AUGUSTA, Ga. ( Associated Press) – Three men have been sentenced to federal prison terms as part of a broad investigation into what authorities said was a widespread conspiracy to bring Central American workers to the United States for forced labor on farms in South Georgia.
The three men were charged in separate but related cases related to a federal investigation called Blooming Onion, prosecutors said in a news release. Authorities say the farm workers were brought to the U.S. with the H-2A agricultural visa program and then the men benefited from their work by underpaying them and forcing them to live in substandard conditions.
“These men were involved in facilitating contemporary slavery,” U.S. Attorney David Estes said in a news release. “Our law enforcement partners have exposed an underworld of human trafficking, and we will continue to identify and bring to justice those who will exploit others whose labor provides the fuel for their greed.”
Javier Sanchez Mendoza Jr., 24, of Jesup, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in forced labor and was sentenced to serve 30 years in prison. Aurelio Medina, 42, of Brunswick pleaded guilty to forced labor and was sentenced to five years and four months. Yunson Velazquez Victoria, 45, of Brunswick, received a 15-month sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy.
Mendoza and Medina are Mexican citizens living in the U.S. illegally and are subject to deportation as soon as they serve their prison sentences, prosecutors said.
Mendoza acknowledged that from August 2018 to November 2019, he was a leader in a scheme to provide labor and services to farms and other businesses in the provinces of Glynn, Ware and Pierce, the release reads. He recruited more than 500 Central American people and charged them illegally with H-2A visas and withheld their identification papers, forcing them to work for little or no pay in appalling conditions by threatening them and their families at home, said prosecutors.
One victim testified during sentencing that Mendoza selected her from a work team after she arrived from Mexico and brought her to him, which led her to falsely believe that she was married to him. He controlled her for more than a year through threats and intimidation and repeatedly raped her, prosecutors said.
After she escaped, Mendoza abducted her with a knife from the front yard of a house where she was looking after, prosecutors said. Law enforcement officers who found her at Mendoza’s garage in Jesup and rescued her found a sanctuary for Santa Muerte, “Saint Death”, adorned with her hair and blood, the release reads. Mendoza is facing charges of serious assault by the state related to it.
Medina admitted that from April to October 2020, he charged foreign workers for H-2A visas and then withheld their identification documents in Glynn and Effingham counties. Victoria, a naturalized U.S. citizen, admitted that he allowed Medina to use his name to apply for H-2A workers and was paid $ 600 a week to bring the workers from their housing jobs.
Prosecutors said the investigation into forced labor in South Georgia and elsewhere continues through a federal case in which 23 people are charged in an alleged conspiracy to commit labor trafficking, visa fraud and money laundering.