On April 20, 1997, at around 10 p.m., the Highlands County, Florida, Sheriff's Office received a 911 call; something strange had happened out in the migrant-worker ghetto near Highlands Boulevard. The "neighborhood," a mishmash of rotting trailer homes and plywood shacks, was hidden outside the town of Lake Placid, a mile or two back from the main road. By day, the place was forbidding and cheerless, silent, its forlorn dwellings perched awry, in seeming danger of oozing into the swamp. By night, it was downright menacing, humid and thick with mosquitoes.
When the sheriff's officers arrived, they found an empty van parked beside a lonely, narrow lane. The doors were closed, the lights were still on, and a few feet away, in the steamy hiss of night, a man lay facedown in a pool of blood. He had been shot once in the back of the head, execution-style. Beyond his body stood a pay phone, mounted on a pole.
The 911 caller had offered a description of a truck the sheriff's officers recognized as belonging to a local labor contractor named Ramiro Ramos. At 1:30 a.m., officers were dispatched to Ramos's house.
It's unclear how much the officers knew about the relationship between Ramos and his employees. Migrant farmworkers-nearly all undocumented Mexican and Central Americans, in this case-usually arrive in this country with little comprehension of English or of American culture. Since they frequently come with little money and few connections, the contractor, or crew boss, as he's often called, often provides food, housing, and transportation to and from work. As a result, many farmworkers labor under the near-total control of their employers. Whether the sheriff's officers were or weren't clued in to the fraught implications of this dynamic, they would undoubtedly have gained insight into Ramos's temperament if they'd known the nickname for him used by his crew of seven hundred orange pickers. They called him "El Diablo."
At Ramos's house, police found a truck fitting the caller's description. When a quick search of the vehicle yielded a .45-caliber bullet, police decided to bring in Ramos, his son, and a cousin for questioning. Interrogated at the station house, Ramos admitted that the night before, he had gone driving around the dirt roads outside town, collecting rent from his workers and looking, he said, "for one of his people." But when the police asked him if his search had any connection with the shooting, he said he didn't know anything about it. According to the sheriff's report, Ramos at this point became "upset" and said he wished to leave. He and his relatives were released.
The deputies went into the night, looking for migrant workers who might be willing to offer additional testimony. Witness by witness, a story began to take shape. The dead chofer, or van driver, was a Guatemalan named Ariosto Roblero. The van had belonged to a servicio de transporte, a sort of informal bus company used by migrants. The van and its passengers had been heading from South Florida, where orange season was ending, to North Carolina, where cucumber season was getting under way. Everything seemed fine until they hit the migrant ghetto outside Lake Placid. Roblero had stopped to make a pickup. And then, as the van waited, a car and a pickup truck raced up, screeched to a halt behind and in front of it, and blocked it off. An unknown number of men jumped out, yanked the chofer from his seat, and shot him. The other driver and the terrified passengers scattered into the night.
With each new detail, an increasingly disturbing picture of Ramos's operation began to emerge. El Diablo, it seemed, had been lending money to his workers, then overcharging them for substandard "barracks-style" housing, gouging them with miscellaneous fees, and encouraging them to shop at a high-priced grocery store, conveniently owned by his wife. By the time El Diablo had deducted for this, that, and the other thing, workers said, they were barely breaking even.
Worse, they were trapped. El Diablo's labor camp was in a tiny, isolated country town. He and his family, a network of cousins and in-laws, many of whom also worked as labor contractors, patrolled the area in their massive Ford F-250 pickup trucks, communicating with one another through Nextel walkie-talkie phones. For foreigners unfamiliar with the area, escape was almost unthinkable. But just to make matters crystal clear, El Diablo told his workers that anyone indebted caught trying to run away would be killed.
The previous night's murder, the witnesses alleged, had taken place when an indebted employee had left. The murder was meant to send a signal to local workers and to chofers thinking about aiding their departure from El Diablo's territory.
If the case sounds like a slam dunk, what happened next was, unfortunately, all too common in cases involving undocumented workers. After spilling most of the beans off the record, all the informants but one declined to name Ramos or his accomplices as the perpetrators, or even to offer their own names. One of the passengers in the murder victim's van told detectives that he couldn't remember a single thing about the incident. He managed not to see the color, the model, or the make of either assailant's vehicle, nor did he see who shot whom, or whether, in fact, anyone had even been shot. He only said that he was leaving for Mexico the next day, never to return.
