‘Involuntary servitude’ still exists in America today, says author John Bowe.
A brutal murder in a migrant farmworkers community in Florida shows how that’s possible.

On April 20, 1997, at around 10 p.m., the Highlands County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call; something strange had happened out in the migrant-worker ghetto near Highlands Boulevard. The “neighborhood,” a mishmash of rotting trailer homes and plywood shacks, was hidden outside the town of Lake Placid, a mile or two back from the main road. By day, the place was forbidding and cheerless, silent. By night, it was downright menacing, humid and thick with mosquitoes.

When the sheriff’s officers arrived, they found an empty van parked beside a lonely, narrow lane. The doors were closed, the lights were still on, and a few feet away, in the steamy hiss of night, a man lay facedown in a pool of blood. He had been shot once in the back of the head, execution-style. The 911 caller had offered a description of a truck the sheriff’s officers recognized as belonging to a local labor contractor named Ramiro Ramos.

It’s unclear how much the officers who were dispatched to Ramos’ house knew about the relationship between Ramos and his employees. Migrant farmworkers—nearly all undocumented Mexican and Central American, in this case—usually arrive in this country with little comprehension of English or of American culture. Since they frequently come with little money and few connections, the contractor often provides food, housing, and transportation to and from work. As a result, many farmworkers labor under the near-total control of their employers. Whether the sheriff’s officers were or weren’t clued in to the fraught implications of this dynamic, they would undoubtedly have gained insight into Ramos’ temperament if they’d known the nickname for him used by his crew of 700 orange pickers. They called him “El Diablo.”

At Ramos’ house, police found a truck fitting the caller’s description. When a quick search of the vehicle yielded a .45-caliber bullet, police decided to bring in Ramos, his son, and a cousin for questioning. But when the police asked Ramos about the shooting, he said he didn’t know anything about it, and he was soon released.

The deputies continued working into the night, though, looking for migrant workers who might be willing to offer additional testimony. Witness by witness, a story began to take shape. The dead chofer, or van driver, was a Guatemalan named Ariosto Roblero. The van had belonged to a sort of informal bus company used by migrants. The van and its passengers had been heading from South Florida, where orange season was ending, to North Carolina, where cucumber season was getting under way. Everything seemed fine until they hit the migrant ghetto outside Lake Placid. Roblero had stopped to make a pickup. And then, as the van waited, a car and a pickup truck raced up, screeched to a halt behind and in front of it, blocking it off. An unknown number of men jumped out, yanked the chofer from his seat, and shot him. The other driver and the terrified passengers scattered.

With each new detail, an increasingly disturbing picture of Ramos’ operation began to emerge. El Diablo, it seemed, had been lending money to his workers, then overcharging them for substandard “barracks-style” housing, gouging them with miscellaneous fees, and encouraging them to shop at a high-priced grocery store owned by his wife. By the time El Diablo had deducted for this, that, and the other thing, workers said, they were barely breaking even.

Worse, they were trapped. El Diablo’s labor camp was in a tiny, isolated country town. He and his family, a network of cousins and in-laws, patrolled the area in their massive Ford F-250 pickup trucks, communicating with one another through Nextel walkie-talkie phones. For foreigners unfamiliar with the area, escape was almost unthinkable. But just to make matters crystal clear, El Diablo told his workers that anyone indebted caught trying to run away would be killed.

The previous night’s murder, the witnesses alleged, had taken place when an indebted employee had left. It was meant to send a signal to chofers thinking about aiding runaways.

If the case sounds like a slam-dunk, what happened next was, unfortunately, all too common in cases involving undocumented workers. After spilling most of the beans off the record, all the informants but one declined to formally name Ramos or his accomplices as the perpetrators. One witness told detectives that the Ramoses knew where his family lived in Mexico, and that they would kill one of his relatives if they didn’t kill him.

The sheriff’s office was stumped. There wasn’t much they could do without firmer testimony. However, they contacted federal authorities, and a few weeks later, at dawn on May 1, 1997, local law enforcement agents, backed by the Border Patrol and the U.S. Department of Labor, returned to Ramiro Ramos’ house armed with a search warrant. The house and office yielded an arsenal of weapons not generally considered essential to labor management, including an AK-47, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, and a Remington 700 7 mm Magnum rifle. The agents arrested Ramos and charged him with immigration violations.

One would think, perhaps, that authorities would have enough evidence to halt a clearly exploitative situation. Here were 700 workers on U.S. soil working under threat of death, for low pay or possibly no money at all.
Five days later, though, Ramos was released on $20,000 bail. The labor charges were dropped. Weapons charges were never brought. Business went on as usual. And the murder of Ariosto Roblero remains, to this day, “unsolved.”

