Farmworkers Who Won $17.4 Million Over Workplace Rapes Unlikely to See a Dime

Attorney Victoria Mesa (left) brought allegations of sexual harassment and rape by Ligia Martinez (center), Sandra Lopez, and three other women to federal investigators.
Attorney Victoria Mesa (left) brought allegations of sexual harassment and rape by Ligia Martinez (center), Sandra Lopez, and three other women to federal investigators.
Photo by Tim Elfrink

Tears silently stream down Maria Aguilar's face as she listens to a vivid description of her daily torment. Sitting at a long wooden table inside an 11th-floor courtroom in Miami's federal courthouse, the short woman with curly hair tied up in a bun holds hands with three other women while Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, describes a pain they all once felt.

"Maria re-experiences the rape whenever she has contact with her husband," Dritt says. "She can't be present for her children and her family. And even tomatoes are a big problem for her, because that's what she had to deal with all day at the packing house. Now, buying them, washing them, chopping them — it all reminds her of her assault."

Aguilar and the others traveled perilous routes from Central America and Mexico to reach Florida, where they found work at the Moreno Farms packing house near Immokalee. All were sexually assaulted by one of the Miami-raised brothers who ran the place, along with their chief foreman. When the women went to police and prosecutors to report the crimes, they were ignored.

But last week in downtown Miami, they finally had a chance for justice. Their time in hell was described in painful detail to a jury that last Thursday returned a stunning verdict: $17.42 million against Moreno Farms. It was one of the biggest judgments ever for mistreated farmworkers.

Experts hailed the win as a major statement for the rights of migrant workers in Florida's $100 billion farm industry, especially at a time when Donald Trump's hateful rhetoric spurs GOP plans to build a wall across the Mexican border. "I'm thrilled because this jury's verdict sends a message to every other woman working in Florida's fields," says Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for the Miami office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "They do have rights, regardless of their immigration status."

The win comes six months after New Times described the women's case in a March 6 cover story, "Harvest of Terror." But it was bittersweet for Aguilar and the other women. Moreno Farms is shuttered, and owner Oscar B. Moreno and his sons have virtually disappeared. The women will probably never see any money, while the men who assaulted them will likely never spend a minute behind bars.

"I feel good and bad, because they are still free men," says Aguilar, a 26-year-old whose tale has not been previously reported in detail because she fled back to Mexico after her assaults. "It will send a message for other women in the fields, but I don't know if it's really justice."

Like thousands of farmworkers, Aguilar began the journey to Florida to escape desperate poverty in her homeland. Born in Guanajuato, a sprawling state of 5 million in central Mexico, she struggled to make ends meet after giving birth to a son in her early 20s. The boy's father had already immigrated to Florida and found work in Immokalee's endless fields of strawberries and soybeans. When Aguilar was 22, she left to join him.

"My son was very young when we had to cross the mountains and then the Rio Grande," Aguilar says. "We actually had to separate on the journey."

Both made it to the States, though, and traveled to Immokalee, where Aguilar's boyfriend had spent years picking fruit and vegetables in the blazing sun.

In nearby Felda, a button-size town of less than 1,000 residents, a packing house called Moreno Farms began operating in 2005 after its owner, Oscar B. Moreno, signed a $2 million mortgage. Moreno — a Mexican immigrant himself — had worked his way up in the farm business, starting with harvesting operations in Homestead and moving into growing and packing firms. He sent his two sons — Oscar and Omar — to Felda to run the packing plant there.

In December 2011, Omar hired Aguilar. She was thrilled with the job. Inside the bright-blue warehouse-style buildings, about 70 workers — mostly female migrants from Mexico and Central America — packed vegetables and fruit into boxes in cool air conditioning.

But it didn't take long for things to go horribly wrong. For Aguilar, it began with casual comments from Omar: He'd call her his vieja, or "old lady," in front of other workers and grab her butt on the work line. Then he started kissing her. Soon he was demanding sex and promising more work hours in return. "Come here!" he'd yell in the middle of the plant, pounding his fist into his palm. "It's your turn."