Another witness acknowledged seeing the murder but, according to the sheriff's report, refused to name the shooter, stating his belief that "if he told, he would be killed by the Ramos family." The Ramoses knew where his family lived in Mexico, he said; if they didn't kill him personally, they would kill one of his relatives. He, too, was leaving town and wouldn't tell where he could be reached.
The sheriff's office was stumped. There wasn't much they could do without firmer testimony. However, they contacted federal authorities, and a few weeks later, at dawn on May 1, 1997, local law enforcement agents, backed by the Border Patrol and the U.S. Department of Labor, returned to Ramiro Ramos's house armed with a search warrant. The house and office yielded an arsenal of weapons not generally considered essential to labor management, including a Savage 7-millimeter rifle, a Marlin .22 rifle, an AK-47, a semiautomatic rifle, a Browning 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, and a Remington 700 7-millimeter Magnum rifle. The agents arrested Ramos and charged him with immigration violations.
One would think, perhaps, that authorities would have enough evidence to halt a clearly and alarmingly exploitive situation. Here were seven hundred workers on U.S. soil working under threat of death, for low pay or possibly no money at all.
Five days later, Ramos was released on $20,000 bail. The labor charges were dropped. Weapons charges were never brought. Business went on as usual. And the murder of Ariosto Roblero remains, to this day, "unsolved."
The collective image of the South Florida interior is usually conjured by a single word: swamp. Beyond a smattering of self-described "crackers" and a few thousand American Indians sweating it out on sleepy reservations, the area has traditionally been reluctantly populated. The reasons for this are easy enough to understand: the landscape is unremittingly flat; summer temperatures are stultifying. Even in winter, the air hangs heavy, dank, and still-except, of course, during the frequent thunderstorms and devastating hurricanes for which the area is known.
"I've got swampland in Florida I'd like to sell you" has long been a way of teasing a person for being gullible. The joke refers to the Florida land boom of the 1920s, which began when the increasing popularity of bona fide boomtowns like Miami and Palm Beach caused parcels elsewhere in the state to be gobbled up, usually sight unseen, by speculation-crazed northerners. Tracts billed as "oceanfront" were often situated dozens of miles away from open water or roads and chopped into ridiculous proportions, most famously by a Mr. Charles Ponzi, to as many as twenty-three lots per acre. The fact that few buyers had ever dreamt of actually moving to the "Riviera of America" didn't deter Florida land prices from rising as much as 1,000 percent annually-that is, until the fall of 1926, when the famous Miami hurricane battered the area, crashing the market and causing the overpriced deeds to become as worthless as the muck they represented.
In the last eighty years or so, the area has been tamed, drained, canaled, paved, built upon, planted over, covered with ethylene plastic, injected with pesticides and fertilizers, and thereby induced into yielding a more predictably handsome return on investment. The steamy lowlands have become an outdoor food factory, a hydroponic stew of gook and chemicals capable of producing year-round. Florida now churns out more fruits and vegetables than any state but California, reaping an average of about $7 billion per year.
Almost anything can be grown on Florida's 44,000 farms: some 280 different crops, including tobacco, potatoes, peanuts, escarole, pecans, okra, peppers, cucumbers, snap peas, radishes, sweet corn, and even normally cold-weather-loving blueberries. But the principal commodities are juice oranges (1.2 billion gallons from 103 million trees), tomatoes (1.5 billion pounds a year), and sugarcane (about a half billion dollars a year).
Some forty miles inland from Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island is the town of Immokalee. A few towns down from Lake Placid, it sits at the bottom of a cluster of remote agricultural outposts dotting the South Florida interior. Three stoplights long, Immokalee (which rhymes with broccoli and means "my home" in Seminole) is bordered on the south by the Big Cypress Swamp and surrounded on all other sides by citrus groves and tomato fields. Outside town, there are pretty-enough sights to be seen: stands of cypress, southern pine draped with Spanish moss, canals lined with cattails, and wading pink flamingoes. Inside the town limits, however, the place looks more like a work camp or factory than an American community.
