A Florida Farm County's High Rape Rate Highlights Risks for Migrant Workers
Photo by Christopher Elwell/Shutterstock
Just after dawn, a gray van pulled up to Maria's mustard-yellow house on the western edge of Immokalee, just a few blocks from the acres of tomatoes that draw tens of thousands of migrant workers to this remote town in Southwest Florida.
Maria got into the van and sat next to her supervisor from the nursery where she'd been working for the past week. Agustin Sales, a sallow, 35-year-old Guatemalan with a shaved head, said he needed help with a job before the workday began.
As they drove past blocks of mobile homes and rusted buses carrying pickers to the fields, Maria noticed the van wasn't heading toward the nursery. But she kept quiet. She needed the job, and Sales was the boss. Soon after crossing into nearby Hendry County, they pulled off the road. Sales grabbed a towel and a machete and hopped a fence. Maria swallowed her misgivings and followed.
They walked for a few minutes into the woods, the rumble of agricultural machinery distant through the leaves. Suddenly, Sales grabbed her, kissed her on the mouth, and demanded she take off her clothes. "No!" she said, turning to run. Before she could move, Sales threw her to the ground, ripped off her pants, tore out her tampon, and raped her.
The brutal, previously unreported attack last April is the latest evidence that thousands of migrant women who toil in Florida's $100 billion agriculture industry are disturbingly vulnerable to sexual assault. A New Times investigation last month ("Florida Farm Owners Assault Migrants While Police and Prosecutors Do Nothing") told the story of Moreno Farms, a Hendry County packing house where five migrant women claim they were sexually assaulted by Miami-raised brothers in one of the worst cases of its kind in Florida history.
But new evidence suggests the Moreno Farms assaults only hint at the scale of sexual crime in Florida's farm-dominated regions.
New Times examined every felony rape case filed over the past two years in Hendry County, a bucolic, 1,110-square-mile area southwest of Lake Okeechobee dotted with Spanish-moss-draped oaks and flat acres of oranges and strawberries. Remarkably, the small county's sexual assault rate is nearly 1.5 times the national average and significantly higher than that of Miami-Dade County.
Among the startling crimes detailed in hundreds of pages of police reports:
• A 28-year-old man accused of preying on a woman separated from her friends during an outing on ATVs, pulling her from the vehicle and raping her in the woods.
• A 38-year-old man charged with brutally attacked his girlfriend by punching her repeatedly in the chest while sexually assaulting her.
• A drunken 32-year-old allegedly forced his ex-wife into a bedroom and raped her while their children were in the house.
• A pair of men accused of assaulting a woman while dozens of witnesses were nearby inside a party bus they'd rented.
Although it's not clear how many attacks involve farm workers because police reports generally don't include that information, the majority of Hendry's population works in the agriculture industry. A 2005 study showed 74 cents of every dollar in the county's economy could be traced to farming. The attacks described in county records run the gamut from domestic violence to nauseating assaults on children, but taken as a whole, they point to a larger truth: Sexual assault is an outsize problem in the area, especially when thousands of migrant women with little understanding of the English language or their legal rights move there every year to harvest crops.
"Sexual abuse is alive and flourishing outside of our program," says Laura Safer Espinoza, a retired New York state judge who now runs Florida's Fair Food Standards Council, which among other objectives aims to stem sexual abuse of farm workers through programs including an abuse hotline. "Some of the calls we get are heartbreaking."
Florida has a deep, dark history of mistreating the people who harvest the crops that fuel the Sunshine State's economy. In 1960, Edward R. Murrow shone a light on the industry's problems when he traveled with CBS's camera crews to Florida's fields for the landmark Thanksgiving Day special Harvest of Shame.
He found that the migrant workers hired to pick the food that left American tables "laden with luxuries" worked about 136 days a year for just $900 annually (the equivalent of about $6,000 today). Brutal workdays in the sun with few breaks produced barely enough cash for families to share a pot of beans at the end of the day.
"We used to own our slaves," one farm boss told Murrow. "Now we just rent them."
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Murrow's call to protect marginalized fieldworkers sparked reform, including federal mandates for health care and education. But the farm industry pushed back, and in Florida's rural communities, hard-won rights quickly deteriorated. As late as the early 1980s, children of migrant workers and African-Americans had separate standards and punishments in Hendry County public schools. That ended only when a legal rights group challenged the practice in court.
But the real shift came in the mid-'80s, when massive waves of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America flooded into Florida to work the fields. "Florida's farm workers have been displaced by an endless flow of undocumented workers who will accept bad work and worse wages," says Greg Schell, managing attorney of Florida Legal Services' Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
In 2003, the Palm Beach Post revisited many of the same locales where Murrow had discovered rampant abuse. That led to the conviction of three farm bosses on slavery charges.
