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Church Leaders Indicted For Alleged Labor Trafficking In San Diego, Other Cities

 September 12, 2019 at 10:48 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 A bizarre story unfolded this week as federal prosecutors announced the arrests of leaders of an El Centro based church, the former pastor of imperial valley ministries, and more than 10 other church officials are accused of forcing homeless people to work, collecting donations for the church. The investigation centered on activities in the churches. Five group homes located in El Centro Calexico and Chulavista journey me, his assistant us attorney, Christopher Tenorio, who was leading the prosecution and Christopher. Welcome to the program by pleasure. What was the imperial valley ministries connection to the homeless? Was it an outreach ministry? Speaker 2: 00:41 We learned that they originally thought that they would, uh, provide rehabilitation for, uh, drug addicts and those suffering from other types of, uh, substance abuse and they would reach out to them and bring them in and try to give them religious guidance. But what the investigation showed was a, in most recent years that that was kind of a secondary concern to, uh, raising funds by panhandling and collecting their welfare benefits. Speaker 1: 01:12 The case involves the church picking homeless people up in vans. Was that how they made contact? Speaker 2: 01:18 Yes, it was. And it depended on where they came from. Primarily they, they targeted the San Diego area because it was both close enough for them to travel frequently, yet far enough to bring them to El Centro and deter them from a, from leaving immediately and going home. But we, we also encountered victims from as far as way far away as Texas that were brought to El Centro. Speaker 1: 01:42 Did they provide any services to the homeless? Speaker 2: 01:46 Not for drug rehabilitation, other than to say you're going cold Turkey. And, um, the way they explained it was that they were providing religious guidance through prayer and Bible study and through the discipline that was imposed from both the, the, uh, required fundraising and other chores around the house. Speaker 1: 02:09 Now how are the homeless people allegedly forced to work for the church? Speaker 2: 02:14 Well, it's interesting. Under the forced labor statute, the coercion can either be physical or psychological, and other than the physical barriers that kept them inside, such as the, the nails on the windows and the locked doors of the coercion was primarily psychological in this area. And it could also be threatened of serious harm and that serious harm could includes financial harm. So part of the scheme for saw that the, uh, the people that were brought in were, uh, isolated from their families, um, told that they can only associate with other people within IVM and um, threatened to not be provided transportation back home to wherever they came from or just simply let back out on the streets. So the threat of financial harm lead to psychological coercion of making them stay for the most part, Speaker 1: 03:14 what this case alleges is that the homeless people under this control were basically forced to panhandle and those donations went to the church. Where there consequences if they did not bring enough money back to the church. Speaker 2: 03:31 We have heard that there were quotas imposed so that if a certain amount wasn't raised by noon the day that they were out panhandling, they might not receive any, uh, money to buy a snack to eat. And, uh, there were also, um, quotas for the day and for the week. We know that, uh, there were incentives such as, uh, the biggest fundraisers and, and, and best members were provided a, a nominal gift on a Sunday for raising the amount. There was also pressure put on the home directors if they found out that certain people were not raising enough money so that the, a home directors would either put more pressure on those individuals or be responsible for the money themselves. When the, uh, when the team did not raise enough. Speaker 1: 04:21 How did the police find out about this case? Speaker 2: 04:24 The, uh, El Centro police department told us that they encountered a people pretty regularly out in El Centro that had left the group homes and were looking for ways to go home. So the Times that, um, people did leave, they often left without their personal possessions that were confiscated and certainly didn't have a way to get home. So they were reporting to the police and one of the local share, uh, charities out in El Centro. So they received a lot of information. People who had left but, uh, did not have regular addresses to, to recontact them. Speaker 1: 04:58 And did someone actually break out of one of these houses? Speaker 2: 05:01 We have a couple of instances where people had to physically break out. One was a juvenile, a 17 year old young woman who, um, used a dresser drawer broke through window and climbed out and called the police from a neighbors house. The, the police responded, uh, EMT his product to the local medical center. And later when, um, FBI and l central police officers responded to one of the places, some women from inside also yelled for them to be removed because they believed they were being held against their will. Speaker 1: 05:38 Now, Imperial Valley Ministries has affiliate churches around the country. Was this type of abuse allegedly going on in other jurisdictions too. Speaker 2: 05:47 When we executed the search warrants last year in El Centro, we also began interviews with some of the affiliate churches. Now, none of those are within the jurisdiction of our us attorney's office, but the FBI has sent leads to those other jurisdictions to see if there were similar allegations. We do know that most of them began with the same handbook that started in El Centro, which included how to raise money and how to recruit people. And, uh, some of those churches have since disassociated with the El Centro church, but investigations that are ongoing to see if any of the present or past conduct is similar to what happened in El Centro. Speaker 1: 06:29 And what charges, uh, does the church's, former pastor Victor Gonzales and the rest of those arrested, what kind of charges do they face Speaker 2: 06:38 there? There's a variety of charges. The primary one is a conspiracy to commit forced labor document servitude and benefits fraud. And then there are individual accounts for the forced labor. They are all charged with varying events that may involve all of them or just some of them and the particular victims that pertain to each of them. Speaker 1: 07:02 I have been speaking to assistant us attorney Christopher Tenorio. Thank you so much for explaining that to us. My pleasure. Speaker 2: 07:13 [inaudible].

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The U.S. Attorney in San Diego has indicted 12 leaders of the Imperial Valley Ministries for allegedly holding dozens of homeless people against their will and forcing them to panhandle.
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