WASHINGTON — Twenty people were indicted on Wednesday for allegedly smuggling more than 50 deaf and speech-impaired Mexicans into the United States and making them virtual slaves--at times beating, electrically shocking or otherwise coercing them to sell trinkets to the public.
In carrying out an alleged four-year conspiracy of involuntary servitude, outlined by a federal grand jury in Brooklyn that issued the indictments, some participants stand accused of beating a victim who begged for a day off because of sickness, electroshocking one for low sales and handcuffing an attempted escapee to a bed for more than a week while he attached key chains to trinkets.
"Every case of slavery is terrible, but this one is especially appalling because of the double exploitation," Isabelle Katz Pinzler, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, said at a news conference.
Authorities say the ring likely generated more than $1 million in annual sales from the nationwide trinket businesss.
"An enterprise that existed for the sole purpose of exploiting the labor of hearing-disabled aliens has been substantially dismantled, and its ringleaders apprehended and held to face serious criminal charges," Zachary W. Carter, U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said.
In carrying out the conspiracy, recruiters lured deaf Mexicans to come to the United States, falsely promising them prosperous jobs, the 11-count indictment charged. After being smuggled into the United States, they were taken to Los Angeles and temporarily harbored at a safe house operated by three of the defendants: Andreas Pfeiffer, Hilario Rivera Pauletti and Carlos Rivera Lozano, the son of Hilario Rivera Pauletti.
The three Los Angeles suspects, like the alleged ringleaders in New York, are themselves deaf and speech-impaired, authorities said.
The safe house, in Los Angeles' Koreatown district, served as a "way station until the aliens were transported to Queens, N.Y., to work," the grand jury charged.
While in Los Angeles, a federal complaint charged, deaf immigrants were directed to sell their wares at Los Angeles International Airport, where deaf peddlers from Mexico still regularly hawk trinkets.
Some later went to Chicago to sell trinkets and also were taken to Boston, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, according to the charges.
"Rather than the prosperous jobs and lifestyles they were promised, the aliens were forced to peddle key chain trinkets on the streets and elsewhere," the indictment charged. "Force, violence and threats of force and violence were used to force the workers to peddle the trinkets for long hours for up to seven days a week for the benefit of the bosses."
Those indicted included the alleged ringleaders, Jose Paoletti Moreda Sr. and his son, Renato Paoletti Lemus, who were arrested in Mexico City a week ago. The United States has taken the first step toward extraditing them. But Mexican authorities reportedly want to try them there first. Hilario Rivera Pauletti is a cousin of the Mexico City-based Paoletti clan, authorities said.
The remaining 15 defendants reside in either the New York area or Chicago.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said all but two of the defendants are Mexicans. The two are Pfeiffer, a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Frank Coenen, listed as a U.S. citizen.
The defendants were charged with conspiring to violate the federal civil rights statute for involuntary servitude, and with extortion and recruiting, smuggling, harboring and transporting illegal immigrants into the United States.
If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years imprisonment on the extortion charge, a five-year maximum on the conspiracy charge and a 10-year maximum on each of the immigrant recruiting, smuggling, harboring and transporting charges.
The alleged involuntary servitude came to authorities' attention a month ago when four deaf Mexicans told police in Queens that they had been smuggled into the United States and forced to peddle key chains and other trinkets on subways and streets.
Police raided two houses and found more than 50 Mexicans living in cramped conditions. Others, identified as bosses or participants in the ring were arrested.
The indictments are the latest example of federal authorities bringing civil rights charges against employers accused of enslaving illegal immigrant workers.
Ostrow reported from Washington and McDonnell from Los Angeles.