24 Indicted in Georgia Case That Feds Call Modern-Day Slavery With Over 100 Migrants Freed

In Georgia, a grand jury indicted two dozen people involved in what police call "modern slavery" with a case of an organized crime ring that exploited the H-2A visa program for migrant workers after more than 100 were freed from working in hard labor.

The 24 individuals were indicted in the U.S. District Court for dozens of criminal counts including forced labor, witness tampering and mail fraud among others. The organized crime ring took advantage of the H-2A visa program that allows workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to enter the U.S.

Authorities said the defendants earned $200 million by bringing migrants into the U.S. to work as agricultural workers in horrendous conditions. The federal program requires they be paid fairly, often $10 to $12 an hour, but instead, were paid little to no money.

According to prosecutors, the defendants kept the remaining cash and bought items such as a nightclub and dozens of vehicles. They also laundered millions of dollars through a casino, according to the indictment.

According to federal authorities, migrants had their documents taken away leaving them unable to leave and get help. They often lived in crowded trailers with limited food or clean water.

Reportedly at least two of the migrants died and another was repeatedly raped, according to authorities.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney David Estes said the case had freed "more than 100 individuals from the shackles of modern-day slavery and will hold accountable those who put them in chains."

Crime Scene, Police Tape, Apartment Complex
In Georgia, a grand jury indicted two dozen people involved in what police call "modern slavery" with a case of an organized crime ring that exploited the H-2A visa program for migrant workers after more than 100 were freed from working in hard labor. Above, crime scene tape blocks of the area of an apartment complex where authorities say two police officers were shot, leading to a neighborhood search for the suspected gunman on December 12, 2014, in Decatur, Georgia. David Goldman/AP Photo

Authorities said an investigation that began three years ago broke up the criminal enterprise.

The laborers were forced to pay illegal fees for transportation, food and housing, according to the indictment, and their travel and identification documents were withheld.

Some who had been promised up to $12 an hour to work on farms in rural South Georgia were instead ordered to dig up onions with their bare hands and got paid only 20 cents per filled bucket as men with guns kept them in check, according to court records. At least two of them died, and another was raped repeatedly.

Arraignments in the case have been scheduled for December 21 and January 6 at the federal courthouse in Waycross, near the Georgia-Florida state line.

A federal grand jury in Waycross indicted the two dozen defendants in October. It was made public only after a judge unsealed the document in late November.

Since at least 2015, the indictment says, the defendants used H-2A visa applications to bring dozens of migrant workers into the U.S. as agricultural workers. The federal program requires that workers be paid fairly and be reimbursed for expenses involving travel to and from the U.S., food and lodging.

Instead, prosecutors said, the defendants kept most of the money the workers were owed. They laundered their profits by using cash to buy land and homes as well as purchasing a restaurant, according to the indictment.

Estes credited more than 200 law enforcement officers and federal agents with working on the case, which focused on rural Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware counties.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Colorado Farm Suffers As Immigrant Workforce Diminishes
Some who had been promised up to $12 an hour to work on farms in rural South Georgia were instead ordered to dig up onions with their bare hands and got paid only 20 cents per filled bucket as men with guns kept them in check, according to court records. Above, a Mexican immigrant worker harvests organic parsley at Grant Family Farms on October 11, 2011, in Wellington, Colorado. John Moore/Getty