Ministry leaders arrested in Texas, California, charged with forced labor

Church leaders charged with using homeless people as forced labor

Church leaders charged with forced labor of homeless people

That was just one of the allegations mentioned in a federal grand-jury indictment unsealed Tuesday that says a dozen leaders of the nondenominational Imperial Valley Ministries, based in California, not only forced their victims to panhandle, but also to hand over their welfare benefits, CNN reports.

"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", U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said.

Prosecutors say all the alleged victims are now free.

The church claimed to "restore" drug addicts at its group homes and raise money for IVM so it could open more churches and continue its mission in other cities, but numerous victims didn't require rehabilitation, the Justice Department pointed out.

They face charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.

IVM operates a nondenominational church in El Centro and is said to have some 30 church affiliates throughout the USA and Mexico, with locations in cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The 12 defendants, including Victor Gonzalez, the former pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries - a non-denominational church that has about 30 affiliate groups throughout the USA and Mexico - were arrested on Tuesday in California and Texas.

Most of the alleged victims were recruited from outside El Centro, including from San Diego and Texas, with offers of free food and shelter. According to prosecutors, IVM also promised new members they would be given resources to eventually return home.

Once they came on board, officials said, victims were then forced to sign agreements promising to obey various rules, including no communication with anyone outside the church, confiscation of identification documents like licenses and passports, no talking about the outside world and a promise to give 30 percent of any income they were receiving to the church. Punishments reportedly included the withholding of food: In one instance, church leaders allegedly refused to allow a diabetic woman to obtain insulin or food in response to her low blood sugar.

Some former residents, including those who did not require drug rehabilitation services, claim they were being held against their will.

"Windows were nailed shut at some group home locations, leading a desperate 17-year-old victim to break a window, escape, and run to a neighboring property to call police", said a statement from the USA attorney's office.

They were also banned from using the telephone, and told to avoid their family because "only God" loved them now, said officials.

"This is the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years", Brewer added.

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.

"Victims of human trafficking are often unseen by society, left pleading in silence", FBI Special Agent-In-Charge Scott Brunner said in a statement.

The church ran multiple group homes in the El Centro area, Calexico and Chula Vista.

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