Slavery in Connecticut?
Workers Claim Forced Labor
Group Of Guatemalans Says Nursery Paid Low Wages And Mistreated Them
February 9, 2007
By KIM MARTINEAU And MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writers
Marvin Coto flew north on a work visa, to plant trees in North Carolina and send money home to Guatemala. Instead, he says, he wound up at a nursery in Granby where he worked long hours for low wages. His family had to wire him money so he could eat.
He is one of a dozen Guatemalan workers who claim their treatment by the nursery amounted to human trafficking. The Guatemalans filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Imperial Nurseries and its corporate parent, Griffin Land & Nurseries, claiming they were lured to the U.S. on false pretenses, and mistreated once they got here. A group of Yale Law School students has taken up the immigrants' cause, seeking back wages and civil fines.
"There was no escape," said Coto, a stocky man with curly hair who spent most of the day sitting for interviews in a cluttered office at Yale. "We never let our guard down. We never relaxed. We just worked hard but no matter how hard we worked, we were never able to please them."
The U.S. Department of Labor looked into allegations of human trafficking last June but found the workers had not been held against their will, said Monte Lake, an attorney for Imperial Nurseries. He said Imperial paid the workers legal wages through its contractor, Pro Tree Forestry Services, but that Pro Tree had not passed on that money to its workers. Imperial fired Pro Tree after the Department of Labor's findings were issued, he added.
The lawsuit names Pro Tree and its owner, William Forero, who could not be reached for comment Thursday at his home in Tallahassee, Fla.
Last March, Coto, 33, left his wife and three children in Guatemala with the promise of a temporary job planting pine trees for $7.50 an hour, he said through a translator. He took out a loan to buy a plane ticket and work visa but when he landed in Greensboro, N.C., he and his coworkers were whisked away in a van. They rode for three days until Coto spotted a sign welcoming him to Hartford. There, they were shown to a filthy apartment, home to another group of young immigrants who were summarily evicted to make room for the new arrivals, said Coto. He knew something was wrong but, unable to speak English and with just a few dollars in his pocket, he didn't know where to turn.
For the next three months, Coto and his coworkers spent grueling days packing trees into pots in Granby, under constant surveillance of their bosses, threatened with arrest and deportation if they complained, he said. Their bosses confiscated their passports, paid them $3.75 an hour, then deducted rent and other expenses from their pay, he said, making it hard to scrape together enough money even for meals of rice and beans.
Coto eventually fell sick after days working in the rain, with chemicals and fertilizers, he said. When he asked for a doctor, he said, he was threatened with firing. With his debt mounting, he was terrified of losing his job.
One day, while visiting a laundromat, Coto heard about the Church of God Pentecost on Lawrence Street in Hartford's Frog Hollow section. Disillusioned, Coto told his story to the pastor, the Rev. Nelson Negron, and the church took up a collection for the Guatemalans.
"He said everything was different when they got here," Negron said Thursday, through a translator. "He would cry when he talked about it."
Through the church, Coto was referred to Yale and an immigrant-advocacy group, Junta for Progressive Action. Last June, Coto and his coworkers requested their passports, under the pretext of having money wired to them, as they had done previously. That night, Junta volunteers picked the men up and drove them to New Haven. Junta had collected nearly $7,000 in donations to rent the Guatemalans an apartment and buy them bedding and food.
Five of the workers still live in New Haven, while Coto has relocated to Hartford. With interest, his debt has ballooned to $6,000. The other six have either gone home to Guatemala or settled elsewhere in the U.S.
"These workers came here lawfully to earn a living and support their families," said Nicole Hallett, a Yale student working on the case. "Instead, they were defrauded and trapped into conditions of forced labor."
Few employees could be seen Thursday outside Imperial Nurseries in Granby, where a bitter wind whipped through dozens of plastic greenhouses that seemed to blend in with the snow on the frozen earth.
