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'Modern-day slavery': Foreign nationals forced to harvest onions at gunpoint in Georgia, indictment says

At least two dozen people are now facing charges of conspiracy to engage in forced labor, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

WAYCROSS, Ga. — Editor's note: Video in this story is coverage of Gov. Brian Kemp signing legislation on human trafficking earlier this year.

Two dozen people have been indicted on federal conspiracy charges after a multi-year probe into human smuggling and labor trafficking on South Georgia farms. The indictment, USA vs. Patricio et al., was unsealed in Nov. 2021.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Blooming Onion, was led by the Homeland Security and lasted at least three years.

The indictment details how the defendants allegedly brought exploited workers into the U.S. and kept them under inhumane conditions in Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware counties.

It says the investigation into the Patricio organization started in Nov. 2018, but the alleged crimes started long before that in 2015 at which time they are accused of fraudulently using the H-2A work visa program to smuggle in people from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to do agricultural work.

The people named in the indictment are accused of requiring the workers to pay for transportation, food and housing while illegally holding their travel and identification.

They're also accused of exploiting the workers and threatening them with violence. The indictment says the workers had to dig for onions with their bare hands -- making 20 cents per bucket -- and were held in fenced work camps with minimal food, plumbing, or clean water. At least two workers died as a result of those conditions.

The 24 conspirators allegedly took in more than $200 million from the scheme, which was laundered through various land, home, and vehicle purchases.

Three of the conspirators are accused of witness intimidation before a federal grand jury.

“Thanks to outstanding work from our law enforcement partners, Operation Blooming Onion frees more than 100 individuals from the shackles of modern-day slavery and will hold accountable those who put them in chains," said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, David Estes.

If you believe you have information about a potential trafficking situation call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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