Florida business owners accused of running human trafficking ring

By By Jerome Burdi and Erika Pesantes

McClatchy News Service

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — They came to America chasing a dream.

They were promised work as servers in Boca Raton's country clubs and hotels with the assurance of high wages and overtime.

They got the work but not the money, and the married couple who brought the 50 Filipinos to Boca Raton treated them as slaves, according to a federal indictment released Wednesday.


Between July 2006 and June 2008 the victims were crammed into a house, threatened with arrest and deportation should they try to leave and were not given enough food or water. They were kept from any outside communication and coaxed into believing there was no way out except working for measly wages, if any at all.

The suspects used false promises to entice the Filipinos to incur debts to pay upfront recruitment fees, and took away their passports, according to the indictment.

"The conspiracy was to recruit them to come work here and to force them into servitude," said Alejandro Miyar, a Department of Justice spokesman.

Sophia Manuel, 41, and Alfonso Baldonado Jr., 46, the married owners of Quality Staffing Services Corp., were arrested Wednesday on human trafficking charges. Manuel also is charged with visa fraud and making false statements to the government to procure foreign labor certifications and visas.

"They're living far away from me, so I have no idea about that," said Manuel's sister, Cynthia Cartwright, who lives in North Miami. She took custody of the couple's children ages 1, 5, 7 and 9.

The couple lived with many of the workers at the house west of Boca Raton. Their landlord said they had rented that home about four years. The workers slept on the floor throughout the house and garage, according to the indictment. There was another living quarters, though an address was not released.

Neighbors said that other home — a lakefront one — was in the Hidden Lakes development, just a block from the couple's home. Undercover police interviewed neighbors about the case last week, residents said.

"They seemed nice, they kind of kept to themselves and no more than said hi," neighbor Stacy Gonzalez said of her Filipino neighbors. "I figured they were illegal. They all seemed happy. They always waved at the baby and me with the dog. I'd be shocked if they were kept in bad conditions."


She said the Filipinos had one big work van and sometimes hung around the garage and shuffled between both house.

Gonzalez would see them carrying food trays and figured they had a cooking business, she said. She also noted that when she dragged out old furniture on the curb, the workers took it.

The workers had to sign in and out when they left their cramped living quarters, were told not to speak with any other Filipinos at church and fed a "diet of rotten vegetables, chicken innards and feet," the indictment said.

They were screamed at if they ate food from the refrigerator without permission, authorities said.

When one asked for more food, Baldonado became enraged, "demanding to know if she ate three meals a day in the Philippines," the indictment said.

When one worker complained that the drinking water was bad, the couple offered acid instead, according to the indictment.

They were denied adequate medical care, the indictment said. One worker broke his wrist and didn't see a doctor for 10 days. Another worker suffering from stomach pain spat up blood and was still kept from seeing a doctor.

Manuel said anyone wishing to leave had to pay up to $15,000, according to the indictment.


Thirteen workers escaped in February 2008. Attempting to cling onto control, investigators said Baldonado called a meeting of the remaining workers. Manuel told them the ones who escaped would be sent home in handcuffs and would have to pay millions of dollars for destroying her reputation, the indictment said.

"Human traffickers target vulnerable victims, including minors, who desire a better life and end up being lured into a situation where they are deprived of their basic human rights," said Anthony Mangione, head of Miami's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "These vicious conditions will not be tolerated in this country."

But these allegations are untrue, said another of Manuel's sisters, Linda, who did not want her full name used.

"Helping people is sometimes not good," she said.

She was at the couple's home Wednesday afternoon gathering clothes for their children. Inside, the home was in shambles with stacked boxes and a strong stench of seafood.

In 2009, ICE had 566 human trafficking investigations nationally, a 31 percent increase over the previous year, records show.

The Florida Attorney General started a criminal investigation into Quality Staffing Services Corp. in February 2008. It later was referred to the Department of Justice.

Ten of the workers were sent to work at Boca Woods Country Club for seasonal labor needs and Quality Staffing was paid $50,000. There were other country clubs that the suspects did business with, though none were specifically named in the indictment.


Boca Woods Country Club could not be reached for comment.

In July 2006, Manuel held a recruiting meeting in the Philippines, collecting a $1,500 job security deposit from each of 36 Filipinos. The following year, the suspects, who are of Filipino origin, returned promising applicants $1,400-a-month salaries and overtime at $10 an hour. The money was not returned, nor the jobs attained.


Because the traffickers had the same background as the victims, it was easy to build trust, said Giselle Rodriguez, state outreach coordinator of Tampa-based Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

"You understand them and they understand you," Rodriguez said. "These people trust their fellow countrymen, they understand their culture and this is why it's so easy for them to literally to brainwash them."

Of the roughly 20,000 people trafficked into the country annually, the coalition has noticed more are coming from Southeast Asia, as opposed to Latin America.

"A lot of the farm workers and people coming in from central Latin America have been educated on their rights," Rodriguez said.

However, traffickers remain wily.


"The traffickers are one step ahead of us and find ways of exploiting people," Rodriguez said.

Investigators ask anyone who knows or suspects that someone is being forced to work against their will to call the ICE tip line anonymously at 866-347-2423.

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