Florida Farm Owners Assault Migrants While Police and Prosecutors Do Nothing

Florida Farm Owners Assault Migrants While Police and Prosecutors Do Nothing
Photo by Christopher Elwell/Shutterstock.com

The day they came for Sandra Lopez, she was working the line inside Moreno Farms' packing house.

Cool air blasted through the cavernous building in a remote field outside Felda, a tiny hamlet nine miles from Immokalee. Lopez and 70 other workers, mostly Mexican and Central American women, stood in rows packing vegetables picked from Southwest Florida's acres of verdant farms.

Lopez, a short, soft-spoken woman with fine black hair pulled back tightly above sparkling almond-shaped eyes, had always wanted a job like this. She had been two months pregnant when she fled her native Chiapas, Mexico, and had braved a harrowing four-day trek through the Sonoran Desert in search of a better life for her unborn child. In Florida, she had spent eight years following the crops, toiling in strawberry and tomato fields beneath blazing skies.

This job seemed different: indoors, stable, year-round work. Her daughter could even stay put in the same school. Yet in the two short weeks she had been at Moreno Farms, her unease had steadily grown. It had begun with the comments. The foreman, a gruff Mexican named Javier Garcia -- whom everyone called "Rubio" for his shock of light hair -- started the very first day: "You're so sexy," he would say in Spanish, standing close behind her as she packed vegetables. "Why not sleep with me?"

Like most migrant women in American agriculture, Lopez was used to chauvinist bosses making unwelcome advances. But something was different at Moreno Farms. She had already heard whispers about Garcia and the two brothers from Miami who ran the plant with absolute authority. Omar and Oscar Moreno, the other women warned, were also very bad men.

So when Lopez suddenly heard Omar calling her name above the packing line cacophony that morning in November 2011, she suppressed a shudder.

He pointed outside the packing house and said he had a special job for her. She followed him reluctantly, out into the humidity, around the back to a trailer he used as an office. As she walked toward the door, someone grabbed her hands.

Before she could do more than gasp and glimpse Garcia towering behind her, the foreman dragged her into the empty trailer. He blocked the exit and tore off her clothes. Then he raped her for half an hour. "This won't take much longer," he whispered to her at one point. "Let me release my milk."

When he was finished, Garcia told her to return to work.

"It took me half an hour just to compose myself," says the now-44-year old Lopez, who has recounted the details of her rape to federal and state authorities. "I just stayed in the back for half an hour. I couldn't come out."

Four years later, three women including Lopez have now testified on the record that either the Moreno brothers or Garcia raped them at the plant; two others say one of the bosses tried. All the women are certain many other Moreno Farms victims haven't yet spoken up. The case exemplifies an insidious problem for the tens of thousands of female migrant workers who are the backbone of Florida's $100 billion agriculture industry. For myriad reasons -- their immigration status, their isolation from family, their ignorance of local laws -- they're disproportionately victims of harassment, attacks, and rape.

"These assaults have almost become an accepted condition of working in the fields for a lot of women," says Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for the Miami office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

But Moreno Farms is the worst case of mass workplace rape documented in Florida's recent history -- and one of the worst in the history of American agriculture, say attorneys and advocates. Not only were multiple women raped, but also when three victims went to local sheriffs, they were quickly dismissed. No charges were ever filed.

Even worse, when federal authorities finally zeroed in on Moreno Farms and confirmed the attacks, the perpetrators quickly disappeared. The packing plant was shuttered. The farm's owner -- Oscar B. Moreno, father of the brothers who ran the place -- has ignored multiple federal and state legal summons since last summer.

"I have no idea where he is at this point," says Peter Hockman, the farm's registered agent and former attorney. Another lawyer -- Carlos Salup of Coral Gables -- who represents the farm in an ongoing civil case, declined to comment or put New Times in touch with the farm's owner. A letter delivered to a Homestead farm registered to Oscar B. Moreno also went unanswered; the farm has a For Sale sign on the fence and appears abandoned. The last address registered to Moreno Farms, meanwhile, a warehouse in Kendall, is occupied by another business and has no forwarding address for Moreno.

