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Wed Sep 11, 2019, 05:40 PM

Leaders of California ministry charged with forced labor

Source: Associated Press

Leaders of California ministry charged with forced labor

September 11, 2019

EL CENTRO, Calif. (AP) — A dozen leaders of a California-based ministry were arrested on charges that they used homeless people as forced labor, holding them in locked group homes and forcing them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, U.S. prosecutors said.

The former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, Victor Gonzalez, and the others were arrested in San Diego, El Centro, California, and Brownsville, Texas. They face charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.

The El Centro-based ministry has about 30 affiliate church throughout the United States and Mexico and runs five group homes in Southern California, authorities said.

Dozens of victims, many of them homeless and some as young as 17, were lured to the group homes by the promise of food and shelter until they were able to return home, prosecutors said.

Instead, the ministry that billed itself as rehabilitating drug addicts kept them inside dead bolted group homes, took their personal belongings and identification documents and refused to return them, stole their food stamp and welfare benefits and in some cases threatened to take away their children if they left, according to a grand jury indictment unsealed Tuesday.


Read more: https://apnews.com/c4813ac83d874fe08de8b61032be5c11


Source: U.S. Attorney's Office - Southern District of California

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Church Leaders Indicted in Forced Labor Conspiracy

Assistant U. S. Attorney Christopher P. Tenorio

El CENTRO – A dozen leaders of Imperial Valley Ministries, including the former pastor, are charged in an indictment unsealed today with subjecting dozens of mostly homeless people to forced labor, coercing them to surrender welfare benefits and compelling them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, for the financial benefit of the church leaders.

The defendants were arrested today in El Centro, San Diego and Brownsville, Texas and charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud. The local defendants are scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in El Centro today at 1:30 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Bermudez Montenegro.

“The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”

“Human trafficking robs victims of their most basic human rights,” said FBI Special Agent-In-Charge Scott Brunner. “Victims of human trafficking are often unseen by society, left pleading in silence. Today, the FBI is proud to break up the labor trafficking alleged to have been committed by the leaders of Imperial Valley Ministries in Imperial Valley and San Diego. This investigation is an example of the tireless and dedicated work undertaken by FBI agents and our partners at the El Centro Police Department in combating this heinous crime.”

Imperial Valley Ministries, or IVM, operates a non-denominational church headquartered in El Centro, and has opened approximately 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico, including locations in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Jose in California; in Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and Brownsville, Texas. IVM’s stated purpose is to “restore” drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation group homes and raise money to open churches in other cities to do the same.

In addition to the church and main office, IVM owned and operated three group homes the El Centro area, plus one in Calexico and one in Chula Vista. Many victims were recruited from outside of El Centro, including San Diego, and as far away as Texas. IVM leaders allegedly induced many to participate with offers of free food and shelter with the false promise that victims would be provided with resources to eventually return home.

According to the indictment, defendants checked in the victims at the IVM group homes, where they were required to sign agreements to adhere to rules. Many victims, including many who did not require drug rehabilitation services, claimed they were later held at IVM properties against their will.

The indictment alleges that church leaders locked victims inside group homes with deadbolt locks; confiscated identification documents such as driver’s licenses, passports, immigration papers and identification cards, in order to prevent victims from escaping; stole victims’ welfare benefits; and required adherence to rules such as, “you are not to discuss things of the world” and “the only thing to be read is the holy bible” and “if any of the rules are broken there will be discipline.”


Read more: https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdca/pr/church-leaders-indicted-forced-labor-conspiracy

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