Other studies have found that 80 percent of female migrant workers have been sexually assaulted on the job; the rapes often go unreported, with managers using threats of firing and deportation.
No recent case better illustrates that reality than Moreno Farms. The packing house in tiny Felda, in the southern reaches of Hendry County, opened in 2005 and was run by Omar and Oscar Moreno, two brothers from Miami. Five women have now testified that along with their henchman, a supervisor named Javier Garcia, they routinely raped and abused the women who packed fruit and vegetables at the plant.
The abuse ended only in 2012, when three of the women reported the rapes to the Hendry County Sheriff's Office. Although prosecutors later declined to press charges, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission picked up the case. Last fall, the EEOC filed federal civil charges against the farm's owners. The plaintiffs won a default judgment in February and are awaiting a jury trial in September to determine damages. (The Morenos themselves have disappeared, shuttering Moreno Farms, selling their Miami property, and not showing up for federal court dates. Their businesses' longtime registered agent, Miami attorney Peter Hockman, says he doesn't know their whereabouts.)
Attorney Victoria Mesa (left) helped Ligia Martinez and Sandra Lopez bring their claims of sexual assault at Moreno Farms to federal prosecutors.
photo by Tim Elfrink
Sexual abuse is prevalent in Hendry County, where more than half the population of 39,000 people is Hispanic and nearly 50 percent speak English as a second language.
In the past two years, 27 felony sexual assaults have been filed; that averages out annually to one rape case per 2,880 people in the county, a 17 percent higher rate than Miami's rate of one per 3,275 residents (based on FBI crime data) and almost 40 percent greater than the national rate.
A review of Hendry court records paints the picture of a rural community with a transient population and startling sexual assault allegations. One example is 28-year-old Felix Rivera, a Puerto Rico native who was charged with taking advantage of a woman stuck in the sand and separated from her friends while riding ATVs in December 2013. Police say Rivera helped her get the vehicle free and into a nearby clearing; then he attacked her. Prosecutors later declined to pursue charges.
Other Hendry felony cases tell tales of domestic terror. In March 2014, police say 38-year-old Jose Perez-Vasquez told a woman he'd been dating for a year: "If I ever see you with another man, I will kill you." Then he cornered her in his LaBelle trailer before violently forcing her to have sex and punching her repeatedly in the chest. Prosecutors also declined to pursue charges in his case. There's also the story of 32-year-old Narsico Gomez, who allegedly went to his ex-wife's house in Clewiston to visit their kids, drunkenly forced her into a bedroom, and raped her while the children were in the house. Gomez is still awaiting trial.
None of the attacks is more descriptive of the travails faced by agricultural workers than that of Maria and her nursery supervisor. The rape in a remote forest near the Hendry County line happened around 8 a.m. April 5, 2014. Maria (whose real name is redacted in police reports under Florida law) immediately called the sheriff's office. Deputies saw that her arms were badly bruised and then discovered a towel that Sales had thrown into the woods after the assault.
Two days later, they arrested Sales. He claimed that the sex was consensual and that he had paid Maria $100. But that story didn't square with her testimony or the clear evidence of violence. In December, Sales was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison; he'll be a registered sex offender whenever he's released.
Experts say the Sales case is a rare instance where the justice system worked for a farm worker assaulted by a supervisor. "They're a particularly vulnerable group because there's already a history of them being exploited in the workplace... and they're very unlikely to know their rights under American law," says Robert Weisberg, regional attorney for the Miami EEOC, which prosecuted the Moreno Farms case.
Efforts are afoot to address that systemic problem. Laura Safer Espinoza's group, for instance, was founded in 2011 as part of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program, which seeks to ensure living wages and a rape-free workplace for field laborers. The idea is simple: Farms that sign on to the Fair Food Program agree, among other things, to educate their workers about how to report abuse and to mandate set punishments — including potential bans from all participating farms — for supervisors who molest employees.
"Just as a result of the economic incentives for managers not to abuse workers, we've seen a huge change," Safer Espinoza says. She notes that last year not a single sexual assault was reported at farms participating in the Fair Food Program, which now includes about 90 percent of tomato production in Florida. "We're weeding out the bad actors."
Of course, the program covers only the farms that participate — and Moreno Farms was one of thousands outside the scope of the Fair Food Program. Safer Espinoza's organization also set up a victims' hotline, which has received about 50 complaints in four years; when calls come from workers at farms that don't participate in the program, there's little that can be done other than notify the company and possibly pressure the owners to address it.
"It's an uphill battle," Safer Espinoza says. "I'm not Pollyanna-ish enough to think we're stamping this out tomorrow everywhere, but I do think we're making real progress in this state."
— Writer Steve Miller contributed to this report.
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