The women's stories of rape and assault with impunity -- told in full for the first time through interviews with two victims and hundreds of pages of court records and police documents -- paint a vivid picture of the terror migrant women can face in Florida's fields.

"The fact is that we have three documented rapes, and we also know this was happening to [other] women here," says Victoria Mesa, the victims' attorney. "Yet there are no criminal charges. It's terrible."


Olivia Tamayo was taking a break in a tomato field in Southern California's scorching Central Valley when her supervisor pulled her away from the group. He drove her to a remote almond orchard and flashed a handgun.

That rape was the first of three sexual assaults by the supervisor, Tamayo later testified in court. And when she complained to her bosses at Harris Farms, a huge multinational grower, they retaliated against her rather than punish the supervisor, she claimed. Prosecutors, meanwhile, never charged anyone with a crime.

Tamayo's tale is all too familiar to female farm workers, but it became a landmark. In 2002, the federal government sued Harris, and three years later, the company was forced to pay an $800,000 penalty. (The firm remains adamant to this day that nothing untoward happened.) It was among the first recent sexual assault claims pursued by the federal government against a corporate farm.

 

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

Yet a decade after that case was decided, experts say, the problems it exposed remain as widespread as ever. Despite a renewed push from federal agencies and legislators, lawsuits like Tamayo's are rare and difficult to prosecute.

"They're a particularly vulnerable group," the EEOC's Weisberg says of female farm workers. "You take the power imbalance all farm workers have to deal with, and then you add in a subset of female workers who have to deal with sexual harassment and assault, and you're really on the fringe of a group that's just so open to being targeted."

More than 560,000 women pick and pack fresh produce in the American agriculture industry; by some estimates, as many as 75 percent are illegal immigrants.

Study after study has shown that those women face routine harassment, assault, and even rape. ASISTA, an advocacy group dealing with issues of sexual assault of immigrants, surveyed female workers at an Iowa meatpacking plant in 2009 and discovered one in four had been threatened with firing if they resisted an aggressive supervisor's advances. Nearly half had experienced unwanted touching. One year later, the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed 150 women in California's Central Valley and found 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment.

Based on anecdotal evidence, experts say, those figures may even be low for what women in Florida's agriculture industry experience every day.

"The amount of sexual harassment in Southwest Florida has gone up exponentially as the number of undocumented workers has risen," says Greg Schell, managing attorney of Florida Legal Services' Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. "Before, the power of the assailant was the supervisor who simply used his power as a boss. Now, he has another layer of power with the workers' fears over immigration status."

In 2005, the feds' first major Florida court case landed in Naples, where tomato grower Gargiulo Inc. was accused of allowing Haitian female employees to be harassed by supervisors; two years later, the company, without admitting wrongdoing, agreed to pay $215,000.

In 2011, the feds sued agricultural giant DiMare Ruskin, alleging that two Hispanic women at a farm in Immokalee had been subjected to daily verbal harassment and groping by their supervisors. They were fired for resisting, the feds alleged. Though the company denied any wrongdoing, DiMare settled the case in 2012 for $150,000 and promised to revise its sexual harassment policies and educate supervisors. It was a significant victory for the EEOC's Miami office.

But just like the Tamayo case in California, neither case sparked a rash of new lawsuits. "It didn't open the floodgates," says Weisberg, who filed the DiMare Ruskin suit soon after joining the EEOC from the private sector. "It's a long haul. We're constantly looking and view these as priority investigations."

But there are many barriers to bringing a lawsuit, beginning with the obvious: Migrant women are afraid to report abuse. And even when they do, EEOC cases take years to build. Spanish-speaking investigators are always overworked, and the victims rarely stay in one place very long as they follow seasonal crop work.

The result is that few complaints make it to court. In 2013, California's Center for Investigative Reporting found that 1,106 claims of sexual assault or harassment at agricultural businesses had been lodged with EEOC nationwide in the past 15 years; only 41 made it to court. The EEOC dropped about half, and the rest were settled.

That's what makes the case against Moreno Farms -- and the women who spoke up -- so extraordinary.


