By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The Smith case was regarded as probably the strongest of any involving allegations of sexual misconduct at Krome. Now that this has ended without the steep prison time normally accompanying a rape conviction (Smith is to be sentenced next month; he could receive up to two years but as little as probation), there's less reason to believe the other accused officers will be substantially penalized, assuming they are determined to have acted illegally.
A bill passed by Congress last fall allows deportable immigrants to remain in the United States while they are cooperating in a criminal investigation; several detainees who have been interviewed by investigators have temporarily avoided deportation under this new law. But on June 4, the INS was still able to deport a male detainee who had gone public with his account of twice being sexually assaulted at Krome -- and who, according to his attorneys, had been cooperating with the government's investigation of sexual-abuse allegations. Advocates are outraged that now the detainee, Eddy Pierre Paul, is languishing in the brutal conditions at Haiti's national penitentiary.
Partly prompted by that deportation and by months of silence from the justice department, many detainees and their families have begun to lose patience. They are afraid the investigation has stalled and that no action will be forthcoming. When the INS abruptly set June 17 deportation dates for two key witnesses, attorney Cheryl Little of Miami's Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) frantically began contacting media outlets and women's organizations across the nation. Little, who is representing seven immigrants who have cooperated in the investigation, asked reporters and activists to make inquiries of the justice department on behalf of the two detainees. In recent months Little has worried that federal prosecutors may not intend to forcefully pursue the sexual-abuse complaints; she says investigators have told her the cases are weakened by a lack of material evidence and eyewitness testimony from other officers. Justice department spokesmen, though, assert the investigation is ongoing and remains vigorous. Apparently in response to Little's lobbying, the INS has now postponed the deportations of the two witnesses. And Little says she was encouraged about the viability of the investigation after a meeting two weeks ago with representatives of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Little, FIAC's executive director and a prominent immigrant advocate, can't forget the debacle of a decade ago. In 1990 a different group of detainees made the same charges of sexual abuse and assault against Krome officers, some of whom presently are accused. A sweeping federal investigation ensued. The story was all over the news. But after a year or so there was no more investigation, and, at least as far as the detainees' advocates know, nothing happened. "Not even a report," Little laments. "And now it's déjà vu all over again."
Nevertheless the current investigation has exposed more of Krome's netherworld than ever before -- even if it doesn't result in the wholesale reform Little and other immigrant advocates want. "What was very unusual this time," Little remarks, "was that so many women came forward and said, “Even if I can't help my own situation, maybe I can help those who come after me.'"
That's why Margaret wants to explain herself now, before her case is closed and her story forgotten. Margaret is one of the detainees whose deportation was just postponed. She says she hasn't set foot in her native country in more than twenty years and dreads having to leave behind her two young American-born sons, currently with her parents in a town on Florida's west coast, where her family has lived since the late Eighties.
Immigrant advocates assert that transfers and deportations have consistently been the rewards for detainees who complain or refuse to acquiesce in an entrenched system of corruption and exploitation at Krome. This is one reason investigators find it difficult to build strong cases against accused detention officers: You can't rely on disappearing witnesses. Another is the climate of intimidation and distrust that makes it risky to say or do anything against the officers and all other figures of authority, who exercise near-absolute power over detainees.
"I had overheard other women talk about things that happened to them," remembers 33-year-old Margaret, who arrived at Krome in August 2000. "A lot of the officers were very flirtatious, and I thought that was as far as it went. But some of the girls would break down and cry. Then I started experiencing this situation, and I understood what they had been going through." Margaret is thin and pale, her sharp features framed by brown curls that reach just to her shoulders. She didn't say anything about her own experiences for months, even though she was being violated virtually under the noses of attorneys and supervisors. "I couldn't do much about the situation," she relates, "because I heard if you didn't want to be transferred or deported or be under investigation, you should not upset those officers. All I cared about was to go back to my kids."
Margaret says she was accosted by Nelson (a pseudonym), the officer who summoned detainees to attorney visits; his workstation was just outside the door of the office used by FIAC at Krome. Sometimes Nelson would send for her, she alleges, when no visit was scheduled and no attorneys were present. "One time I was called to attorney visitation." She begins a long account, occasionally jolting in its graphic detail. "When I arrived at the door to wait for the visit, I sat down. Then Nelson called me into FIAC's office. When I got to the door, he pulled me in and pinned me against the wall and started to kiss me on my neck. The next time he called me, he pulled my bra up and said, “Listen here, take your breasts out of your bra,' and he started sucking my breast. I was afraid and was pushing him away, and he was getting more aggressive. Then another time when he called me and I got there, after lifting my shirt, he pulled the elastic on my pants out and was touching and feeling my private parts.