Florida Fruit-Pickers Slave Ring
The Case of the Florida Fruit-Pickers Slave Ring
Labor Boss Gets 15 Years for Heinous Crimes
Drive south from Orlando for about 100 miles along Rt. 27 and you'll come to the city of Lake Placid, positioned squarely between Sarasota on the Gulf of Mexico and Port Saint Lucie on the Atlantic. The steady Florida sunshine and the gentle breezes flowing from its 27 freshwater lakes makes Lake Placid ideal for growing citrus. Indeed, the region supplies much of the nation's crop of oranges and grapefruits.
To pick all this fruit every season, it takes a lot of hands. The Ramos Brothers—Ramiro and Juan—were among those who helped furnish a stream of workers to local fruit growers. In the process, they made millions. The Ramos family owned three fruit harvesting businesses, a grocery, two clothing stores, and over 30 pieces of real estate.
One problem, though, and the reason for this story: their workers weren't workers in the traditional sense. They were more like slaves. And the Ramos brothers employed as many as 700 of them. They forced these individuals to pick fruit for ten hours a day, six days a week, with no time off. They threatened them at gunpoint, promising torture and death if they tried to escape. And they made them live in filthy, substandard, and overcrowded apartments.
How did they recruit these workers? From across the border. In this case, Mexican workers slipped into Arizona illegally with the help of a smuggler or "coyote." The Ramos brothers would ask the coyote to ship them illegal aliens. When the workers arrived, the brothers would charge them $1,000 for their transportation to Florida. Each week, the Ramoses would take most of the workers' meager paychecks to "repay" the debt and to cover the cost of food and rent. In reality, though, no one was ever set free.
How was the ring broken? The Ramos brothers got caught attacking (and knocking unconscious) the owner of a van service that transported migrant workers out of the area. Then, in April 2001, four Ramos workers escaped with the help of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. In 2002, the Ramos brothers were tried and convicted. Earlier this month, Ramiro Ramos was re-sentenced to 15 years in prison. His brother Juan, originally sentenced to 12 years, will be re-sentenced in May. Both were also ordered to forfeit $3 million earned from their crimes.
Cooperation Makes the Case: Once again, partnerships were key. Special thanks to the U.S. Border Patrol and the Highland County Sheriff's Office. And thanks to all those who offered assistance to the victims, including the Mexican Consulate in Miami and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Florida map courtesy of the Florida Department of Transportation.