Like all the women at Moreno Farms, Ligia Martinez quickly learned to watch herself around the packing house's bosses. But it was Javier "Rubio" Garcia who made her especially wary.

He followed her to the bathroom and told her: "Wipe it really good, because I want it."

Ligia wasn't easily spooked. The now-49-year-old Honduran was stocky, solid, and confident, with a ready smile and a gravelly voice. But the towheaded foreman had unnerved her soon after she started in October 2011. "Que morenota," he told her, referencing her dusky skin tone.

Soon he got racier. "Que culote tienes," he told her -- using a profane term -- before grabbing her rear end. Once he followed her to the bathroom and told her: "Wipe it really good, because I want it." When she told him she had a boyfriend, he said the man was ugly and she should sleep with him instead. Sometimes as she packed vegetables, he'd just stare at her and suck his fingers.

The attack came three months after she began working there, Ligia later told state and federal investigators. She was packing tomatoes when Garcia ordered her off the line and into a nearby cooler. She had heard about what happened to women in there, but what choice did she have? He was the boss.

As soon as she walked in, Garcia grabbed her hands. He seized her breasts and tried to kiss her. But Ligia was too strong; she ripped her arms away and sprinted toward the door. At that second, a vegetable buyer showed up. Ligia hid behind him and begged for help. Garcia muttered that sooner or later, he would get her.

But he underestimated the fiery Honduran. Ligia would prove the downfall of the Moreno Farms empire. "I feel sadness and I feel anger at what happened," Ligia says today. "I'm really pissed off, to be honest."

 

Moreno Farms shuttered as the feds closed in.
Moreno Farms shuttered as the feds closed in.
Photo by Tim Elfrink

Moreno Farms traces its origins to a plot of land about 150 miles southeast of Immokalee, in Homestead, Florida's other great agricultural breadbasket. That's where a Mexican immigrant named Oscar B. Moreno founded more than a dozen agricultural businesses beginning in the late '80s. He started with a harvesting company and branched out into growing and packing.

The enterprises were increasingly successful. Moreno moved from a Florida City apartment in 1989 to a $200,000 house in Homestead in the early '90s to a five-bedroom Pinecrest estate he bought in 2003 for $749,000 (and sold in 2013 for a cool $1.05 million). He founded an import business with David Berrones, a powerful real-estate investor and later a Homestead Housing Authority board member, whose brother served on the city council. (In addition to not responding to attempts to contact him through his attorneys and at his most recent addresses, Oscar B. Moreno didn't reply to two emails seeking comment sent to an address listed in civil court documents.)

In 1997, Moreno changed the name of his main packing business from Diamond Farms to Moreno Farms. And in 2005, he opened his biggest operation yet by signing a $2 million mortgage for a Hendry County packing house.

Moreno Farms' Hendry operation quickly grew into a significant business. Its revenues aren't publicly available, but federal court documents show deals with multiple vegetable producers for more than $200,000 each.

To run this new operation, Oscar B. Moreno turned to his two sons: Omar, whom he made general manager of the plant, and Oscar, who was placed in charge of the fields surrounding it. But it seems the padrón foresaw trouble with his progeny running the plant. He presciently set up the business as a personal trust. If something went wrong, his assets would be protected.

Oscar B. Moreno certainly had reason to worry about Omar, who was born in 1987. In 2010, the young man began racking up a series of arrests in Miami-Dade. In June 2010, he was taken into custody outside a Homestead nightclub, where he had been beating his chest and screaming, "Fuck y'all bitches. I'll kill all of y'all." When police approached, he hollered, "Fuck y'all. Y'all can't whip me." He was charged with disorderly conduct, but prosecutors dropped the case.

The next year, he was arrested with "bloodshot eyes" after he screamed at a crowd in a parking lot that he was "ready to fight," according to a police report. (Adjudication was withheld in that case.) One year later, Homestead Police caught Omar with a gram of cocaine outside a bar (a case that wasn't prosecuted), and in 2013, Miami-Dade Police booked him for obstruction during a domestic violence investigation. He allegedly told officers, "I don't care what you say," and tried to take his three kids out of the back of a police car, according to court documents. Last August, he was charged with battery when he allegedly threw a girlfriend to the ground, causing her to hit her mouth and nose. (Adjudication was withheld. No one answered multiple calls to a cell number Omar listed on arrest forms.)

