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Twin Cities construction is booming, and human traffickers are coming to feed

Edel Rodriguez

Edel Rodriguez

I. The bottom drops out

Yimer Iriarte first dreamed of America at age 16, after growing rawboned from raising vegetables in Honduras’ valley lands. It was this work that incapacitated his father before him, forcing Iriarte to drop out of school after the fifth grade to help support four younger siblings.

With no interest in joining the gang that controlled his neighborhood—which robbed and killed young men who refused to join their ranks—his only option was to work with his hands.

Yet Honduras was in the throes of a constitutional crisis. President Manuel Zelaya, a modest leftist, had raised the minimum wage in an attempt to salve one of Latin America’s largest wealth gaps. He’d also fraternized with Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chavez, a red flag to Honduras’ elite.

So the military kidnapped Zelaya and packed him off to Costa Rica. Protests erupted. The insurgent government fired into crowds and assassinated union leaders, human rights activists, and journalists. Civil liberties were suspended.

The United States, which both trained and funded Honduran soldiers, did little to defend democracy.

Yeovani Castro Romero says he was strangled when he tried to quit. The boss, Douglas Maroto Sanchez of Martinez Construction, was cited for fifth-degree assault.

Yeovani Castro Romero says he was strangled when he tried to quit. The boss, Douglas Maroto Sanchez of Martinez Construction, was cited for fifth-degree assault. Maple Grove Police Department

When the nation’s tourism industry collapsed, many women found work in sweatshops. They were considered to be nimbler and more docile—and less likely to unionize. Men were left with few options outside the drug trade. So the doe-eyed Iriarte made for America.

He was apprehended at the southern border, one of 18,000 unaccompanied Honduran children to arrive that year. He applied for asylum and was paroled to an elder half-sister. But his application languished, while his presence inflamed tensions between the sister and her husband. Iriarte struck out once more, disappearing into America’s underground economy.

He grew corn and tomatoes up and down the East Coast, then ventured into construction with a company that shipped him from site to site throughout the heartland. For years he lived out of cheap hotels, sending money home every month.

Eventually he found himself building a house in Apple Valley, where his luck changed.

One day Ricardo Batres, a pint-sized, sweet-talking El Salvadoran man, walked onto the site and introduced himself as owner of American Contractors and Associates. He dazzled Iriarte with offers of a lucrative partnership, a room in a house free of charge, and—to celebrate the completion of their first project—a pleasure cruise down the Mississippi River.

They were treasures Iriarte, now 21, will never forget.

Yet time would quell his hopes. The house Batres rented for 10 workers came without heat and hot water, nor were they allowed to use the stove. The landlord eventually threatened eviction, claiming Batres hadn’t paid the rent.

The job consisted of framing and siding homes. But standard safety precautions went neglected. The men began to get hurt. Among them was Iriarte, who fell from second-story scaffolding while trying to lift a roof truss on a townhome in Golden Valley. He splintered a bone in the base of his spine.

He called the boss in panic. Batres told him to keep working and forget about going to the hospital, Iriarte says, lest he be deported. Batres sent him to a “traditional healer” instead, claiming he’d met the woman in El Salvador during his time as a military officer, when she treated wounded soldiers. She turned out to be little more than a woman who gave massages at her home in Fridley.

Workers whispered of quitting. Several notified Batres of their intent to find better employ if conditions didn’t improve. But before it came to that, ICE zeroed in.

On a summer morning last year, three Immigration SUVs surrounded the men as they set off for work from their house in Bloomington. As agents demanded their IDs, Iriarte sat frozen in a co-worker’s car, mortified at the thought of failing his family.

He was locked up in the Carver County jail, where unrelenting pain and guilt kept him awake at night.

Batres came to visit at first. He vowed to find an attorney, having Iriarte sign papers he couldn’t read. But as the months dragged on and the young worker was summoned to court, no lawyer appeared at his side.

Eventually, the chronicle of Iriarte and his fellow workers reached Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who charged Batres in September with insurance fraud, theft of public funds, and labor trafficking—profiting through force or intimidation.

According to the complaint, Batres skimped on workers comp insurance, using the specter of deportation to keep injured workers from seeing doctors. When one man broke his back and went to the hospital, Batres applied for emergency medical funds and stole more than $45,000 from public insurance programs, Freeman contends. He allegedly tricked workers into signing statements saying they were independent contractors, not employees.

Batres has yet to make a plea. His attorney, Frederic Bruno, did not respond for comment.

Freeman announced the charges at Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a labor advocacy center in Powderhorn. In attendance was a contingent of union stonemasons, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers in work boots and blaze orange. It was a triumphant moment.

Laborers say the Twin Cities construction industry is riddled with such abuses. In the mad rush to amass desperately needed housing stock, they’ve only become more obvious.

Yet it’s rare for anyone to be prosecuted. Freeman’s move marks just the first case in Minnesota history to invoke the statute against labor trafficking.

II. The pyramid of prosperity

Construction sites are protean beehives, with laborers practicing every trade imaginable in the birth cycle of a building, coming and going as they’re needed.