Municipal authorities in Immokalee bother little with public services; for several days when I was there in 2002, a visitor turning onto Main Street would pass a decapitated black dog, left to rot on the median strip across from a new-looking Walgreens. In 2001, a county sheriff's deputy was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for dealing crack and shaking down local drug dealers.
The town's official population is about twenty thousand, but during the growing season, between November and May, it increases to nearly twice that. The year-to-year population reflects the current wave of migrants and the detritus of previous ones: forty years ago, the town consisted largely of poor whites, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans. In the 1980s, Haitians arrived. A little later, the Mexicans and Guatemalans trickled in. Today, some Haitians, whites, and African Americans remain, but the bulk of the population consists of Mexican and Central American migrants.
The arduousness of farm labor has been well documented. The average migrant has a life expectancy of just forty-nine years. Twenty thousand farmworkers require medical treatment acute pesticide poisoning each year; at least that many more cases go unreported. Nationally, 50 percent of migrants-up from 12 percent in 1990-are without legal work papers. Their median annual income is somewhere around $7,500.
Florida farmworkers have it even worse. No one knows for sure how many there are. The most reliable guess is about three hundred thousand. An estimated 80 percent of them have no work papers, and at last count, in 1998, their average yearly pay was an estimated $6,574. Adjusted for inflation, these income levels have fallen by as much as 60 percent in the last twenty years.
According to the Florida Tomato Committee, during the 2005-2006 growing season, Florida farmers were paid $10.27 per twenty-five-pound box of tomatoes. The migrants who pick the tomatoes, however, are paid an average of 45 cents per bucket, a rate that has remained unchanged for thirty years.
To earn $50 in a day, an Immokalee picker must harvest two tons of tomatoes, or 125 buckets. Each bucket weighs about thirty-two pounds. Once a worker has picked enough tomatoes to fill it-about fifty, depending on the size-he must then hoist the bucket onto his shoulder and walk/run across soft, spongy, lumpy soil to the dumpeador, an overseer who checks each bucket for ripeness. The worker then raises his bucket, dumps its contents into a central bin, and runs back to the tomato plant, anywhere from a few yards to a hundred yards away.
Orange and grapefruit picking pay slightly better, but the hours are longer. To get to the fruit, pickers must climb twelve- to eighteen-foot-high ladders, shakily propped on soggy soil against shifty boughs, then reach deep into thorny branches, thrusting both hands among pesticide-coated leaves before twisting the fruit from its stem and rapidly stuffing it into a shoulder-slung moral, or pick sack. A full sack weighs about a hundred pounds; it takes ten sacks-about two thousand oranges-to fill a bano, a bin the size of a large wading pool. Each bin earns the worker a ficha, or token, redeemable for about seven dollars. An average worker in a typical field under decent conditions can fill six, seven, maybe eight bins a day. After a rain, though, or in an aging field with overgrown trees, the same picker might work an entire day and fill only three bins.
Most Americans have by now heard about the dangers of illegal migration. For starters, there are the perils of crossing the border, which include running out of food and water and dying in the desert heat. Between 1995 and 2004, more than 3,000 Mexicans died while trying to enter the United States. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, the death rate is rising; in a recent twelve-month period, a record 460 migrants died crossing the border.
Moreover, gangs and police on the Mexican side of the border prey on migrants, knowing that they are seldom armed and frequently carrying cash. (The term used by coyotes, the notorious professionals who guide or smuggle migrants across the border, to describe their clients is pollos-chickens, vulnerable and ripe for plucking.) On the American side of the border, migrants lucky enough to survive the crossing face armed Border Patrol guards, canines, choppers, and, most recently, self-styled vigilante groups like the Arizona-based Minuteman Project, which, since April 2005, has chartered at least twenty chapters across the country.
Although farmwork has never been a lark, it's possible to find fairly recent accounts of farmworkers who were happy with their profession. In Daniel Rothenberg's With These Hands, published in 2000, numerous farmworkers in the United States recount their experiences. One, a former Vietnam veteran named Gino Mancini, recalled: If somebody asks me what I do for a living, I say, "I'm a fruit tramp." To me, fruit tramp is not an insult. I'm proud of what I do. I pick fruit. I migrate. Once, I cut out an article that listed two hundred and fifty jobs, from the most prestigious to the least prestigious. The last job, number two hundred and fifty, was migrant worker. Bottom of the list. It actually made me feel good. I chose this lifestyle and I like it...