Immokalee family sentenced for slavery; Each Navarrete boss gets 12 years in prison (Ft. Myers News-Press)

Immokalee family sentenced for slavery | By Amy Bennett Williams The News-Press

Four Immokalee family members were sentenced Friday in federal court for enslaving and brutalizing nine migrant workers.

The two bosses, Cesar, 27, and Geovanni Navarrete, 22, each received 12-year federal prison sentences for enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan tomato pickers.

The brothers pleaded guilty in September to what Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called one of Southwest Florida's "biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever."

They and other family members were charged with enslaving 12 immigrants from 2005 to 2007.

Earlier this year, two other family members pleaded guilty to lesser offenses and were sentenced.

Half-brother Ismael, 22, and their mother Villhina Navarrete, 45, who also pleaded guilty to lesser offenses, were sentenced Friday as well. Ismael will serve three years and 10 months and Villhina will be deported after time served.

The Navarretes took their crews to work on farms owned by some of the state's major tomato producers: Immokalee-based Six L's and Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto. Both tomato growers are part of the Socially Accountable Farm Employers program, designed to prevent labor abuses.

One of the prosecutors, Susan French, called Cesar Navarrete the family's "young patriarch." Geovanni Navarrete was "the enforcer, the beater."

"This defendant is the one who chained the worker's feet to the pole," French said of Geovanni, "the one who beat them, slapped them … multiple victims, multiple acts of violence, multiple injuries to the victims."

One of the victims, Mariano Lucas Diego, spoke of what he'd endured: beatings and nighttime imprisonment in a truck, where the family's captives would have to urinate and defecate in the corners.

Diego described pounding on the truck until he and another victim made a hole through which they squeezed out, then found a ladder so the others could escape.

Diego spoke of several beatings.

"Bosses should not beat up the people who work with them," he told Judge John E. Steele.

As Diego spoke, Geovanni Navarrete watched, shaking his head, a slight smile curling his upper lip.

Gerardo Reyes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which helped the Justice Department investigate the case, hopes this prosecution ushers in a day when farmworkers are treated with dignity, and that it "proves to be the final nail in the coffin of agricultural slavery in Florida."

Yet Molloy says that day won't be in the near future.

"We have a number of similar — and ongoing — investigations," he said.

Cesar Navarrete's attorney, Joseph Viacava of Fort Myers, said his client "disputes a lot of the allegations, but he's also guilty of some of them."

What bothers Viacava, though, is what he calls "the hypocrisy of the system."

"We have a migrant worker being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law with all the government's resources while these multimillion dollar agricultural corporations stay off in the distance," Viacava said. "If the corporations are going to employ these illegal migrant workers, they should be equally responsible.

"If you want to truly cure these ills, go after them," Viacava said. "But I don't think that's going to happen — my clients don't have the ability to make huge campaign contributions."

Molloy said that unless it can be proven that a grower committed a crime, his office can't prosecute.

"You have to establish all the elements of crime — and prove that they did it willfully," Molloy said.

Officials at Six L's and Pacific Tomato Growers could not be reached for comment.

The two companies are among 20 growers who agreed to allow independent auditors to review their records, interview workers and inspect their housing as part of the Socially Accountable Farm Employers program, said board member Steven Kirk.

"It would simply be wrong to say SAFE's audit process is mature or foolproof. ... It is a start — not a guarantee," said Kirk, who runs the Florida City-based Rural Neighborhoods group, which provides low-cost housing to workers statewide.

Still, Kirk said, these growers' involvement "suggests some, maybe most, want to rid the [agricultural] industry of these deplorable acts."