Cracking A Slavery Ring

THE COPS HAD BEEN THERE, MOST recently after reports of a violent domestic quarrel in the predawn hours of July 11. No one was arrested and no charges were filed. A city inspector had been there, back in February, after neighbors complained that too many people were living in the house. He found no building-code violations. But last week police and federal investigators discovered that the apartment at 37-54 93d Street, Jackson Heights, N.Y., had been a sort of slave quarters for 44 Mexican men, women and children - most of whom were illegal aliens and almost all of whom were deaf. Smuggled into the United States and forced to sell trinkets on New York City subways, ""los Muditos'' (""the mutes'') were isolated, threatened and in some cases physically abused. What made their exploitation even stranger was the fact that their employers, also Mexican nationals, were hearing-impaired as well.

As prosecutors told it, los Muditos were systematically victimized by a close-knit Mexico City family headed by Jose Paoletti Moreda, 59, and his wife, Adelja, 59. The Paolettis are deaf. So are their three children, Adriana, 29, Jose, 28, and Renato, about 20, all of whom allegedly took active roles in the family business. Recruited in Mexico on the promise of good-paying jobs in the United States, the workers were smuggled across the border to Los Angeles and then flown to New York, where they were forced to work long hours selling key rings and other trinkets at $1 apiece by presenting themselves as handicapped. The quota was to sell 100 or more items every day, and it was harshly enforced. In return, los Muditos were paid $200 a month but owed $100 for room and board - a classic peonage scheme in which the worker never quite gets out of debt while the employer rakes in the profits. Investigators found $35,000 in small bills in the Jackson Heights apartment, and Queens D.A. Richard A. Brown said the ring had been ""a pretty lucrative operation.''

And it was branching out. The family allegedly maintained two different apartments in Jackson Heights - 13 more aliens were found at the second pad - and federal officials chased leads to similar operations in other cities. Six deaf Mexican trinket-sellers were found sharing an apartment in Chicago, and an official of the Mexican Consulate there said he believed there was ""a connection to the problem in New York.'' Fourteen more deaf Mexicans were corralled by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Sanford, N.C., a town that has a sizable Mexican-American population. In Washington, a federal source told NEWSWEEK that the New York and North Carolina operations were connected, and INS officials said they saw a ""conspiracy'' to exploit speech- and hearing-impaired Mexicans. ""They were powerless,'' INS Special Agent Russ Parry said. ""This is 1990s bondage, right here in Sanford, N.C.''

In Mexico City, NEWSWEEK interviewed a 40-year-old deaf woman who said she worked for the Paoletti family in New York and Chicago for several months early this year. ""I didn't know what I was getting into,'' she said in sign language. The woman said she was recruited in Mexico City, entered the United States on false documents and flew to New York from San Diego. She shared a house in Queens with nearly 50 other deaf people. ""They didn't give us anything. No money. No clothes. There wasn't anything good to eat,'' she said. Workers were forbidden to talk among themselves and some women in the crew said they had been raped. When she said she wanted to go home, the woman said, she was roughed up and told she had to work for five years. She was then sent to Chicago where, in late April, she broke away with the help of a city cop.

Five members of the clan were arrested in New York last week, and investigators are hunting for the patriarch, Jose Paoletti, and his younger son Renato, both of whom are believed to be in Mexico. (Adelja and Adriana Paoletti pleaded not guilty to state felony charges.) But the U.S. probe is continuing and Mexican authorities have launched a parallel investigation - for both countries aim to find out why los Muditos were betrayed by their own.