24 People Await Federal Trial in One of Largest Human Trafficking Cases in U.S. History

Two dozen people were indicted last month on federal charges that stem from a human trafficking investigation that developed over the last few years with help from more than 200 law enforcement officials, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Georgia.

The individuals face charges ranging from forced labor and human smuggling to money laundering and mail fraud.

Workers from Mexico and Central America were "illegally imported" to face "brutal conditions" on farms in South Georgia, authorities alleged in a November 22 news release.

Authorities attributed the results of their investigation, dubbed "Operation Blooming Onion," to the release of dozens of farmworkers.

"Thanks to outstanding work from our law enforcement partners, Operation Blooming Onion frees more than 100 individuals from the shackles of modern-day slavery and will hold accountable those who put them in chains," then-Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia David Estes said in the release.

Onion farmers
"Operation Blooming Onion" resulted in the release of more than 100 workers as 24 people face federal charges. Above, a person collects onions at a farm in the Sibate municipality near Bogota, Colombia, on April 4, 2020. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

A spokesperson for Estes' office told Vice News that the investigation was believed to be one of the largest of its kind in U.S. history.

Federal authorities began their investigation in late 2018, about three years after the alleged operation began, by what authorities referred to as the "Patricio transnational criminal organization." The organization got its name from 70-year-old Maria Leticia Patricio, who is listed first on the indictment.

Authorities alleged Patricio and 23 others "engaged in mail fraud, international forced labor trafficking, and money laundering, among other crimes." The H-2A work visa program, which typically allows U.S. employers to bring workers in from other countries to tackle temporary agriculture jobs, was "fraudulently" used by the people running the operation, the release said.

Those behind the operation allegedly required illegal fees from workers for food, housing and transportation and required the workers "to perform physically demanding work for little or no pay, housing them in crowded, unsanitary, and degrading living conditions, and by threatening them with deportation and violence," according to the indictment.

Some of the alleged exploitation described in the indictment included requiring workers to farm onions using just their hands, paying only 20 cents for entire buckets of harvested onions and keeping workers in "cramped, unsanitary quarters."

The workers were "threatened with guns and violence," the release alleged. Those behind the operation have also been accused of "raping, kidnapping and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers or their families, and in many cases sold or traded the workers to other conspirators."

At least $200 million is estimated to have been gained through the alleged actions, authorities said in the release.

Three of the individuals charged in the indictment were fugitives as of Thursday evening, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office told Newsweek. Those individuals were identified as Victoria Chavez Hernandez, Jose Carmen Duque Tovar and Rodolfo Martinez Maciel. All three face charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, forced labor and money laundering.

Officers have already been in contact with the other 21 individuals charged in the indictment.

Authorities are encouraging additional victims of this operation's alleged actions to reach out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline by calling (888) 373-7888.