Homestead - South Dade

He was called a nicolero. He’s going to jail as a slavemaster

Migrants work work the green-bean fields in Homestead.
Migrants work work the green-bean fields in Homestead. Miami Herald File

A Homestead labor subcontractor has been sentenced to federal prison after pleading guilty to slavery.

The full legal term for the charge for which Agustin Mendez-Vazquez got six years is “conspiracy to provide and maintain forced labor.” Mendez-Vazquez, 44, used violence, threats of violence and white collar schemes to keep his workers under his control.

He committed the offense while providing migrant worker labor to crews and farms as a nicolero, so termed for the nickel commission most labor subcontractors get for each bucket of produce picked by the workers he provides.

Helping keep his father’s sometimes-illegal field help in line, the 24-year-old Ever Mendez-Perez committed conspiracy to encourage and induce illegal aliens to reside in the United States, according to the plea. He’ll do a year in federal prison.

“Forced labor equates to modern-day slavery and the United States Attorney’s Office, together with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners stand ready to prosecute those individuals who facilitate these illegal practices,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Wifredo A. Ferrer said in a Department of Justice release. Mendez-Vazquez pleaded guilty on Friday.

The enforcement of the slavery took several forms.

Sometimes, instead of paying the migrant workers directly, the farms give their wages to the nicolero to distribute the funds owed his workers. That is illegal because it gives vast power of the purse to the nicolero. The complaint against Mendez-Vazquez says a farm industry regulatory organizations received an allegation as far back as 2013 that he withheld payment from his workers.

The complaint also lays out this incident from May 2015:

“Witness A was attempting to assist a worker who wanted to leave Mendez's employment, but Agustin Mendez prevented the worker from leaving. Agustin Mendez physically blocked the worker from leaving, made statements regarding pay arrangements, threatened Witness A with violence and smashed the windshield of Witness A’s vehicle. Later, Ever Mendez, Agustin’s son, communicated a threat to Witness A over the phone. Witness A filed a police report in Palmetto, Florida.”

Mendez-Vazquez’s legal statement admits he and others “intimidated and physically assaulted a manual farm worker who had recently arrived from Mexico. The Defendant did this in an attempt to make sure that the manual farm worker ... would work only for him. Additionally, the Defendant threatened to report the recently arrived worker to law enforcement.”

Other white-collar forms of intimidation included making loans or keeping immigration documents, such as passports, so as to bond workers to Mendez-Vazquez’s labor, according to the case against him.

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal