Members of the California clergy forced homeless people up to nine hours a day to beg for money for the church, refused a medicine for diabetic patients, and threatened to take their children away when they tried to leave & # 39;
- The authorities arrested Tuesday 12 leaders of the Imperial Valley Ministries in the cities of El Centro and San Diego and Brownsville, Texas in southern California
- They were accused of forced labor, conscription and benefit fraud
- The suspects were presented to the federal court in El Centro on Tuesday afternoon
- Prosecutors say that the spiritual leaders have checked their mostly homeless victims in IVM group homes and are required to sign agreements to follow certain rules
- Authorities say IVM leaders have taken the identity cards of their alleged victims, locked up the houses with group closures in the group houses and kept them against their will
- IVM leaders have also stolen people's SNAP cards for food aid and forced them to pan out on the street for money before they reached their charities
- An estimated 30 affiliated churches are active within the IVM network
Twelve leaders from a network of churches in Southern California and Texas were arrested Tuesday by federal authorities and accused of forcing vulnerable people in their care, many who were homeless, to work effectively as panhandling slaves.
The US Attorney's Office in Southern California said a former pastor and other clergymen affiliated with Imperial Valley Ministries have subjected dozens of underprivileged men and women to & # 39; forced labor & # 39; after being checked in group homes designated for drug addicts.
The victims later had some form of identification – driving licenses, passports, etc. – stolen by the church leaders who also took the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards of their victims and refused to return them.
The clergymen locked their victims in their group homes with deadbolts and denied them the right to leave.
Victor Gonzalez (left) was one of the 12 leaders of Imperial Valley Ministries who were arrested Tuesday in a large human trafficking probe in Southern California and Texas
Jose & # 39; Joe & # 39; Anthony Diaz with wife Mercedes Gonzales (aka Mercy Diaz) were also arrested on Tuesday
Later the victims were forced to beg strangers for money up to nine hours a day for six days a week.
The church leaders used different methods of coercion to keep their staff in line.
Sometimes the IVM employees simply refused to take their involuntary employees home. Other times, the victims were told that their children would be taken away if they left or that their loved ones had rejected them and that they could not go anywhere else – that & # 39; only God & # 39; loved them.
Anyone who has left the line can be denied food, according to the public prosecutor.
The US attorney's office in Southern California said clergymen affiliated with Imperial Valley Ministries dozens of underprivileged men and women to & # 39; forced labor & # 39; after they had checked in to group houses designated for drug addicts
& # 39; This is the main prosecution of human trafficking in this district for many years & # 39 ;, said US attorney Robert Brewer in a written statement. & # 39; The charge alleges a terrible abuse of power by church officials who prey on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a hot bed and meals. These victims were held captive, stripped of their modest financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity. & # 39;
Former IVM Pastor Victor Gonzalez, 40, from Brownsville, Texas was one of the arrested in the probe along with Jose Demara Flores, aka Joe Flores, 52, Mercedes & Mercy Diaz & # 39 ;, 37, and Susan Christine Leyva, 39.
El Centro, California church leaders Arnoldo Bugarin, 47, Jose Gaytan, 47, Sonia Murillo, 51, Sergio Partida, 32, Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz, aka Karen Partida, 29, and Azucena Torres, aka Susana Bugarin, 43, were also booked .
San Diego leaders Jose & # 39; Chito & # 39; Morales, 47, was arrested in San Diego.
All 12 suspects were accused of conspiracy, forced labor, conscription and fraud in benefits.
Their victims have all been released.
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