Five Arrested in Brownsville Part of 12-Person Forced Labor Indictment

8 months 3 weeks 2 days ago Wednesday, September 11 2019 Sep 11, 2019 September 11, 2019 5:18 PM September 11, 2019 in News - Local

BROWNSVILLE - Five people were arrested in Brownsville Tuesday as part of a 12-person indictment for forced labor.

The twelve belonged to a wide church network that has one site in Brownsville, TX. 

The home church is based in California.

Leaders at different sites of Imperial Valley Ministries are accused of running a drug rehabilitation program where they essentially forced recruits to panhandle, give up their freedom and possessions, according to a federal indictment from the Southern District of California. 

To read the indictment, see PDF. 

Five people were arrested in Brownsville: Victor Gonzalez and Susan Christine Leyva, a married couple working as pastors; Jose Anthony Diaz and Mercedes Gonzales working as home directors; and, Jose Demara Flores who was a counselor at a men's ranch.

Twelve are named in the indictment. 

According to the charges, the group used various psychological and physical strategies to keep recruits under their control and deprived them of their personal liberty.

Recruits seeking rehabilitation from their drug addictions would agree to be part of their program that required a signed form.

It would state they gave up possession of their money, personal items, identification cards including drivers licenses, debit cards, birth certificates, travel and immigration documents. The form also required they agree to: "If any of the above rules are broken there will be discipline."

At one point a woman tried to leave, but she was caught. 

Robert Brewer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, say, "Windows were nailed shut at some group location homes leading a desperate 17-year-old victim to break a window escape and run to neighboring property to call the police."

One mother who also expressed she wanted to leave the program was told she would not be given her child back to her. 

Medical attention was also denied for several people including a woman with a prolapsed uterus and another one who was pregnant. Communication with family was often denied.  

The recruits were forced to panhandle and their proceeds would be confiscated. 

Those arrested are also facing charges benefits fraud charges. According to the indictment, they would take the EBT (food stamp) cards from the recruits and spend more than the agreed 40% of proceeds. 

Imperial Valley Ministries has more than 30 affiliate "restoration churches" including one in Brownsville.

The evidence gathered and mentioned in the indictment do not appear to have been collected at that site. 

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