A sign at the entrance read, in English and Spanish: "We consistently provide superior in-demand plants in an environment that makes it easy to conduct business." An employee at the company's Salmon Brook Street office referred questions to Peter Hamilton, a public relations specialist in New York, who could not be reached late Thursday.
Human trafficking, for labor or sex, appears to be on the rise. Last year, the Connecticut legislature passed laws making trafficking punishable by criminal and civil penalties.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he has opened an investigation into the allegations, the first under the new laws, which he hopes to have finished in a few weeks.
"This case may very well become the poster child for vigorous enforcement of our new laws," he said.
U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Connor declined to say whether his office is also investigating.
Courant staff writer Matt Kauffman contributed to this story.
Contact Kim Martineau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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American Elitists' Smoking Gun
Will the Connecticut Legislators do anything to help victims of police misconduct, legal abuse, and official corruption?
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I’ve read the Hartford Courant story about you offering $500,000 to a Mr. Tillman for having been wrongly convicted. What about doing something about the cause of wrongful convictions and compensate all victims, not just one?
The Connecticut State Police have or had their “100 Club” where they would falsely arrest those that were not actually drunk for DUIs to make the “100 Club”. False arrests do lead to false imprisonment. If these officers are capable of that, they are capable of manufacturing evidence, suppressing evidence, committing perjury, and in further retaliating against their victims.
The New York State Police Internal Affairs gave the Connecticut State Police straight F’s for quality and honesty. Please click here for my post on Col. Davoren that is the new head of the Connecticut State Police. I asked Davoren why it was ok with him that citizens that want Civilian Oversight of Police should be arrested and targeted by police for false arrests and prison.
Davoren told me in a phone conversation that his number one job is to “Protect the Integrity of the System”, nothing about fairness and actually protecting and serving the public. So, should an old guard of retaliating against whistle blowers and accountability of officials be the head of an organization that should be law enforcement, not an armed street gang of thugs? For ethics and economic reasons should the old style shenanigans of the Connecticut State Police be ended?
Joe Courtney was recently sworn in as Congressman in Rockville Court in Connecticut. Attorney General Blumenthal had Judge Jonathan J. Kaplan and made the remark that he did not trust either that Judge or Judges behind his back. That is for good reason Judge Jonathan J. Kaplan has gotten way out of hand as he feels he is invisible to do as he please and might take sick pleasure in retaliating against those that go against him and his big, huge, purple, and swollen, ego.
Ritt Goldstein proposed Civilian Oversight of Police and Courts that act in the public’s best interest. He was so abused by Connecticut Police he fled to Sweden to seek political asylum.
I advocated the same thing and I was followed around by police, threatened, and ended up falsely arrested and put in prison based on Connecticut State Police perjury and abuse. Judge Jonathan J. Kaplan abused his discretion in even sitting on my case as I had been approaching legislators and others in removing Kaplan based on his bias in Small Claims and Civil Cases.
Should judges and police be able to fraudulently spend taxpayers money for retaliation and citizen abuse that hurts Connecticut’s reputation, economy, children, and families?
There is supposed to be separation of powers, but if practicing lawyers that are elected officials will kiss the butts of judges for later favors, where is justice, where is the public being represented, and where is separation of powers.
The Tillman is the right first step, what about looking into remedying my case and others by expunging bogus criminal records and compensating victims, why not legislate or enact laws where there is a separate forum to expunge records and compensate victims, the courts run by Justices like William J. Sullivan are a free for all of abuse, pissing on the US Constitution, and in legislating and abusing from the bench.
I was current on 3 mortgages and had a small business that I built over 2 decades. I can’t even get a job or an apartment in my name. Should I suffer the rest of my life because the Connecticut Courts aren’t fair and the police in Connecticut can ruin citizens on their “Enemies List” for fun?
Please consider having Judge Jonathan J. Kaplan impeached and prosecuted and in prosecuting Col. Davoren.
Steven G. Erickson
c/o Francis C. P. Knize: 50 Sunset Pass, Wilton, Ct. 06897 203 544 9603