General contractors auction slices of work to subcontractors, who then subcontract to second and third tiers. Each faces fierce bidding for the jobs, driving incentive to wring money out of every stop.

Though public projects like schools must disclose the names and bids of contractors, most private projects don’t. The opacity of the production line makes it nearly impossible to tell whether true professionals or harried cobblers are responsible for all the minute details that spell the difference between a 10-year or 100-year building.

It also makes it easy to conceal the cheating of laborers, though the signs are many.

Kevin Pranis of the Laborers International union says his members see workers arrive in unmarked vans with Southern license plates, wearing tennis shoes without hard hats. While local contractors tend to know each other, these arrivals are fleeting. Some don’t understand English. Others say they’re not allowed to talk. Now and then they’ll admit they have no home to call their own, relying on employers for housing. On Monday mornings, it’s not uncommon for union members to find a great deal of work accomplished over the weekend, out of sight.

A few years ago, contractors spotted a 14-year-old boy on a job site, says Dan McConnell of Minneapolis Building Trades. The union collected statements and confronted the general contractor, but by then the child had disappeared.

Hard evidence is difficult to pin down. A worker who’s injured and taken away in the back of a pickup truck may never be seen again. Those who bear witness risk blacklisting if they speak up for victims.

Plenty of companies win contracts by underpaying undocumented labor, Pranis says, yet his members tend not to blame the immigrant at the bottom of the dogpile. Those who win their daily work based on dollars and cents are acutely aware that pressure comes from the top, where developers only have eyes for price.

“No amount of immigration enforcement is going to help,” Pranis says. “In fact, what we see is the opposite. The more immigration enforcement pushes people further into the shadows, they become that much less willing to stand up for themselves, they become that much cheaper to use.”

Adalid Zavala Lopez, a 38-year-old Honduran man who supports a wife and two children 3,000 miles away, is a sparing speaker with a perceptive gaze. He went to work for Ricardo Batres in June 2017 at the recommendation of Iriarte, a hometown friend. Three weeks later, he was sitting in the Carver County jail.

A month crawled by. Zavala Lopez decided to represent himself. Through an interpreter, he managed to convince a judge to set bail because he’d never committed a crime.

Batres posted the bond, then used his own address to complete the paperwork. That meant Zavala Lopez had to make his weekly check-in call with immigration from Batres’ house.

The day after his release, Zavala Lopez returned to work, confronted by a fresh agreement, he says: Batres wanted him to work off $13,000—$6,000 for the bond, and $7,000 for a lawyer who’d help him settle his case and obtain permanent residency.

Batres boasted of having powerful connections within ICE, says Zavala Lopez, implying he’d had the workers arrested when they tried to leave, just as he was responsible for their release. Feeling defenseless and indebted, Zavala Lopez worked up to 60 hours a week.

A few months later, he and another man carried a 300-pound prefab wall through a McMansion site in Lake Elmo. As they tried to anchor it in place, a whip of wind toppled the wall, which broke and rained down in chunks. Buried beneath the debris, Zavala Lopez’s entire body went numb. Two co-workers dug him out and called the boss.

Batres ordered them to stay put—he was coming. But a half-hour later, he was nowhere to be found, Zavala Lopez says. His co-workers slung his arms over their shoulders and dragged him, wailing, to a car, where they nudged him gingerly into the passenger seat.

Batres intercepted the workers en route to the hospital and took Zavala Lopez the rest of the way. According to the criminal complaint, Batres told doctors Zavala Lopez was a personal friend whose injuries came from helping him clean out his house. This allegedly allowed him to receive emergency medical assistance, including $31,000 through Medicaid, $10,000 through Minnesota Care, and $4,200 through the Hennepin County Charity Care program.

X-rays revealed multiple spinal fractures. Doctors fitted Zavala Lopez with a body cast and kept him immobilized for six days. He was released with a rubber girdle, homebound for five months.

Slowly he returned to work, a day here and there, four or five hours at a time. Consigned to a narrow range of motion, he can no longer lift more than 50 pounds, run, or play soccer. The pain is abiding.

“The anger is there, but you have to trust that things are going to work out, and that’s that,” he says now. “You can’t stay that way, because you could poison yourself.”

Zavala Lopez called Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha. An outreach worker once handed him a flier on a job site, which he’d kept. Still, he was fearful of Batres’ presumed influence with Immigration, and would only explain his story in fits and starts. He scheduled, then canceled, several meetings with CTUL.

It was only through persistent reassurance that Zavala Lopez finally agreed to meet. That’s when he revealed he’d just been released from ICE custody, where his friend Iriarte remained.

CTUL arranged for attorneys to meet with both. They discovered that, despite Batres’ promises, no lawyer had worked on their behalf.

The cost of labor floats up in a boom economy when there’s plenty of work to go around, leaving incentive to overlook those who toil in less than humane conditions.

“When I talk to [developers], they’re pushing back on me about how much it costs to hire a union worker,” McConnell says. “But there shouldn’t be any reason why our prices are higher than any other contractor unless they’re cheating: Their materials are substandard, they’re not paying the wages.”