The women who worked under Omar didn't know about the mounting criminal charges. His brother Oscar had a clean criminal record in Miami-Dade and Hendry. The women also knew little about Javier Garcia, though he had his own violent streak that would soon be on display in the packing house.

On March 22, 2012, Garcia ordered a male worker named Ysai Navarro to pick up discarded vegetables. When Navarro didn't work fast enough, Garcia brutally punched him in the face. Navarro fell to the ground, his broken nose gushing blood. Co-workers called the police, and Garcia was arrested and charged with felony battery (he later pleaded guilty in exchange for probation). Navarro later claimed in civil court -- in a case that's still open -- that the Moreno brothers let Garcia drink excessively on the job, where he regularly berated and attacked workers.

The women at the plant all quickly learned what else the brothers and their henchman could do.

Betty Rojas was a 25-year-old woman from Chiapas, the same southern Mexican state that Sandra Lopez called home. (With the exception of Sandra Lopez and Ligia Martinez, New Times has changed the names of the victims in this case; Sandra and Ligia both spoke at length with New Times and requested that their real names be used. The other women's stories come through court documents and interviews with their attorneys.)

As she cried out, Oscar pinned her to the ground and raped her, according to her testimony.

Like Sandra, Betty had come to the United States to help her young family. In November 2011, she took a seasonal job at Moreno Farms and soon began weathering regular verbal harassment. It was Omar who targeted her; he would approach from behind and touch her butt, legs, neck, and breasts. He began making offers: Have sex with him and he'd give her better jobs and more hours. Garcia, meanwhile, told her that "one day [she] would fall into his arms"; if she had sex with him, he promised, she would "forget about her boyfriend."

Betty continually rejected Omar and Garcia. In return, she was punished with harder jobs. One day, the assignment was cleaning the trailer they used as an office. Both brothers approached her inside. As she cried out, Oscar pinned her to the floor and raped her, according to her testimony to federal attorneys.

For Nelly Espinosa, a 23-year-old who came from Guanajuato in central Mexico, Omar's verbal abuse and regular demands -- "Nelly, vamos a cojer!" ("Let's fuck") -- escalated to three separate rapes in the office trailer behind the packing house. The abuse stopped only when she refused Omar's demands to have sex with his brother to settle a debt he owed his sibling, she told the feds. She said she was fired for that refusal.

 

Earlier, Hendry County Sheriff's deputies took statements from three victims, but prosecutors dropped charges.
Earlier, Hendry County Sheriff's deputies took statements from three victims, but prosecutors dropped charges.
Photo by Tim Elfrink

Alicia Rivas, a 19-year-old indigenous woman from Guatemala, barely escaped Nelly's fate when Omar offered to give her a ride home after work a few weeks after she started in November 2011. Instead of taking her home, though, he dropped off a few co-workers and then drove her back to the farm and forced her into his trailer. Inside, he dropped his pants, took out a condom, and demanded that Alicia put it on him. He said he'd make her job easier if she had sex with him. Instead, she fled, according to federal testimony.

Alicia was fired February 29, 2012, the same day Ligia Martinez was terminated. Thanks to Ligia's extraordinary courage, the next day marked the beginning of the end of Moreno Farms.


Ligia Martinez still remembers the look on Sandra Lopez's face the day Sandra walked back onto the floor and tried to sort vegetables minutes after being raped.

"I knew something had happened to Sandra right away because of the expression on her face when she came out," Ligia says. "She looked very hurt."

As weeks passed and Sandra refused to talk about what had happened, it became a look Ligia couldn't forget, especially as more stories reached her about other women who said they'd been brutally attacked by the Moreno brothers. But what to do? Nearly everyone lived in fear -- of losing their jobs, of being reported to immigration control, of getting blacklisted from other farms.

