Migrant woman says she was repeatedly raped in a ‘modern’ Georgia slavery ring

Plant flowering onion

Three men pleaded guilty to charges including forced labor and conspiracy in Operation Blooming Onion, a massive federal investigation into forced labor in Georgia. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Javier Sanchez Mendoza Jr., 24, allegedly recruited a Mexican migrant worker destined for farm work in Georgia, took her to his RV in Jesup and repeatedly raped her for more than a year after leading her to believe she had somehow been married , according to the FBI.

Meanwhile, the woman worked at his home, collecting pine straw, receiving referrals from other hired workers so Mendoza would not receive the payments personally, and helping with payroll. While the woman eventually escaped after being threatened and intimidated, Mendoza tracked her down while she was babysitting at another home, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia said in a news release last Thursday. Mendoza then allegedly kidnapped her by stabbing.

When officers were able to rescue the woman, they found a shrine to Santa Muerte, the “Holy Death,” in Mendoza’s mobile home, adorned with the woman’s hair and blood, US prosecutors said. They believed it was a prelude to her murder.

Now, Mendoza is among three men going to federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of forced labor and conspiracy under Operation Blooming Onion, a massive federal investigation that uncovered what they call a “modern slavery” operation where migrant workers were forced to pay illegal fees to enter the US and then forced to work for little to no pay. Some of the workers were even forced to dig onions with their bare hands for pennies a bucket, according to an indictment.

“These men worked to ease modern slavery,” US Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia Davis Estes said in a statement last week. “Our law enforcement partners have uncovered an underworld of human trafficking, and we will continue to identify and bring to justice those who would exploit others whose work fuels their greed.”

Of the men, Mendoza faces the longest sentence: 30 years in federal arrest for conspiracy to commit forced labor. He admitted that between August 2018 and November 2019 he recruited more than 500 Central Americans for access to temporary work visas in the US and forced them to pay illegal fees before forcing them to farm for little to no pay in Georgia and in other companies, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia.

Because Mendoza is from Mexico and lived illegally in the United States, he faces deportation when his prison sentence expires.

Mendoza was also arrested in November 2019 on state charges of false imprisonment, assault, aggravated assault, and terrorist threats and acts, according to the Augusta Chronicle. These charges are pending. In December 2019, he also pleaded guilty to separate charges of assaulting the woman and received a suspended sentence, the Chronicle reported.

Aurelio Medina, a 42-year-old who was also in the US illegally, was also sentenced to 64 months in prison after pleading guilty to forced labor in connection with Operation Blooming Onion, US prosecutors said last week.

Medina admitted that from April to October 2020, he illegally charged workers and withheld their identification documents to obtain H-2A visas — a widespread program that allows migrant agricultural workers to work temporarily in the United States. Illegal recruitment fees and withholding of documents are common methods of abusing migrant workers.

Court documents show that Medina was sentenced on March 30 and that he struck a plea agreement in exchange for cooperation with the government before the case was made public last year.

Yordon Velazquez Victoria, a 45-year-old from Brunswick, Georgia, will also serve 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to be part of the criminal enterprise, US prosecutors said. Victoria, a naturalized US citizen, allowed Medina to use his name to apply for H-2A workers and shuttled the workers back and forth between housing and work for $600 a week. He also struck a plea deal in exchange for a collaboration last year.

However, Operation Blooming Onion does not end there. A total of 24 people have been charged with their alleged role in the crime ring, putting the entire H-2A visa system under scrutiny.

“Mendoza, Medina and Victoria have abused the H-2A program to enrich themselves at the expense of foreign workers and American employers,” Mathew Broadhurst, acting special agent-in-charge for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Atlanta region inspector general, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to vigorously prosecute those who commit fraud related to foreign work programs.”