Guilty pleas in largest US human trafficking case

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2011 (AFP) - Three US men pleaded guilty to luring 600 Thai farm workers to US farms and exploiting their labor in a case the Justice Department described as the largest human trafficking case in US history.

Bruce Schwartz, 53, Sam Wongsesanit, 40, and Shane Germann, 42, pleaded guilty to human trafficking violations, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

The Thai nationals were brought into the United States between 2001 and 2007 under the federal agricultural guest worker program by the Los Angeles-based recruiting company Global Horizons.

The workers were sent to farms in Hawaii and Washington state.

The three men "conspired to coerce the agricultural labor and services of the Thai nationals" by tricking the recruits into incurring debts secured by the workers' homes and family land in Thailand, then confiscating their passports once in the United States.

The traffickers threatened to send the victims back home where they would face "destitution, homelessness and other serious harm if they did not remain in the defendants' service for meager earnings," the Justice Department said.

The three men "pleaded guilty to participating in the largest human trafficking scheme ever seen by the Department of Justice," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the department's Civil Rights division.

Schwartz pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit forced labor, and Germann and Wongsesanit pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit document servitude.

Law enforcement officials from several US states, including Hawaii, California and New York, worked on the case.

Schwartz, Wongsesanit and Germann each face maximum sentences of five years in prison, while a fourth person in the case, Podjanee Sinchai, was charged and convicted in Thailand with recruitment fraud and sentenced to four years in prison, the statement read.

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