Modern day slavery ring trapped hundreds of migrant workers in south Georgia

A modern-day slavery ring has been busted in Georgia where workers were raped, kidnapped and imprisoned in squalid camps, according to prosecutors. 

The crooks raked in more than $200 million by luring hundreds of desperate migrants from Mexico and Central America to the US, a federal indictment says.

At least two people died in the brutal conditions that saw workers forced to handpick onions at gunpoint for just 20 cents per bucket in sweltering heat.  

They were kept in squalid camps surrounded by electric fences and had their passports and documents taken off them to deter them from escaping.

Two dozen members of the alleged gang were indicted last month after a three-year probe known as ‘Operation Blooming Onion.’ 

Guest workers harvest a Vidalia onion field in Lyons, Georgia (file photo, June, 2013)

Workers harvests onions in a field in Lyons, Georgia (file photo, June, 2013)

Workers harvests onions in a field in Lyons, Georgia (file photo, June, 2013)

One of the conspirators is accused of repeatedly raping, kidnapping and threatening to kill one of the victims.

In many cases, the alleged crooks sold or traded the workers among each other.  

The victims were kept in cramped, unsanitary quarters in camps with little or no food, limited plumbing and without safe water.

The slavery ring extended across southern Georgia where farmers paid the conspirators to provide contract laborers.

The exploitation took place in the counties of Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware.

The defendants laundered the cash by siphoning millions into a casino and through the purchases of land, homes, vehicles, and businesses, the indictment states.

Investigators dubbed the gang the ‘Patricio TCO’ (a transnational criminal organization) after Maria Patricio, a 70-year-old resident of Nicholls, Georgia.

She is accused of filing fraudulent petitions to bring workers into the United States via the country’s H-2A work visa program.

Under H-2A, a worker’s legal status is contingent on remaining under the employment of the party that sponsored their visa.

This means they are tied to that sponsor and cannot simply pick up sticks and work for someone else.

Starting in at least 2015, the criminals starting to haul in thousands of workers – sending dozens of false petitions to the government seeking more than 71,000 laborers for an ‘agricultural employer.’

The US then issued ‘thousands’ of these visas to foreign nationals.

The indictment also states that between September 2018 and November 2019, a member of the crime ring ‘repeatedly raped, kidnapped, and tried to kill Victim 12.’  

The feds opened a probe in November 2019, involving Homeland Security Investigations, the Labor Department, the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the FBI.

The members of the alleged criminal enterprise are mainly residents of Georgia, Florida and Texas and include both US citizens as well as Mexicans living illegally in the States.

David H. Estes, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, speaks during a news conference November 22, 2021

David H. Estes, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, speaks during a news conference November 22, 2021

‘The American dream is a powerful attraction for destitute and desperate people across the globe, and where there is need, there is greed from those who will attempt to exploit these willing workers for their own obscene profits,’ said Acting U.S. Attorney Estes at a press conference on November 22.

‘Thanks to outstanding work from our law enforcement partners, Operation Blooming Onion frees more than 100 individuals from the shackles of modern-day slavery and will hold accountable those who put them in chains.’

‘OCDETF Operation Blooming Onion maximized the expertise of multiple law enforcement agencies and leveraged analytical and coordination support from OCDETF’s International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center (IOC-2) to target an international criminal organization engaged in human trafficking and visa fraud,’ said OCDETF Director Adam W. Cohen.

‘The U.S. Attorney’s Office’s leadership of this multi-agency law enforcement effort positions us to disrupt and dismantle the operations of transnational criminal networks that pose the greatest threat to our communities and to the Nation.’ 

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