Four leaders of a California church have pled guilty to participating in a labor trafficking scheme that forced homeless people to give up their welfare benefits and panhandle.
Victor Gonzalez, pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries and his wife, Susan Christine Gonzalez, and two other church leaders, Jose Diaz and his wife Mercedes Gonzales, pleaded guilty in federal court last week to recruiting homeless people in San Diego and other cities, then forcing them to participate in raising money on behalf of the El Centro-based church, The Times of San Diego reported.
The ministry owns and operates group homes for men and women in the El Centro area, Calexico and Chula Vista and recruited from outside of El Centro and as far away as Texas.
The indictment alleged that the defendants confiscated identification documents to prevent IVM participants from leaving the ministry and maintaining their labor.
Further, IVM leaders checked in participants at the group homes. They had to sign agreements to adhere to rules, including never leaving the house unaccompanied and turning over all identification and personal items.
IVM was founded in the 1970s to help drug addicts and established a network of about 30 affiliate churches across the country.
Gonzalez joined in 2001 and became co-pastor in 2013, reported The Calexico Chronicles, adding that, from May 2013 until July 2018, the church leaders required group home participants to surrender their Electronic Benefits Transfer cards.
Additionally, the victims were prevented from seeking employment and forced to panhandle six days a week and provide the proceeds to IVM.
“You can’t leave the house unless accompanied by someone and with the permission from the director — never by yourself,” the rules sheet read, according to The Associated Press. “You can’t go to the front yard, unless told so by the counselor.”
Windows were permanently shut at some group homes, which eventually led a 17-year-old victim to break a window, escape and call the police, AP reports.
The ministry leaders allegedly told the victims they would not receive transportation home, that their loved ones had rejected them and that they had to stay because only God loved them. Punishments included the withholding of food.
In February 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California announced that two former church members, Jose Gaytan and Sonia Murillo, admitted “to conspiring with the other defendants to benefit financially from the forced labor conspiracy.”
“The most vulnerable among us are entitled to the protection of the law,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer in a statement released at the time. “We encourage everyone to help identify forced labor victims in all locations or situations where exploitation is possible.”
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