Rehab center forced Mexicans into slave labor

AP News
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Posted: Dec 04, 2009 10:43 PM

More than 100 kidnapping victims freed from a rehab center said Friday they were snatched from the streets and held in slave-like conditions _ beaten, robbed and forced to work 18 hours a day making clothespins and shopping bags destined for a department store.

Mexico City Assistant Attorney General Dilcya Garcia said the victims freed in Thursday's raid were malnourished and some had broken ribs from beatings. Police detained 25 suspects accused of running the "Chosen of God" center and are holding them on suspicion of human trafficking. A total of 102 victims were freed.

The rehab center appeared to target homeless people and low-wage stevedores leaving late-night shifts at the vast Central de Abastos produce market. Rights activists and some victims charged that police or city authorities were complicit in or tolerated the kidnappings to get homeless people off the streets and "beautify" the city.

They said the victims _ almost all males, including 11 youths as young 14 _ were put to work making shopping bags for use by Liverpool, an upscale chain of department stores. The workload often exceeded 18 hours a day as orders increased during the Christmas shopping season.

Liverpool's press office said no one was available to comment.

Juan Velazquez Hernandez said he was coming off a shift unloading papayas from a truck around midnight on Nov. 11 when several men suddenly hustled him into a van.

"They just shoved us in like freight, kicking us," said the 81-year-old laborer, adding that he has a home and is not an addict.

He spent the next month in a room with 14 other men at the center, locked gates separating them from the outside, surviving on a thin soup made of rotting vegetables. Guards kept constant watch on the captives, at least eight of whom apparently had mental disabilities.

In interviews at a prosecutors' office, at least two victims alleged that city police not only tolerated the abductions but accepted bribes from the kidnappers.

"It was through this police commander that they got people," said a 44-year-old fruit vendor who identified himself only by his first name, Pilar, for fear of retaliation. "When they had filled the van with people, one of the center employees put his hand in his pocket and gave the commander some money."

Juan Martin Perez, director of homeless advocacy group El Caracol, said authorities appear to have allowed such roundups under a "social cleansing" campaign to get the homeless off the streets.

"The clear aim is to make the city look more clean, pretty, tourist-friendly," El Caracol activist Clara Becerra said.

Perez said that when he went to the center in May to win the freedom of five kidnapped men, employees said they were working under an agreement with three Mexico City boroughs to round up street people.

Garcia, whose office is the prosecutorial arm of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard's government, said those accusations are being investigated.

Some of the victims said they were forbidden from talking for as long as a week at a time by guards they called "godfathers."

"It was a nightmare being in there," said Angel, a 26-year-old market worker also snatched off the street. He described how guards bound, beat and psychologically harassed him for two days.

"They wanted me to admit to something that I wasn't. I am not an alcoholic," he said. "They had me enslaved for three months without a single cent in payment."

At the three-story building with barred doors and windows, located in a poor neighborhood on the city's eastern edge, a sign covering much of the exterior wall describes it as an "Institute for Rehabilitation of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction."

Some former center patients showed up at police stations to claim they received legitimate treatment at the center.

But there was a large difference in the treatment of real addicts committed to the facility by their families, and the rest of the people kidnapped off the streets, the victims said.

Garcia said about 60 percent of people at the center were brought there "by force or deception."