Bolivian Workers Scammed

The odyssey of 24 laborers flown to Miami and then left to their own devices.

Each day, Sanchez would take them to lunch at a Colombian restaurant next to his Northwest Miami-Dade office in a van meant for half their number. The workers were on their own for breakfast and dinner. After the first week, Sanchez moved them to another motel, at NW Seventh Avenue and 81st Street — "barely an improvement," Pablo says. "We were still crammed into rooms and quickly using up the limited cash each of us had brought."

Finally, after three weeks, Sanchez told the laborers they were on their own. He helped some of them find hotel or restaurant work. Rasmussen said she arranged jobs for others.

About a dozen of them set out to seek the truth. On April 22, the group showed up at the Moss Point, Mississippi headquarters of Five Star Contractors. They laid out their story and paperwork to company president David Knight. "They, like us, were caught in a scam," Knight says. He immediately realized someone had distributed photocopied Five Star contracts and forged an accompanying letter with his signature. The firm had never in its history requested guest workers from Bolivia.

The group was glad to finally have an explanation, but that relief didn't last long. "While we were in his office, [Knight] dialed a number and then put us on speaker phone as we explained our side of the story," José recalls. "A little while later, the migra showed up, we were on our knees, and handcuffed." Four of the men were taken into custody (the rest of the workers had already left) but were released hours later.

Soon the U.S. Consulate in La Paz learned of the forged contracts. Authorities questioned Rasmussen about the matter. The interrogators were worried because they had issued the visas.

"It didn't make sense," Pablo says. "The U.S. is the hardest country in the world to get into, and there we were with documents that looked like they had been photocopied a thousand times. But [consul staff] didn't bat an eye."

The case against Rasmussen has yet to go before a judge. But a check of legal history reveals she has been in hot water before. In 2006, she sent dozens of Bolivians to work in New Orleans hotels that offered such low wages and terrible conditions that the workers sued the luxury hotel chain Decatur. In May 2007, the Eastern District Court of Louisiana ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that guest workers are entitled to the same rights as anyone else under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The decision has since been appealed and the parties are awaiting a ruling.

Rasmussen contends she lost money on the workers. And, she says, Sanchez owes her upward of $25,000 from other joint ventures. "This is all Juan Sanchez's doing," she claims.

Celso Paredes, an attorney representing the Bolivians, hopes to send Rasmussen to jail. "Rasmussen accepted workers' payment and that makes her liable in Bolivia for the outcome of their contractual agreements," Paredes explains, adding that the fraud charges carry a penalty of one to six years for every infraction.

In the end, this whole disaster has a strange irony for people such as Marco. One of the four arrested in Knight's office in April, he is still in the United States awaiting a decision regarding his deportation. "We are the ones who do everything right to come to the U.S.," says Marco, who misses his wife and eight-year-old son in Bolivia. "We enter legally to work for companies that have asked us to come. And look what happens. It all just makes me feel really bad."

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