Five plead guilty in Immokalee slavery case (Ft. Myers News-Press)

Immokalee residents brutalized farmworkers

By Amy Bennett Williams

Five Immokalee residents pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to charges of enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan workers, brutalizing them and forcing them to work in farm fields.

The 17-count indictment in the case - one of the largest slavery prosecutions Southwest Florida has ever seen - was originally released in January. It alleged that, for two years, Cesar Navarrete and Geovanni Navarrete held more than a dozen people in boxes, trucks and shacks on the family property, chaining and beating them, forcing them to work in farm fields in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina while keeping them in ever-increasing debt.

Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called it "slavery, plain and simple."

One of the six original defendants, Jose Navarrete, pleaded guilty in May to five charges.

The two ringleaders, Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete will likely serve 12 years and face fines between $750,000 and $1 million each. Sentencing is set for December.

Although the case was set to go to trial Tuesday, the defense and the government reached plea agreements at the last minute.

"In federal court, if you go to trial and lose, the sentences are extremely severe," said Geovanni Navarrete's attorney, Joseph Viacava of Fort Myers. "We were happy to negotiate a resolution that caps our client's liability and puts him in a favorable position come sentencing."

Molloy is happy too.

"This is an excellent resolution,"

he said. "The bad guys go to jail and the many victims get to go on with their lives."

Plus, he said, every time there's a slavery conviction, "We get two or three more reports of similar cases. So getting the word out about these prosecutions is extremely important," Molloy said.

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has helped prosecute six slavery cases (including this) that freed more than 1,000 workers, also were pleased with the outcome.

"The facts that have been reported in this case are beyond outrageous - workers being beaten, tied to posts, and chained and locked into trucks to prevent them from leaving their boss," said coalition member Gerardo Reyes.

"How many more workers have to be held against their will before the food industry steps up to the plate and demands that this never - ever - occur again in the produce that ends up on America's tables?"