Three in Tifton indicted in forced labor scheme

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By Terry Richards

TIFTON — Three Tifton residents were among dozens of defendants indicted as a result of a three-year probe into “modern-day slavery” in the form of a human smuggling ring, the U.S. Department of Justice said Monday.

An indictment that was recently unsealed showed the three were indicted for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, conspiracy to engage in forced labor and conspiracy to commit money laundering, a justice department statement said. One was also charged with four counts of mail fraud and one count of tampering with a witness, the statement said.

The charges stemmed from Operation Blooming Onion, a multi-agency investigation led by Homeland Security Investigations.

Foreign nationals smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico were forced to dig onions with their bare hands, receiving 20 cents for each bucket dug, and were threatened with guns and violence to keep them in line, the justice department said. Facilities were cramped, unsanitary and fenced in with little or no food, safe water and limited plumbing, according to the statement. At least two workers died.

“The conspirators are 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,” the statement said.

The scheme reaped more than $200 million; millions in funds were funneled through a casino, the justice department said. The illegal activities took place in Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware counties.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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