The case of dozens of Filipino workers held captive spotlights a widespread human- trafficking problem.
For up to 16 hours daily, they worked at posh country clubs across South Florida, then returned to deceptively quiet houses in Boca Raton where they were captives -- and in the most dreadful cases, fed rotten chicken and vegetables, forced to drink muriatic acid and repeatedly denied medical help.
The 39 servers, lured to the United States by the cliché of a decent dollar and a promising next chapter, instead became imported modern-day slaves two continents away from their homeland. Their story repeats in plain sight most every day in South Florida: barely paid -- or unpaid -- people forced to toil in fields, work as domestics in hotels and restaurants or in the sex industry, an outsized regional problem authorities are emphasizing in January, Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
"This is organized crime where humans are used as products. We are talking about selling a person over and over and making large sums of money,'' says Carmen Pino, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Special Agent in Charge. ``What people need to realize is that human trafficking is happening here, it's a big problem. It could be happening in the restaurant where you eat, at your nail salon, in your neighborhood. It's not just something that happens in foreign countries."
While difficult to pluck the numbers from a landscape of silence and fear, federal, state and local authorities know South Florida is among the nation's three top capitals of human trafficking, a $36 billion industry defined as the recruitment and harboring of a person for labor or services through force, fraud or coercion.
South Florida's mix of cosmopolitan lifestyles, rural landscapes and tourism makes it a natural entry point for human traffickers. To fight the rising statistics and heighten awareness, a coalition of law enforcement and government agencies formed the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force in 2008, charged with monitoring a wide swath of the state, from Key West to Fort Pierce.
That year, ICE initiated 432 investigations resulting in 126 convictions on human trafficking charges. In 2009, the number of investigations jumped to 566 and 165 convictions.
The task force also partners with social-service agencies and churches for outreach and to help rescued victims find housing and build new, legitimate lives in America.
ICE gives temporary legal immigration status -- called Continued Presence, typically for one year -- to victims of trafficking. They can receive work permits and other benefits and eventually can apply for a visa. In 2009, ICE authorized 447 CP requests and extensions.
Two years ago, the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition was launched to raise awareness and also to help social organizations on the front lines to recognize the warning signs. "One of the largest hurdles we are facing is getting people to see it," says President Adriane Reesey. "We've done training sessions with homeowner organizations, webinars and gone to the churches."
In the latest case, Alfonso Baldonado Jr. and his wife, Sophia Manuel, owners of Quality Staffing Services, were behind an elaborate plot to bring Filipino nationals to South Florida, then pressure them into slave labor at local country clubs and hotels including Indian Creek Country Club, Miami Shores Country Club and nine others in Palm Beach County. Federal officials say the clubs were not aware of the illegal scheme.
Manuel was sentenced to 78 months in federal prison; Baldonado received a 51-month sentence. She also was sentenced for visa fraud and making false statements to the government to procure foreign labor certifications and visas.
"Human traffickers target vulnerable victims, including minors, who desire a better life and end up being lured into a situation where they are deprived of their basic human rights,'' ICE Director John Morton said just after sentencing.
It was a frantic call to a hotline about a ``hostage'' situation at a Boca Raton home -- Filipino workers held against their will -- that launched the probe. A familiar story of the tainted American Dream soon emerged.
In July 2006, Manuel held a recruiting meeting in the Philippines to a captive audience of workers who had responded to newspaper advertisements and word-of-mouth. She collected a $1,500 job security deposit from each of the 36 applicants. No jobs were delivered or refunds given for the deposits. The following year, the couple returned to a group that included some of the 2006 applicants, this time with the promise of jobs that would pay $1,400 monthly for up to three years. They each paid $4,000 in up-front fees.
Neither the promised jobs nor the salary ever materialized.
For nearly two years, the victims were squeezed into several Boca Raton homes. The couple, also of Filipino origin, ruled by the victims' palpable fear of arrest or deportation if they tried to escape. Their passports were taken and they were isolated. They worked exhausting hours seven days a week. At home, some slept on the floor. They were given water and fed a "diet of rotten vegetables, chicken innards and feet," according to the indictment.
``On the outside, the houses blended into a typical suburban subdivision,'' Pino says. "Inside, it was crowded and absolutely disgusting, substandard squalid conditions."
And when one worker complained that the drinking water was bad, the couple provided toxic acid instead.
The workers were often denied timely medical care. A worker who broke his wrist wasn't allowed to see a doctor for 10 days. Another worker suffering from stomach pain and spitting up blood wasn't allowed to see a doctor.
On Sundays, they were herded into a van and taken to a nearby church, but forbidden from speaking to other Filipinos.
The couple contracted with 11 South Florida country clubs and resorts, providing staff of servers mostly, for seasonal or supplemental work. Federal authorities say the businesses were not complicit.
The Miami Shores Country Club used Quality Staffing for less than a year beginning in November 2007 for a total of 239 hours. "We were absolutely not aware of the situation with these workers who we used for banquets,'' said Alberto Pozzi, general manager of the Miami Shores Country Club. ``The company came highly recommended from other clubs. The company [owners] told us they would be providing a qualified staff that had been trained on cruise ships."
Indian Creek began contracting with Quality in the fall of 2007 to help with events during the winter season. "At one event, almost all of the temporary wait staff was a `no show.' When we inquired why, we weren't satisfied with the answer, and we terminated the relationship immediately,'' General Manager Michael Yurick said in an e-mail response. "Subsequently, we learned from a federal investigation that the agency was treating its employees in an inappropriate and illegal manner. We worked closely with the Federal investigators, and helped them in their investigation. ''
With the help of a network of social agencies, those workers have settled in South Florida in new homes, with new jobs.
As a victim specialist for the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking for two years, Martha Mino worked with some of the rescued Filipino victims, along with others from Mexico and Honduras.
"They were very still traumatized, very scared and mistrusting," says Mino, now working at the Mexican Consulate.
"They were too scared to ask for their most basic needs. They were still learning that they are human beings that deserve to be treated properly. For them, they are starting over."
BY AUDRA D.S. BURCH - Miami Herald