Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn Wednesday announced that 20 people have been indicted for allegedly operating a ring that earned up to $1 million a year by smuggling scores of deaf Mexicans into the United States and forcing them to sell trinkets in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The defendants were charged with smuggling of immigrants, extortion and conspiring to violate the federal civil-rights statute against involuntary servitude.
“This case is about the oldest and most fundamental form of economic exploitation of one group of human beings by another,” U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter said Wednesday at a news conference.
Among those indicted were: Renato Paoletti-Lemus, 24, identified by victims as the ring’s boss; his father, Jose Paoletti-Moreda; his mother, Delia, 58; and sister, Adriana, 29; and 16 others. All 20 are in custody, either in the United States or in Mexico, and are to be arraigned in federal court in New York Sept. 3.
The father and son, who were described by prosecutors as the organization’s ringleaders, were arrested in Mexico City earlier this month. Carter said his office had begun extradition proceedings to have them returned to New York.
The indictment came as it was announced that six children of some of the deaf and speech-impaired peddlers had been returned to Mexico. Carter said that the organization’s 51 adult victims, currently living in a motel near New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, would remain in the country as material witnesses.
Carter said the exploited Mexicans were kept in two squalid workhouses in Queens and ordered to sell trinkets in shifts around the clock under threat of beatings or other punishment. The situation came to light last month after four peddlers walked into a Queens police precinct and handed a note describing the enterprise to an officer.
The indictment describes some of the brutal rules under which the gang allegedly operated, extracting from the peddlers profits that prosecutors say ranged from $750,000 to $1 million a year:
In May 1994, when one peddler begged his bosses not to force him to work because he was sick, two of the defendants allegedly beat him and forced him into the streets.
This spring, a 25-year-old worker was allegedly tortured by two of the defendants who the indictment says administered electric shocks to him because he was not selling enough trinkets.
To prevent another peddler from fleeing, one of the defendants allegedly beat him, then handcuffed him to a bed for about a week this spring and forced him to assemble key chains.
While Wednesday’s indictment charges that the organization operated between 1993 and 1997, Carter said investigators determined that the scheme began as early as 1988 and that peddlers were transported to Illinois, Washington, Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia.