday.

In the state's complaint, one of the alleged victims said he escaped by climbing out of an air vent in the truck and was beaten when he returned to help his friends escape.

The defendants were scheduled to enter their pleas Jan. 23.

The announcement came as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was touring the Immokalee area, where farm worker advocates have been seeking to pressure growers and Burger King Corp. to a proposed deal to raise the wages of tomato pickers. The growers say they pay fair wages already, and Burger King has said it does not want to step in and get involved in a wage dispute.

Sanders, a member of the Senate committee on health and labor, said he was deeply concerned about the conditions of farm workers in the region and requested a Senate committee hearing on the issue.

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