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John Sevigny: Slavery in the Sunshine State

January 29, 2009

Almost 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, legally abolishing slavery. By 1865, at the conclusion of the American Civil War in which an estimated 620,000 people died, the Union was restored and the institution of slavery finally came to an end.

Or did it?

Since 1997 — though the very word evokes faded images of Frederick Douglas, the Underground Railroad, and overloaded ships arriving from Africa — slavery has been making headlines and drawing sharp rebukes from farm worker advocate groups and others in Florida.

The only ones who appear disinterested in the issue are politicians from the Sunshine State, particularly, Gov. Charlie Crist.

There is no doubt slavery exists in Florida. It’s been proven time and time again in federal courts.

In November 2008, federal authorities broke up a human trafficking ring that illegally moved women north across the US-Mexico border and forced them to work in brothels in South Florida and New York. One of the victims was 14 years old, according to court documents, and most were from Mexico or Guatemala. Four people were arrested.

That same year, according to the Ft. Myers News-Press, six people were arrested for forcing laborers to do farm work for no pay.

“They made them sleep in box trucks and shacks, charged them for food and showers, didn’t pay them for picking produce and beat them if they tried to leave,” a January 2008 News-Press article reads in part. “(Court) documents list 13 cases when the workers were beaten.”

A year earlier, farm boss Ron Evans and two of his associates were arrested for recruiting homeless men at Florida shelters to work at live-in labor camps. Evans’ deducted rent, food, alcohol and crack cocaine from their pay, keeping them perpetually in debt. The US Justice Department called it, “a form of servitude morally and legally reprehensible.”

In a 2004 case resulting in slavery convictions, two Florida men with a workforce of more than 700 were sentenced to 15 years in prison each. Ramiro and Juan Ramos threatened workers who tried to leave their jobs, pistol-whipped others, and assaulted still others.

In 2001, Michael Lee, a Florida citrus farm contractor, pleaded guilty to using threats, cocaine, and violence to enslave workers, and was sentenced to three years supervised release on a slavery conspiracy charge. That same year, Jose Tecum was sentenced to nine years in prison for forcing a woman to work in tomato fields near Immokalee, Florida, and also, as his personal maid.

Abel Cuello, meanwhile, imprisoned more than 30 tomato pickers in two trailers on a ranch in isolated swampland in Southwest Florida, keeping them under constant supervision. Three of the men escaped, but Cuello tracked them down a few weeks later. He was arrested and sentenced to 33 months in prison on federal slavery charges.

In every case listed above, federal investigators, assisted in some instances by local law enforcement officials, were responsible for taking down the slave owners. It would seem obvious, then, that Florida’s governor would make a statement on the matter. But neither Jeb Bush, who ended his second term in 2006, nor Charlie Crist, the state’s top elected official today, have made any public comments on the issue, a reflection, perhaps, on the power of the agricultural lobby in Florida.

Agricultural leaders simply deny slavery exists in Florida, in spite of the rash of recent convictions.

In 2008 testimony before the Florida Senate, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange – a group that includes 90 percent of the state’s tomato growers – said allegations that growers have enslaved workers are “false and defamatory.”

Which may simply be an example of clever wording.

Large scale produce growers in Southwest Florida count on contractors to hire field workers. In Immokalee, those contractors ferry tomato and citrus pickers out to the fields in beaten up buses used once upon a time to transport kids to school. Contractors are often responsible for doling out weekly pay as well. Under a loophole in the law, growers cannot be held accountable for abuses committed by contractors.

Gov. Charlie Crist’s silence on the matter, is baffling. The Republican governor has declined to comment on Florida’s slavery problem, passing off reporters’ questions to Terence McElroy, spokesman for Florida’s Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

McElroy raised the ire of farm workers and their advocates when he told a reporter, “Of course, I say any instance is too many, and any legitimate grower certainly does not engage in that activity, but you’re talking about maybe a case a year.”

It sounded to many like McElroy was downplaying the situation. But given a chance to clarify his statement in another interview, he fumbled the ball again.

“To a question about whether this was a common or accepted practice, I said that it certainly was not – and in fact, is quite a rarity when a case pops up.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grass-roots organization which lobbies for better pay and working conditions for farm workers, disagrees, and has launched a petition campaign to pressure Gov. Crist to condemn slavery in Florida and work with them to eradicate what was declared illegal in the 19th Century, from 21st Century Florida’s fields and brothels.

“In the course of 10 years, a total of well over 1,000 workers have been liberated from bosses who regularly beat them, forced them to work, and stole their pay,” according to a statement on the CIW’s Web site. “More than a dozen bosses are behind bars. And by any honest estimate, the cases and workers discovered in servitude represent only the tip of the iceberg.”

For its part, Amnesty International is highlighting the irony of the fact that while the election of President Barack Obama marked a historic moment in the fight for equality, slavery still exists in Florida.

“Surrounding the election of the first black President of the United States, much was made of the country overcoming its legacy of slavery, leading a reasonable person to conclude that slavery is actually history in the U.S.,” reads a post by Erika Razook on one of the human rights organization’s blogs. “But, from the agricultural fields of Florida flows a steady stream of reports of migrant workers being subjected to modern-day slavery – forced labor, beatings and withholding of pay included … Dear Gov. Crist, didn’t you get the election night memo? Slavery is out.”

If Charlie Crist wants to be viewed as a leader rather than a puppet who dances when the tomato lobby pulls his strings, it’s time for him to do what Republicans do best. Wage war … on slavery.

John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.

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