MARION, Ohio (AP) — The thousand-mile journey to the Texas border was supposed to bring the Guatemalan teenagers to a better life. Instead, it was the beginning of a terrible ordeal: Prosecutors say they were fraudulently plucked from U.S. custody by conspirators posing as friends or family who forced them to work as virtual slaves.
As the country's immigration system was being overwhelmed by an unprecedented flow of unaccompanied children fleeing unrest in Central America, one of their countrymen orchestrated the scheme to force them to work on egg farms in Ohio, prosecutors said.
Arodolo Rigoberto Castillo-Serrano pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Cleveland to single counts of forced labor conspiracy, forced labor, witness tampering and encouraging illegal entry into the country. His sentencing date is to be set.
Castillo-Serrano, a 33-year-old Guatemalan, has been in the U.S. illegally for much of the past decade, prosecutors say. In some cases, prosecutors say, he made victims' family members sign over deeds to their property in Guatemala to pay for transporting the boys, with assurances they would be enrolled in school here. That never happened.
His attorney Monday declined to comment until the sentencing.
U.S. immigration policy dictates that unaccompanied minors trying to escape dangerous situations can't be turned away. Once the teens were in federal custody, false paperwork was submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to the indictment issued in July. Then the conspirators took custody, promising to provide shelter and get them to court dates that would determine their immigration status.
Instead, paid drivers known as "coyotes" whisked the boys to Ohio, where they essentially went underground, forced to work long hours, live in dilapidated trailers and hand over most of their earnings to pay for their passage to the U.S.
Federal agents found 10 victims — eight teens and two men in their 20s — in this case, but witnesses say many others had been brought to the U.S. from Guatemala through Castillo-Serrano's pipeline.
Last year, when prosecutors say seven of the teen victims crossed the border from Mexico into Texas, states along the border were dealing with a humanitarian crisis as thousands of unaccompanied children arrived from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"You have a law that is designed to protect unaccompanied children and put them in the care of HHS until their situation can be resolved, and you have unscrupulous people who took advantage of it," said David Leopold, a Cleveland immigration attorney familiar with last year's parade of unaccompanied minors to the U.S. border. "I think what happened here was they took advantage of a system that was overwhelmed and they did it at the expense of children."
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, wouldn't comment on the criminal case but said in an email that case managers assigned to unaccompanied children are supposed to verify a potential sponsor's identity and relationship before releasing the child to the sponsor. That's supposed to include a background check and checking fingerprints against the FBI database. It's not clear if all that that was done in these cases.
The boys, ages 15, 16 and 17 when they arrived from Guatemala, were threatened with violence if they complained or stepped out of line, prosecutors said in court documents. Vans picked them up before dawn at the trailer park in Marion, about an hour's drive north of Columbus, to take them to work, then brought them home at night.
The teens were put to work at Trillium Farms, which relied on a contractor, one of the people charged in the case, to recruit and hire the workers. Trillium, which produces more than 2 billion eggs per year at various farms around central Ohio, said it was unaware of what was happening with the contractor and the workers and hasn't been charged.
The web started to unravel after the first alleged victims and their families began to talk to authorities in 2013. Then, last Dec. 17, federal agents swarmed the remote trailer park and moved the victims out. The grand jury indictment charged Castillo-Serrano and three others with crimes including forced-labor conspiracy, lying to the government, encouraging illegal entry into the U.S. and harboring an immigrant in the country illegally.
One defendant is scheduled for sentencing in December after pleading guilty to single counts of forced labor conspiracy and encouraging illegal entry. Two others have pleaded not guilty.
Federal officials won't comment on what's next for the Guatemalan boys who were rescued.
"We view them as victims who are witnesses in our case," said Michael Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cleveland. "So we're making sure they get the services they need."