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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Two southwest Florida men have pled guilty to smuggling individuals from Mexico, holding them against their will, and forcing them to work in tomato fields in Immokolee, Florida, federal authorities with the National Worker Exploitation Task Force announced today.

Abel Cuello, Jr. and German Covarrubias both pled guilty to charges brought last April in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, Florida. Cuello faces a maximum sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine for his role in the conspiracy to hold individuals in peonage, harboring aliens, and unsafe labor practices. Peonage, a federal violation since 1870's, is the holding of an individual in involuntary servitude in order to collect a debt. Covarrubias faces a maximum penalty of three years and a $250,000 fine for admitting that he had continued to assist Cuello, despite his knowledge of the slavery conspiracy. The case against a third defendant, Basilio Cuello, is still pending, while a fourth defendant remains at large.

The case came to the authorities' attention in mid-April, when members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker advocacy group in Collier County, Florida, notified the Worker Exploitation Task Force of an incident in which Abel Cuello, angered that several men had escaped from his operation, physically confronted them in an attempt to return them to his camps.

"As we continue to seek out and bring criminal cases, abusive crew leaders will not be allowed to operate with impunity," said Bill Lann Lee, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and co-chair of the Task Force. "The rapid response by the INS, FBI and Department of Labor to these allegations demonstrates that our interagency approach is working."

An investigation by federal agents in the Fort Myers area revealed that a number of migrant farm workers have been brought to the Cuello farm labor contracting operation and not been allowed to leave until they had repaid the costs of being transported from Mexico. Once in southwest Florida, they worked picking tomatoes for the Cuello operation, while the smuggling fee was repaid over time. Escaped workers described threats that were made to keep them there.

In his plea today, Abel Cuello admitted that the workers were not free to leave until their smuggling debt was repaid, and described one of his co-conspirators as having threatened to shoot escaped workers.

"Particularly in an area that is so heavily agricultural, it is important for us to ensure that those who do the heavy lifting are protected," said United States Attorney Charles R. Wilson. "There is no place for forced labor in America, today or any other day."

This case is the result of an interagency investigation by agents and prosecutors from the Border Patrol, INS, the Departments of Labor and Justice, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Fort Myers, under the auspices of the National Worker Exploitation Task Force, which was founded last year to address the problem of modern-day slavery in the U.S.