All of that changed, though, when Ligia escaped the cooler and her own assault at the hands of Javier Garcia. After she was fired weeks later for standing up to the foreman, she decided she'd had enough.

So the next day, March 1, 2012, she picked up Sandra and Alicia Rivas after work and drove 20 minutes north to LaBelle, the Spanish-moss-draped, population-4,000 seat of Hendry County. Without telling Sandra what they were doing, Ligia drove to the sheriff's office, called over a deputy, and recounted everything.

"If I hadn't spoken out, no one would have," Ligia says today, sitting in the back of an Immokalee church. Tears roll down her cheeks as she recounts the story, yet her voice never wavers. "Regardless of whether you have papers or not, you have rights."

Hendry County Sheriff's deputies logged a 12-page report hours after the women left the station. Though the victims' names are redacted, it tells the full story: There's the attack on Sandra, the attempted attacks on Alicia and Ligia, and the complicity of the brothers in assaulting multiple women.

Why did they wait months to report the crimes? the deputy asked.

"[They] have been scared to come to the sheriff's office, mainly because [of] how important it is for them to stay employed for their families," the deputy wrote.

Two weeks later, on March 16, Sandra did a follow-up interview with a detective. She recounted the same story and then admitted she had washed her clothes after the attack because she was worried about her husband finding out.

But in May, Assistant State Attorney Jill Cabai recommended dropping the case. It was a familiar refrain for sexual assault cases involving migrant workers: No other witnesses saw the crime, and because the physical evidence had been washed away, the verdict was simple. "[Cabai] did not feel as though there was enough information present to support charges," the detective wrote. (A month later, while investigating the assault in which Garcia broke the worker's nose, a sheriff's deputy asked the foreman about the rape allegations. Garcia declined to discuss the matter. Neither Omar nor Oscar was ever interviewed by police.)

In October 2012, the Hendry Sheriff's Office finally requested a warrant for Garcia's arrest. But prosecutors denied that request, citing "insufficient evidence," according to a sheriff's spokesperson.

That refrain has been constant around the nation for abused migrant workers. In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting looked at the 41 EEOC cases alleging sexual abuse at farms that had made it to court nationwide since 1998. The manager accused of assault or rape was not criminally charged in a single case.

In Hendry County, those problems are heightened by a dark history for migrant workers. The sprawling, Nebraska-shaped region is landlocked south of Lake Okeechobee. It has just 39,000 residents and an economy dominated by farming. As recently as the early '80s, the county had separate standards and punishments in schools for black children and migrant farm workers' children -- until Florida Rural Legal Services and other organizations took the county to court.

"We took a deposition of the superintendent, and he said, 'We don't want to educate them too much because who would work the fields?'" recalls Greg Schell of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. "I had just moved down from the Northeast, and I said, 'This still exists?' Very little surprises me now in Hendry."

More recently, a sadistic pair of farm managers -- Sebastian Gomez and Miguel Flores -- ran a de facto slave camp in Hendry and nearby Collier County. Hendry sheriff's deputies investigated Flores after "bodies of Hispanic men" kept turning up in the Caloosahatchee River, according to The Slave Next Door, a book by journalists Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter. The deputies never officially connected Flores or Gomez to any deaths, but in 1997, the pair was indicted in federal court, eventually getting 15 years each in prison for enslavement and extortion.

Criminal justice response to sexual assault of workers in Hendry is rare. Fred Kahle spent three years as an assistant state prosecutor dealing with sex crime cases in the county until he left in 2006. He can't recall prosecuting a single farm manager or owner during his time with the county.

"Some cases absolutely go under the radar," he says, citing the usual list of reasons: transient victims, lack of witnesses, late reports that are difficult to prove.

 

Typical or not, nothing could console Ligia Martinez when she learned that no criminal case was forthcoming against the Morenos or Garcia.

But she wasn't defeated. She was different from most of her female co-workers. She wasn't a recent arrival, and she hadn't fled a life of abject poverty. In fact, she had grown up comfortably in La Ceiba, a Caribbean coastal port in Honduras, and had found steady work selling Christmas supplies there.

