El Centro Church Leader, 11 Others Charged With Forced Labor of Captive Homeless People

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A dozen leaders of an El Centro-based church were arrested Tuesday as a federal indictment was unsealed, accusing them of luring people into forced labor and servitude with the promise of food and shelter.

Dozens of victims — many of them homeless — wound up held captive, forced to relinquish their identification and belongings, while Imperial Valley Ministries profited off them, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a media briefing Tuesday afternoon.

The victims, as young as 17, were spread across locations in the U.S. southwest, officials said.

Prosecutors say they had to panhandle as many as nine hours a day, six days a week, with the church pocketing the money. They were also allegedly coerced into surrendering welfare benefits, and ordered not to seek outside work.

"The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals," Brewer said. "These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity."

Victor Gonzalez is pictured in May 2018. (Credit: Julio Moralez / Imperial Valley Press)
Victor Gonzalez is pictured in May 2018. (Credit: Julio Moralez / Imperial Valley Press)
All 12 defendants, including the former pastor Victor Gonzalez, were arrested Tuesday in El Centro, San Diego and Brownsville, Texas. They face charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.

Officials identified them as:

• Arnoldo Bugarin, 47, of El Centro
• Jose Gaytan, 47, of El Centro
• Sonia Murillo, 51, of El Centro
• Sergio Partida, 32, El Centro
• Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz, aka Karen Partida, 29, of El Centro
• Azucena Torres, aka Susana Bugarin, 43, of El Centro
• Jose “Chito” Morales, 47, of San Diego
• Jose “Joe” Anthony Diaz, 39, of Brownsville
• Jose Demara Flores, aka Joe Flores, 52, of Brownsville
• Mercedes Gonzales, aka Mercy Diaz, 37, of Brownsville
• Victor Gonzalez, 40, of Brownsville
• Susan Christine Leyva, 39, of Brownsville

Imperial Valley Ministries, or IVM, is a nondenominational ministry that represents its leaders as "missionaries to drug addicts," Brewer said.

Officials say the church has been around since the '70s but didn't have a physical location until the '90s. The alleged criminal activity began around 2013, when Gonzalez became the church's leader, according to the indictment.

IVM now has a network of about 30 churches in the U.S. and Mexico, with locations in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Las Vegas. It also owns and operates five group homes: three in the El Centro area, one in Calexico and one in Chula Vista, prosecutors said.

The group traveled throughout the southwest to recruit victims, and those they targeted did not necessarily have substance abuse issues, Brewer said.

The victims were allegedly given a false promise of being provided the resources to eventually return home.

Instead, IVM confiscated their driver’s licenses, passports, immigration papers and EBT cards. The victims' personal belongings were kept in a storefront in El Centro, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Tenorio.

When they were checked in at group homes, victims had to sign an agreement to adhere to rules such as, “You are not to discuss things of the world.” Punishments for violations included withholding of food, officials said.

Tenorio said the victims were isolated, closely watched and restricted for public contact. They were allegedly locked inside the homes with dead bolts, with the windows nailed shut at some locations.

In one instance, a "desperate" 17-year-old girl broke a window to escape and call police, according to Tenorio.

The teen was treated for cuts, but those living inside the homes were not allowed to seek medical treatment, Tenorio said.

In one case, officials say a diabetic woman was refused medicine, medical supplies and food to cope with her low blood sugar. She was eventually able to escape and seek help.

IVM became a venture “designed to keep as many people as possible for as long as possible,” allowing the organization to profit off them, Tenorio said.

When people asked to leave, leaders refused to return their belongings and threatened that their children would be taken away, prosecutors said. They were also allegedly told their loved ones had rejected them “only God” loved them.

Officials say all known victims have been freed.

The defendants in California were scheduled to be arraigned in El Centro Tuesday afternoon.

If convicted as charged, they could each face a maximum sentence of 65 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $1 million.

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