For employees at the Moreno Farms packing plant in remote Hendry County, a coveted job working indoors in air conditioning sorting vegetables turned into a living nightmare. The two brothers who ran the place — Miami-raised Oscar and Omar Moreno — and their foreman, Javier Garcia, systemically harassed and raped the migrant women they supervised.
Even worse, when the victims went to the local sheriff's office, nothing was done — despite three women going on record to describe their rapes. But today those women finally received a measure of justice. A federal jury has awarded them a $17.42 million judgment against Moreno Farms, one of the biggest verdicts ever for mistreatment of farmworkers.
"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).
The EEOC brought the case on behalf of five women who worked at Moreno Farms between 2011 and 2012. Three testified on the record that they'd been raped multiple times in coolers and trailers located at the packing plant. Two other women recounted attempted rapes they had escaped. And all five testified how they had later been fired for resisting the Moreno brothers' and Garcia's attacks.
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Three of the victims later went to the Hendry County Sheriff's Office to report the rapes, but a prosecutor dropped the case, ruling there was insufficient evidence. That's when Victoria Mesa, a South Florida attorney, took up their case and eventually got the EEOC on board to file a federal complaint.
But today's big verdict isn't a total win. As the feds zeroed in on Moreno Farms, the packing plant closed, and its owner, Oscar B. Moreno — father of the two brothers who ran the plant — virtually disappeared. The prospect of collecting on that $17.4 million verdict is slim.
"There's disappointment that these people aren't in jail, because they are criminals," Mesa says. "But it's really an important win for Florida farmworkers, who need to know that they have rights regardless of their immigration status."
Adds Ligia Martinez, one of the plaintiffs: "I have mixed emotions. I feel happiness to finally get a judgment, but I wish these men were in jail."