In 1989, though, she had decided to leave because she had a newborn daughter and wanted to earn more for the girl's education. So she left her daughter with family and made her way to Miami, where she spent 16 years cleaning houses to put her daughter through law school back in Honduras. Ligia had gone to Immokalee only a few months before the attacks to follow her new boyfriend there.

She also had another important advantage. In 2008, she'd been granted Temporary Protected Status, which is given to immigrants from particularly troubled homelands such as Honduras, Haiti, and Somalia. It meant she had more leeway to speak out than some others.

"Abuse is a systemic problem here in Florida for these workers, and I wanted to help somehow."

A few days after meeting with sheriff's deputies, she met Victoria Mesa, a 32-year-old staff attorney for Florida Legal Services who had been working in Immokalee for about three years, mostly helping workers settle pay disputes and discrimination claims.

Mesa was drawn to protecting immigrants, in part because of her own family's story. Her mother had come to the United States from Colombia by making the perilous journey through Mexico. "Abuse is a systemic problem here in Florida for these workers, and I wanted to help somehow," says the 2008 St. Thomas University School of Law graduate.

Mesa had filed one previous sexual harassment claim with the EEOC, on behalf of a worker in a LaBelle nursery. But when she met Ligia Martinez and heard her story, she was flabbergasted. Soon, she began meeting with Sandra and Alicia and eventually persuaded Betty and Nelly to tell their stories. The more she listened, the more she had no doubt that Moreno Farms was the single worst case she had ever heard about.

"It's bad. It's really bad, and it's unique," she says. "It's the first time where we've ever had this many women making these claims on the record."

In late March 2012, Mesa took the case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination cases. Because private attorneys lack the time or resources for such complicated lawsuits, the EEOC is the only realistic option for most migrant workers looking to sue a farm over sexual abuse.

But for the Moreno Farms victims, justice would seem nearly as elusive as it had with the Hendry County Sheriff's Office. This time, understaffing, bureaucratic red tape, and the Morenos' protection of their farm in trust ownership were to blame.

The EEOC soon agreed to take on the case, and because the Morenos refused to cooperate, an out-of-court settlement was impossible. So the Miami office sent two investigators to Hendry County to meet the women and visit the farm.

They quickly found they were too late to gather hard evidence. The brothers had removed the trailer where so many of the rapes had occurred. "They started covering it up," Mesa says. "The destruction of evidence was clear. They had eliminated the trailer. There was no paperwork of the clients. There was nothing."

Investigators found the women's allegations to be extremely compelling, but the case would eventually drag on for more than two years before they filed an official complaint in June 2014. A combination of overworked investigators and a federal shutdown due to congressional wrangling left the EEOC struggling to get the final pieces in place.

When its attorneys finally made it to Hendry in July 2014 to meet Sandra, Ligia, and the other plaintiffs in the case, they were astonished. "I felt the women were still traumatized," says Beatriz Andre, the veteran EEOC lawyer who headed the case.

As the investigation and the legal case wore on, though, the Morenos melted into the woodwork. Sometime last summer, Mesa received a call from Ligia. Her boyfriend had been driving to a job and had passed Moreno Farms' remote locale off State Road 29. "She said: 'Victoria, the farm is closed. Everything is gone,'" Mesa recalls.

Indeed, court records show Moreno Farms stopped paying bills soon after the EEOC launched its case. A litany of civil lawsuits against the operation and the family patriarch began piling up in Miami-Dade County Civil Court: $29,319 owed in workers compensation claims, $10,883.85 for agricultural materials, $76,613.18 for irrigation equipment. Then, late last year, Peter Hockman, the lawyer who had acted as a registered agent for all of Oscar B. Moreno's companies since the mid-'90s, resigned as attorney of record in each of the civil complaints. (Hockman declined to comment for this story beyond saying he didn't know the whereabouts of his former clients.)

In September, the EEOC at last filed a formal civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court. It spelled out the complaints by Sandra, Ligia, and the others against Omar and Oscar Moreno and Javier Garcia. Four months later, with the Morenos still unresponsive, Judge Darrin P. Gayles signed a default judgment against the farm. "Moreno Farms, Inc. is found liable... for a sexually hostile work environment," Gayles wrote this past January 5. That ruling could force the Morenos to pay damages on five charges related to the reported rapes, assaults, and firings.

