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Feds arrest California church leaders for using homeless people as panhandling slaves

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California clergy members ‘forced homeless people to beg for cash for the church for up to nine hours a day, refused a diabetic panhandler her medicine, and threatened to take away their children if they tried to leave’

  • Authorities arrested 12 Imperial Valley Ministries leaders in the southern California cities of El Centro and San Diego and Brownsville, Texas on Tuesday 
  • They were charged with forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud 
  • The suspects were arraigned in federal court in El Centro Tuesday afternoon
  • Prosecutors say the clergy leaders checked their mostly homeless victims into  IVM group homes and required to sign agreements to follow certain rules
  • Authorities say IVM leaders took their alleged victims’ IDs, locked them inside the group homes with deadbolts and kept them there against their will
  • IVM leaders also stole people’s SNAP federal food assistance cards and forced them to panhandle in the streets for money before taking their charitable gains 
  • An estimated 30 affiliated churches operate within the IVM network

Twelve leaders of a southern California and Texas-based network of churches were arrested by federal authorities Tuesday and accused of forcing vulnerable people in their care, many who were homeless, to effectively work as panhandling slaves.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Southern California said a former pastor and other clergy members affiliated with Imperial Valley Ministries subjected dozens of underprivileged men and women into ‘forced labor’ after checking them into group homes designated for drug addicts.

The victims said they had any form of identification – driver’s licenses, passports, etc. – stolen by the church leaders who also took their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards and refused to return them.

The clergy members locked their victims in their group homes with deadbolts, denying them the right to leave.

Victor Gonzalez (left) was one of 12 Imperial Valley Ministries leaders arrested Tuesday in a major human trafficking probe in southern California and Texas

Victor Gonzalez (left) was one of 12 Imperial Valley Ministries leaders arrested Tuesday in a major human trafficking probe in southern California and Texas

Jose 'Joe' Anthony Diaz with wife Mercedes Gonzales (aka Mercy Diaz) were also arrested Tuesday

Jose ‘Joe’ Anthony Diaz with wife Mercedes Gonzales (aka Mercy Diaz) were also arrested Tuesday

Later the victims were compelled to beg strangers on the street for money up to nine hours a day for six days a week.

The church leaders used several coercion methods to keep their workforce in line. 

Sometimes the IVM staffers simply refused to take their involuntary workers home.  Other times the victims were told their children would be taken away if they left or that their loved ones had rejected them and they had no where else to go – that ‘only God’ loved them.

Anyone who got out of line could be denied food to eat, according to prosecutors. 

The U.S. Attorney's office in Southern California said clergy members affiliated with Imperial Valley Ministries subjected dozens of underprivileged men and women to 'forced labor' after checking them into group homes designated for drug addicts

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Southern California said clergy members affiliated with Imperial Valley Ministries subjected dozens of underprivileged men and women to ‘forced labor’ after checking them into group homes designated for drug addicts

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Victor Gonzalez and wife  Susan Christine Leyva(aka Susan Christine Gonzalez,Christy Gonzalez) California clergy members 'forced homeless people to beg for cash for the church for up to nine hours a day, refused a diabetic panhandler her medicine, and threatened to take away their children if they tried to leave'

Former IVM Pastor Victor Gonzalez, 40, of Brownsville, Texas, and his wife Susan Christine Leyva, 39, (pictured together) were both arrested in the probe 

Sergio Partida and wife Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz (aka Karen Partida) were also booked

Sergio Partida and wife Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz (aka Karen Partida) were also booked

‘This is the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years,’ U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a written statement. 

‘The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals. These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.’

Former IVM Pastor Victor Gonzalez, 40, of Brownsville, Texas was among those arrested in the probe along with Jose Demara Flores, aka Joe Flores, 52, Mercedes ‘Mercy Diaz’, 37, and Susan Christine Leyva, 39.

El Centro, California church leaders  Arnoldo Bugarin, 47, Jose Gaytan, 47, Sonia Murillo, 51, Sergio Partida, 32, Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz, aka Karen Partida, 29, and Azucena Torres, aka Susana Bugarin, 43, were also booked.

San Diego leaders Jose ‘Chito’ Morales, 47, was arrested in San Diego.

All 12 suspects were charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud.

Their victims have all been set free. 

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