Eventually, he would pull her off the line and into a cooler or a trailer outside. Aguilar says Omar forced himself upon her on three occasions. He threatened to fire her if she didn't succumb. One day, Omar had a new demand: His brother, Oscar, was waiting in the trailer to have sex with her. When she refused, Aguilar says, Omar raged that she'd be fired. Just a few days later, in March 2012, he terminated her.

Aguilar didn't realize it at the time, but she was far from the only worker victimized by the Moreno brothers and their foreman, a Mexican-born man named Javier Garcia. In fact, just a few days before she was fired, three other women from the plant had driven to LaBelle, the capital of Hendry County, and told deputies the trio had been systematically raping and harassing women.

That criminal case went nowhere. Neither Omar nor Oscar was ever interviewed by police about the allegations, and in May 2012, Hendry County Assistant State Attorney Jill Cabai recommended dropping the case because she "did not feel as though there was enough information present to support charges," according to a police report.

But that wasn't the end. With the help of Victoria Mesa, a South Florida attorney, the women filed a civil complaint with the EEOC and then reached out to Aguilar, who agreed to help. In all, three former workers, including Aguilar, would testify that either one of the Moreno brothers or Garcia had raped them on the job; two others testified the men had attempted rape.

It then took nearly two years before the feds filed a civil complaint against Moreno Farms. By then, the plant had already shuttered. The Moreno brothers and Garcia were nowhere to be found.

Aguilar too had left Immokalee and returned to Mexico. No one would hire a migrant farmworker who gave her bosses up to the feds, she figured. "I had to leave because I was afraid," she says. "I thought everyone would know what had happened, and I couldn't stay to face that. I thought people would all look at me."

In January, Judge Darrin P. Gayles found in favor of the women, granting a default judgment against Moreno Farms on all counts. A jury trial to determine damages was scheduled for last week.

As the feds finalized their case for jurors, though, Oscar B. Moreno finally materialized, answering a summons for a deposition. He told federal investigators that the case had ruined him: His businesses were all closed; his home and farmland in the Redland had been foreclosed upon. He was working as a packing plant manager again. As for the rapes, he told investigators he knew nothing about the crimes until the feds filed their case in 2014. After that, he'd promptly fired his son, Oscar. Investigators asked how he felt about the accusations against his son. "He is my son," Oscar answered simply.

At the jury trial, no representative for Moreno Farms showed up. Speaking through a translator, each of the five women recounted to jurors how they'd been raped or assaulted by the Morenos and Garcia. Then Dritt took the stand to describe how the women's lives have been affected by their assaults.

Each of the women suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, Dritt testified (although one victim wasn't officially diagnosed because she had cried throughout a clinical test). Ligia Martinez, a Honduran immigrant who fought off a sexual assault by Garcia in a cooler, now works 16-hour shifts at a Mexican restaurant to avoid thinking about her trauma, Dritt said; she sleeps only an hour or two a night without heavy medication. Another victim has decided "she will never love again" because she trembles so violently whenever her husband tries to show her affection. A third woman has stopped seeing girlfriends because she's terrified of their husbands.

Aguilar, Dritt testified, has given up on any semblance of a normal life back in Guanajuato. No job will ever seem safe to her, and her home life has been strained by her inability to get close to her husband and children.

"Every single one of these women have had a family member or loved one tell them: 'You aren't the same person anymore,' " Dritt said.

The jury deliberated for about six hours before returning a verdict Thursday. The 12 jurors awarded each victim $3 million in punitive damages and added varying compensatory damages. The total of $17.42 million is the largest in recent memory for Florida farmworkers and one of the largest in U.S. history.

But with Moreno broke, the money is unlikely to materialize. Omar and Oscar Moreno and Javier Garcia, meanwhile, remain free. Ligia Martinez spotted Omar and Javier at her restaurant last fall, and another victim says Oscar even lived in the same Immokalee apartment complex where she resided. (In a brief interview with the Naples Daily News last Friday, Oscar denied all the allegations, claiming the feds' investigation "wasn't thorough.")

Aguilar left Miami for Guanajuato after the verdict, but before boarding a plane, she said, "I hope this case can help make sure this doesn't happen to other women. When I'm home, I also hope I can find a little tranquility, to know that this is finally over for me."


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