They came to America looking for work. But once they got here, they couldn’t leave

Efren Alvarez, 51, is accused of human trafficking and extortion in Fresno County Superior Court in one of the first labor trafficking cases in California.
Efren Alvarez, 51, is accused of human trafficking and extortion in Fresno County Superior Court in one of the first labor trafficking cases in California. Fresno County Sheriff’s Office

They came to Fresno from Mexico with visas, passports and hopes of finding work.

But once they got here, they worked in the fields for little pay, and couldn’t leave because their boss had their visas and other documents and threatened to tell immigration on them if they quit working for him, prosecutors contend.

In one of the first farm labor trafficking cases in California, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp’s office has charged Efren Alvarez with six felony counts of human trafficking and extortion by using fear involving three workers from Mexico. Prosecutors say that although Alvarez arranged to provide workers to farms, he was not a farm labor contractor.

Alvarez, 51, of Fresno, pleaded not guilty Friday to the charges in Fresno County Superior Court. He is free on $153,000 bail, pending his trial in November.

His attorney, Tomas Nunez, says in court papers that Alvarez accepted the three workers’ visas and other documents as collateral for a loan he gave them to rent an apartment and later a house. Even with the loan unpaid, Nunez said, the workers later got their documents back and were free to leave at any time.

But prosecutor Lynette Gonzales says in court documents that Alvarez kept copies of the three victims’ visas, passports and other documents. She said Alvarez routinely made “direct or implied threats of physical harm and threats to report them to immigration.”

Alvarez’s case is being closely watched because California has the most reported cases of human trafficking in the United States, with many of the victims coming from Fresno and the Valley, said Melissa Gomez, program manager for Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking Project.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein came to Fresno and applauded the “very unique” collaboration between Fresno law enforcement and community groups in combating human trafficking.

A majority of human trafficking cases involve sex trafficking, Gomez said. That’s because labor trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery, is difficult to prosecute, she said. In many reported cases of labor trafficking, the victim has no corroborating witnesses, Gomez said.

In the Alvarez case, the three victims corroborate each others’ claim that they were forced into labor by Alvarez through his use of intimidation and fear, Gonzales says in court papers.

The victims are identified in court documents only by their first names: Carmen, Elena and Luigi. Nunez and Gonzales declined to comment about the specific cases, but court documents give the workers’ account:

The victims lived in the impoverished Mexican border city of Tijuana. In January 2016, Elena learned they could get work in Fresno, and she led the other two to travel to Fresno.

Once here, they stayed in an apartment with a woman named Pilar, who knew Alvarez. They then began to work for Alvarez for $30 a day, tying grape vines.

They soon learned they could make more money elsewhere. After working at another farm, Pilar told them that Alvarez would pay them $10 per hour. But Pilar also told them that they had to move out of her apartment.

Because they had little money, Alvarez loaned Elena, Carmen and Luigi $1,000 to rent an apartment. Alvarez, however, wanted collateral, since he didn’t really know them, Nunez says in court papers. The workers gave Alvarez their documents as collateral, Nunez said.

Weeks passed and the two-bedroom apartment became cramped with six people, court records say. So Alvarez loaned Elena, Carmen and Luigi $2,200 to rent a house near Sierra Vista and Montecito avenues near the Fresno County Fairgrounds in southeast Fresno.

Nunez said none of the three victims objected to moving into the house. He also said they were free to go anywhere they chose. “There were no guards and they weren’t locked inside the house,” he says in court papers.

But Gonzales says in court papers that Alvarez would throw rocks at the victims’ home to wake them up and would enter the home unannounced and without permission. He would charge them to drive them to the fields and charge them fees to cash their paychecks, she says.

In the fields, Alvarez would walk by the workers with a rod in his hand, the prosecutor says. He would yell and scream at the workers and threatened to cut off their hands or fingers, Gonzales says.

Carmen got her documents back so she could return to Mexico for a family emergency. According to the prosecution, Alvarez told her she better come back because he knew where she lived in Mexico. And if she didn’t come back, Alvarez said he would make her “pay for it,” Gonzales says.

Carmen returned to Fresno because she owed Alvarez money and because “she feared for the safety of her family if she did not return,” the prosecutor said.

Nunez, however, says Alvarez had a legal right to collect the debt on his loan. He paid the three workers $10 an hour. The workers would work about nine hours a days, six days a week and earn $445 a week after taxes and fees for transportation and cashing the check, Nunez says.

Nunez says Alvarez also told the workers “whenever you guys want to leave, you guys can leave.” But Gonzales says Alvarez threatened to turn them over to immigration authorities if they did not work the entire season for him.

The working arrangement ended in March 2016 when Luigi quit. Alvarez got mad at Luigi and threatened to call immigration, Gonzales says in court documents. Carmen and Elena got scared that they too would be turned over to immigration authorities and they quit. They then sought out California Rural Legal Assistance, which helped bring the case to the prosecution’s attention.

Nunez says the three workers have given conflicting accounts of what happened. He also points out that Carmen and Elena quit the day after Luigi quit and were free to seek advice. “It scared them, but it did not prevent them from doing or going anywhere they wanted,” he says in court documents.

Gonzales says the threats of immigration deprived the three workers of their liberty. She also says Alvarez used multiple tactics to “control his victims.” Because the workers were unfamiliar with Fresno, the English language, and the law, they had no choice but to accept Alvarez’s loan. They also paid rent to him, she says. “The defendant controlled where they lived and how they got to work,” she says. Alvarez also determined “if and when” they could return to Mexico and visit their families, the prosecutor says.

“Physical restraint is not required to be deprived of one’s liberty,” Gonzales says. Alvarez’s words restrained them because “they were afraid to leave him.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts