From Bitter to Sweet

Forget the awful past, say Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, Florida's sugar barons. It's time to make nice and go into real estate.

In the western expanse of Palm Beach County, where sugar cane stretches to the horizon like an endless green sea, sits the Osceola Farms refinery, an island of grime-covered cement, an eyesore of human creation. A maze of steel pipes rings the five-story factory that billows waste from a pair of smokestacks. The Fanjul family of Palm Beach and Coral Gables, the world's most infamous sugar barons, built this place. With all the zeal of Colonial-era plantation owners, the Fanjuls fashioned a fortune here on the toil of immigrants. Inside the refinery, the workers know they're as expendable as the machines. When they break, the sugar barons will throw them away.

It happened to José Gallardo, who literally covered the Osceola mill in his blood on the morning of July 23. Gallardo ran a drill press. He punched holes in sheet metal with one hand, then used the other to wipe away shards underneath the spinning machine. The sharp bits often sliced open his arms and hands, so against regulations, the factory allowed him to wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt.

And that's what got him. As Gallardo wiped away the shards on that morning last month, the drill sucked in his shirt sleeve. The machine yanked his left hand into the press and ripped his arm clean off just below the elbow. Panicked, Gallardo ran. He flailed his mangled arm wildly. A torrent of blood painted the mill. A rescue helicopter rushed him to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, but surgeons failed to reattach his arm.

Colby Katz
After losing his hand in a Fanjul factory, José Gallardo wonders how he'll pay his bills
Colby Katz
After losing his hand in a Fanjul factory, José Gallardo wonders how he'll pay his bills

Lying in his hospital bed days later with a bandage over his stump, the 47-year-old Mexican immigrant knew his days of working at the mill were likely over. "I cannot work with one hand. They will not want me. Nobody will hire me," he said with a depressing candor. He had no money to pay the hospital bills or his rent back in Pahokee, on the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. Ten months earlier, his wife had given birth to twin boys at the same hospital. Now he wasn't sure how he would feed them. He had worked for the Fanjuls for seventeen years, since leaving Mexico, and he knew the price of disability was to be discarded.

On the same day Gallardo lost his hand, José "Pepe" Fanjul Jr., heir to the sugar fortune, was playing hooky. Fanjul, vice president and head of the family real estate division, was supposed to meet with one of the area's top environmentalists, hoping to persuade her to support the family's plans to turn their sugar cane fields into housing developments. The 33-year-old Fanjul is supposed to represent the family's softer side, a generation that cares about things like workers and the environment. He is part of the Fanjul company's attempt to recast itself as a responsible corporation that can be trusted with carefully developing land surrounded by the Everglades.

To excuse Fanjul's absence from the meeting, company spokesman Gaston Cantens explained that Pepe went personally to console Gallardo's family. The young Fanjul assured the Gallardos they would be looked after, the spokesman said. "He wanted to handle this personally," Cantens explained.

This was not true. Fanjul never visited Gallardo or his family, and no one from the company had explained to Gallardo whether he would be paid while recuperating. The Fanjuls had not reported the accident to government regulators, and company officials had denied Gallardo workers' compensation payments. After learning of the accident from New Times, the Florida Division of Workers Compensation and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration both began inquiries.

It was all a big mix-up, according to Cantens. "We were trying to track down where they took him," he said by way of explaining why Pepe never showed up at Gallardo's bedside. "We could never figure out where he was." Ultimately, Cantens contended later, other company officials went to visit Gallardo and promised him groceries and paychecks. But Gallardo said such promises did not come until New Times began questioning the company.

The Fanjuls' hope of turning some of their vast sugar holdings into developed real estate may rest on their reputation, and Gallardo's accident suggests that little has changed for the often-reviled family. For decades the Fanjuls and their company, Florida Crystals, have symbolized the harshness of corporate, big-business farming. Dozens of lawsuits and many critics have accused the Fanjuls of ignoring complaints of unsafe conditions, falsifying time cards in order to underpay workers, and of forcibly deporting immigrant workers who protested the poor conditions.

The Fanjuls did not respond to numerous interview requests by e-mail, phone, and fax. For two months Cantens, state representative from Miami's District 114 who is retiring from politics, assured that the Fanjuls and their employees would be available for interviews. "We will try to make this happen," Cantens said earlier this month. "Just be patient." But Cantens continued to delay meetings, saying the Fanjuls were either too busy, leery of interviews, or out of the country.

Meanwhile the Fanjul family's new public-relations campaign hopes to paint Pepe Fanjul, Jr., as one of the company's new, well-intentioned leaders. It has hired a team of environmentalists who claim the Fanjuls are planning a "green" community that will aid efforts to restore the Everglades. The first phase is a nearly 15,000-acre community west of Wellington, which may be the beginning of a wave of development, perhaps extending residences and commercial strips from the ocean all the way to Lake Okeechobee, environmentalists say. In the end, the plan could make the Fanjul family -- already worth at least $500 million -- hundreds of millions of dollars richer. The Fanjuls have backed up the public-relations campaign with millions in political donations to both major parties, sending money to everyone from presidents to county commissioners. In the end, the plans rest on whether politicians and environmentalists can trust the Fanjuls, finally and at last, to do what's right.

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