Last month, two dozen people were indicted in Georgia on charges of smuggling Mexican and Central American immigrants to the United States and forcing them to live in camps and work on farms.

Authorities comparing the illegal operation to “modern-day slavery.”

Operation Blooming Onion

A multi-agency investigation led by Homeland Security named “Operation Blooming Onion” spanned over at least three years revealed at least 100 victims of modern-day slavery were exploited into the U.S. and imprisoned under inhumane conditions as contract agricultural laborers.

In November 2018, several agencies began to investigate the Patricio transnational criminal organization for allegedly engaged in human trafficking, visa fraud, forced labor, mail fraud, money laundering and other crimes.

The newly unsealed 54-count indictment in USA v. Patricio also alleges that in or before 2015, the suspects and their associates would fraudulently use the H-2A work visa program to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras into the U.S. under the pretext of serving as agricultural workers.

“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 David H. Estes, Acting U.S. Attorney.

“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.”

Inhumane working conditions

Authorities say the illegal operations took place within the Southern, Middle, and Northern Districts of Georgia; the Middle District of Florida; the Southern District of Texas; and Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and elsewhere. 

According to the indictment, the suspects required the workers to pay unlawful fees for transportations, food, and housing — while illegally withholding their travel and identification documents, and subjected the workers “to  perform physically demanding work for little or no pay, housing them in crowded, unsanitary, and degrading living conditions, and by threatening them with deportation and violence.”  

At least two workers died under the working conditions, another was repeatedly raped, while others were kidnapped and threatened with death.

Workers were also forced to work at gunpoint, dig onions with their bare hands, paid 20 cents for each bucket harvested, and many were sold or traded to other conspirators.

$200M illegal operation

Authorities say the suspects reaped more than $200 million from the illegal operation — buying land, homes, vehicles and businesses while funneling millions of dollars through a casino.

Additionally, the indictment alleges that in late 2019 — three of the conspirators attempted to intimidate and persuade a witness to lie to a federal grand jury and deny any knowledge of the illegal activities of the Patricio organization.

The defendants face charges that can carry up to a life sentence.

According to the Department of Justice, the operation represents one of the country’s largest human-trafficking and visa fraud investigations.

“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.”