A few years ago, when I heard about a community group that had uncovered a slavery ring in the orange groves of southern Florida, I thought, as do most people hearing about it for the first time, that the story sounded . . . interesting.

At that time, a full four years after the murder of Ariosto Roblero, Ramiro Ramos was under investigation by the FBI. Like many investigations, this one might have gone nowhere. But, thanks largely to the investigative work of that Florida community group—the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—an indictment followed: The United States of America v. Ramiro Ramos, Juan Ramos, and José Ramos. The three men would eventually be charged not with Roblero’s murder but with holding people in involuntary servitude, or slavery—the same kind of slavery supposedly outlawed 140 years ago by Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The biggest surprise for most people who hear about the Ramos story is that slavery still exists in America. Yet the 2002 Ramos case was just one of six successful forced labor prosecutions to come out of South Florida in recent years. Dozens of cases surface each year nationwide.

For me, the biggest shock was grasping the immense indifference it takes for a supposedly free country to allow even a single such case to happen. Despite years of evidence, news accounts, and audible murmurings that easily could—and should—have aroused suspicion of rampant labor abuse, Ramiro Ramos, with his ludicrous, cartoon-villain nickname, remained a welcome player in the network of growers, cooperatives, holding companies, subsidiaries, and corporations responsible for bringing orange juice to my table (including Tropicana, Minute Maid, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonald’s, Kroger, Wal-Mart, and virtually every other large retail food vendor in America).

What did it mean that none of them thought it was weird to be working with a guy named El Diablo? And what did it mean that I was drinking someone else’s misery for breakfast?

In the United States, most modern slavery involves the coercion of recent or trafficked immigrants. Such cases are incredibly hard to detect—and prosecute—because much of the time the perpetrators don’t rely on chains, guns, or even the use of force. All they require is some method of coercion: threats of beating, deportation, death, or, perhaps most effective, harm to the victim’s family back home should he or she ever speak up.

About 40 percent of South Florida’s laborers are new each season, and they are often unsure of their rights (or the idea of rights in general). Most of these migrants come from small towns, where everyone knows one another. While farmwork back home pays little, they say, mistreatment of workers is rare. As one immigrant from southern Mexico explained to me, “Back in my village, it was so small, we really didn’t have situations where a boss or a farmer didn’t pay a worker. They had to walk the same streets as the worker. If they didn’t pay, word would get out. It ended up being, you know, not like the law here, but the law of cojones”—or balls. “If you didn’t pay, you were going to get your cojones cut off.”

It’s hard to imagine immigrant farmworkers in the United States even getting up the nerve to complain. There are many reasons for this. Immigrant workers live in constant fear, of course, of being seized by
“la Migra” and deported. Unscrupulous labor contractors use the implicit threat of exposure to keep workers in line. Workers often borrow money to travel north from loan sharks back home. If they are deported, the loan is foreclosed, and it can spell financial calamity for the entire family.

But as Laura Germino, a member of the Immokalee workers coalition, explained, it’s wrong to get stuck on the notion that modern slavery happens because today’s farmworkers often lack work papers or citizenship. Such a short-term view, she said, is erroneous. Agribusiness has always been brutal on laborers, consistently attempting to sidestep the labor rules that have been imposed upon other industries. In 1938, during the New Deal, when the federal minimum-wage law was enacted, farmworkers—at the behest of the agriculture lobby—were excluded from its provisions. They remained so for nearly 30 years. Even today, farmworkers, unlike most other hourly workers, are denied the right to overtime pay, receive no medical insurance or sick leave, and are denied federal protection against retaliatory actions by employers if they seek to organize.

“Modern-day slavery cases don’t happen in a vacuum,” Germino explained. “They only occur in degraded labor environments, ones that are fundamentally, systematically exploitative.” For this reason, she continued, for every case of outright slavery making splashy headlines, it is reasonable to assume that there are tens of thousands of additional workers toiling in abusive, sweatshop-like conditions.

What would it take to end mistreatment of farmworkers? Surprisingly little. Americans currently pay far less per capita for their food than citizens of every other industrialized nation. Though a raise of about $3,200 a year would be required on average for each of America’s one million to two million farmworkers to receive the minimum wage, the cost to consumers would be minimal—about $50 a year per household.

From the book Nobodies, by John Bowe. ©2007 by John Bowe. Used with permission of Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group.