But where were the Morenos?


Rural Hendry County is so green it's almost painful. Sabal palms shade an expanse of wild grass and ferns bisected by a canal choked with emerald moss. A single white egret stands out vividly along the banks. For half an hour on a January afternoon, not a single car passes on a gravel road facing a blue warehouse lost in all the vegetation.

 

And until Sandra Lopez begins weeping, only the cawing of passing crows breaks the silence.

Ligia Martinez hugs Sandra tightly, rocking back and forth. The two women sob together in the shadow of the abandoned packing house. "It's not fair that this happened," Ligia says softly in Spanish while stroking her friend's hair.

As the women visit the farm for the first time since being fired three years earlier, memories of what happened to them inside flood back. And Ligia rages again.

"They should be in prison," she says of the Moreno brothers and Garcia. "I would have loved to see justice for Sandra more than anything. It was very unfair what happened to her."

Instead, the women are left waiting. In January, Judge Gayles set a September date for a jury to decide damages. The EEOC could then collaborate with the Department of Justice to look for the Morenos' assets. But Victoria Mesa is left wondering what could have been done differently.

"We knew it would take a long time," she says. "But that two-year delay turned into the perfect time for Moreno Farms to just disappear. And that's the shame of these processes. They just take so long."

There have been efforts to improve the process and encourage more women to come forward. In Miami, the EEOC has focused on hiring bilingual investigators -- particularly Kreyol speakers for the influx of Haitian workers to Florida farms -- says Robert Weisberg, the lead attorney. "Cultural literacy is really important in these cases," he says.

This month, the EEOC won a victory in its third recent sexual harassment case against a Florida farm, when the Zolfo Springs operation Windmill Farms Nurseries agreed to pay $40,000 after a supervisor repeatedly harassed a female migrant worker and then fired her when she spurned him. (Windmill farms denied doing anything wrong.)

"It's frustrating that these cases can't lead to more women coming forward."

On the federal level, Congress has also tried to address the problem. In 2001, it passed a bill authorizing the "U visa," which eases the path to citizenship for women who help authorities go after sexual abusers.

Weisberg and his EEOC attorneys understand the victims' frustration. "Ideally, it would be done more quickly. But this is exactly the kind of case we should be doing," Weisberg says. "Yes, it's a little frustrating that we may have a challenge getting an execution on the judgment, and it's frustrating that these cases can't lead to more women coming forward."

But whether the feds ever find any assets to pay the victims, the case has had one important effect: "[Moreno Farms] has closed, and in a small community like that, I'm willing to bet women will be able to go work at another farm where they'll have better conditions because of word getting around about that," the EEOC's Beatriz Andre says.

As for the victims, life has been a mixed bag since leaving Moreno Farms. Two of the women -- Nelly and Betty -- have returned to Mexico. They couldn't find other work after speaking up about the abuse.

"They were blacklisted, basically," Mesa says. "No one would hire them after they testified about their bosses like that."

Sandra and Alicia have returned to work in the fields, and Ligia has found a job washing dishes in an American restaurant in Immokalee, a job she loves. "It's the best restaurant in town," she says with a glowing smile.

But the three women who remain in Immokalee also know that the Morenos and Garcia are still free. In fact, one day last fall, Omar Moreno and Javier Garcia showed up at Ligia's restaurant during the lunch rush. She hid in the back, too upset to emerge. Sandra, meanwhile, has seen Garcia working at a produce stand at a local outdoor market.

Seeing them free is difficult. "I have become a very defensive person. I don't trust people now," Ligia says. "Abuse is still happening a lot, everywhere... It's the crew leaders, the supervisors."

Ligia, her arm around Sandra's shoulders, pauses to wipe away a tear. "They know you need the job and you won't speak up," she says, "but that's exactly what we need. We need to develop a conscience... and not let them get away with these abuses anymore."

Writer Steve Miller contributed to this report.


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