California Ministry Used Homeless People As Forced Labor


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A dozen leaders of a California-based ministry were arrested on charges that they used homeless people as forced labor. They have been holding them in locked group homes and forcing them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, US prosecutors said.

As the Guardian reports, 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 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 Robert Brewer, a US attorney, at a news conference. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”

The indictment alleges church leaders kept victims inside group homes with deadbolt locks only they had keys to and confiscated IDs such as driver's licenses, immigration papers and passports to prevent victims from escaping. One victim was a 17-year-old girl who escaped by breaking out of a window, Brewer said. She went to the police, he said.

“Windows were nailed shut at some group home locations, leading a desperate 17-year-old victim to break a window, escape and run to a neighboring property to call police,” said a statement from the US attorney’s office.

Vulnerable people were isolated and closely watched, threatened with punishment for violating house rules and they weren't allowed to go anywhere unattended. Victims were refused basic and necessary medical attention, said Scott Brunner, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego field office. That included a diabetic who was refused insulin and even the food needed to control blood sugar levels, said Brewer.

Ministry members told people that “they would not receive transportation home, or that loved ones had rejected them and they must stay because ‘only God’ loved them. Punishments for violations of home rules, including talking about the outside world, allegedly included the withholding of food,” the statement said.

All the alleged victims that have been identified are now free and support services were available for them as well as for any additional victims that are found, authorities said. They also said that identifying labor trafficking victims is particularly challenging because the victims often are isolated and work behind the scenes doing work on farms, in homes, in restaurants and factories.

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