IMPERIAL — The Department of Justice’s Office of the United States Attorney (Southern District) held a press conference at the Imperial Valley Law Enforcement Coordination Center regarding Imperial Valley Ministries September 10.
“Today, we’ve unsealed an indictment charging 12 leaders of the Imperial Valley Ministries, an El Centro-based church, for participating in a forced-labor conspiracy that victimized dozens of people from all over the southwestern United States,” said United States Attorney Robert S. Brewer.
The church leaders allegedly represented themselves as “missionaries to drug addicts” and traveled throughout the southwest region to recruit participants, many of whom were homeless but not necessarily drug addicted.
According to law enforcement officials, church leaders promised “no-charge homes for men and women with drug-related problems.”
“According to our indictment, what the participants got was something very different and very illegal,” said Brewer.
The indictment alleges an abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable, homeless people with false promises of food and shelter.
“Instead, these victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, striped of their identification, their freedom, and their dignity,” said Brewer.
The indictment alleges the church leaders locked victims inside group homes, forced victims to beg for money (up to nine hours a day, six days a week and turn over all the money they received), and confiscated identification documents (such as driver licenses, passports, immigration papers, and identification cards) in order to prevent the victims from escaping. IVM reportedly stole the victims’ welfare benefits and then required adherence to house rules. If any of the alleged rules were broken, the leaders promised “discipline” to the disobedient.
“Windows were nailed shut at some group location homes (reportedly) leading a desperate 17–year old victim to break a window, escape, and run to a neighboring property to call the police,” said Brewer. “In another instance, church leaders allegedly refused to allow a diabetic victim to obtain medicine, medical supplies, and even food in response to low blood-sugar.”
The indictment further alleges the church leaders told victims their children would be taken away from them if they left and that they must stay because “only God” loved them now.
“All of the identified victims in this case are now free,” said Brewer.
There were 31 victims identified in the indictment, but additional victims also were interviewed.
According to the Department of Justice, victim specialists have been on stand-by to provide immediate assistance to any additional victims found in order to provide shelter, transportation, and necessary support services.
“As of [September 10], all 12 defendants are in custody following arrests made in El Centro, San Diego, and Brownsville, Texas,” said Brewer. “The former pastor of the church, Victor Gonzales, was arrested in Brownsville, Texas.”
The defendants will be arraigned in federal court September 11.
“We consider this case and others like it to be extremely important because the trafficking of men, women, and children for labor, for any services is so appalling that it is one of the attorney general’s and this U.S. attorney’s office top priorities," said Brewer. “I would like this case to send a message to the victims — we want to help. These cases are few and far between because many victims live in fear, powerless to report the crimes against them. When we are unaware of the crimes, we cannot prosecute. You have to report these types of crimes to law enforcement so we can help. And to law the breakers — we will find you and you will be brought to justice.”
An indictment contains charges only and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.