After all, large developers like Mortensen and Ryan use union labor, he notes, and they’re far from destitute.

Iriarte and Zavala Lopez worked on projects headed by Reuter Walton, whose portfolio includes luxury apartments, and Lennar, the largest home-builder in America. Both blamed unnamed subcontractors for enlisting Batres without their knowledge.

“If you’re a developer, construction is your business and the money you make is based on your ability to know the business really well,” says Pranis. “The truth is, they know all kinds of details they don’t want you to know about, and they know enough to know when not to ask.”

III. The losing sport

Every other Thursday, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha holds a meeting at its Chicago Avenue center for workers whose bosses refuse to pay.

Most agreements in the shadow economy are verbal, timesheets and paystubs nonexistent. Employers occasionally dispute workers’ handwritten logs. Sometimes, they promise a lump sum upon completion of a project, then refuse to settle up, claiming they’ve yet to be paid themselves. Workers can end up losing thousands of dollars.

Over the past decade, CTUL has recovered more than $175,000 in lost wages, mostly by confronting employers without the help of authorities.

In these he-said, she-said disputes, CTUL doesn’t consider itself judge of absolute truth, says organizing director Ruth Schultz. They help workers articulate what they believe they’re owed, and attempt to reach a settlement if an employer disputes a claim.

Sometimes they’ll dispatch a public protest. But usually the mere prospect of a dispute going public is enough to make employers treat workers seriously, Schultz says.

Workers prefer this to protracted investigations. But every now and then, there’s no other option.

Last summer, 38-year-old Yeovani Castro Romero, a roofer from El Salvador, found himself working on a $400,000 house in Maple Grove. He’d been given a job hanging sheetrock by a man he knew from various remodeling projects, Douglas Maroto Sanchez, owner of Martinez Construction.

When he was finished, Maroto Sanchez offered more work installing doors and painting walls. In hindsight, Castro Romero says, his fatal mistake was never getting anything in writing.

The boss kept adding to the agreed upon tasks, he says, withholding payment until he’d finished the bathroom and installed vents, carpet, and guardrails. There were days he worked from 8 a.m. to midnight, but Maroto Sanchez insisted he worked too slowly, calling him malignant names like “Hijueputa”—son of a bitch.

Castro Romero brought in three more men to help complete the remodel. His wife had just given birth. He couldn’t afford to lose his payday after all the time he’d put in.

On July 10, after Castro Romero had worked close to a month, he and Maroto Sanchez again argued over the pace of the project. It was 3 p.m., and Castro Romero hadn’t eaten all day. He felt misused and energy-deprived. Yet Maroto Sanchez insisted he complete the day’s work before leaving for food.

The men stood close. A screaming match ensued. Castro Romero says that as Maroto Sanchez, head and shoulders taller, jabbed a finger in his chest, he quit on the spot and demanded his money.

He claims Maroto Sanchez wrapped his hands around his neck, picked him up off the ground, and threw him back down.

Castro Romero dialed 911. A co-worker who’d snapped photos of the assault corroborated everything. Maroto Sanchez admitted “losing his cool.” He was cited for fifth-degree assault and fined $800. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Castro Romero so feared retaliation that when CTUL offered to help him sue for the lost wages, he never called back. “Sometimes we lose so much money, it’s like a sport,” he jokes.

The Economic Policy Institute, a D.C. think tank, estimates that more money is stolen through wage theft in America than through bank robberies, gas station holdups, auto theft, and muggings combined. Yet there aren’t many cops on the corporate crime beat, says University of Minnesota Professor Aaron Sojourner.

About 135,000 people are employed in Minnesota’s construction industry, almost as many as the summer before the Great Recession. Yet the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry has but nine agents working on wage theft, with four more investigating cases where employers attempt to save costs by misrepresenting workers as independent contractors. They can only levy fines, not conduct criminal investigations.

Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce probes workers comp fraud. The splitting of duties leads to separate investigations that, if viewed in totality, could amount to labor trafficking.

Over the last decade, the Department of Labor twiced fined Ricardo Batres for misclassifying workers, for a total of $15,000. Yet he was allowed to keep his license until after he was criminally charged in September.

“It’s not just a matter of one worker calling a hotline or something,” Sojourner says. “It takes a lawyer to sit down and do depositions, collect evidence, put it all together in a strong case that’s presented to the enforcement agency so they believe it’s credible, widespread, and egregious enough to merit the use of their very limited resources.

“The small-scale operators can really fly under the radar for a long time.”

IV. Tightrope to freedom

For seven withering months, Yimer Iriarte lay in jail with what he later learned was a broken back. He says his medical care amounted to an ice pack.

Iriarte wasn’t eligible for bond because he’d applied for asylum at 16, then disappeared. That’s not uncommon for kids who arrive alone in the U.S., says his attorney, Michele Garnett McKenzie of Advocates for Human Rights.

“You don’t have papers. You can’t contact family easily to get witness statements. You may not have any documented evidence because the persecutor may not have written a note saying, ‘Here, I’m persecuting you on account of this reason.’ It’s all very difficult to do and it’s all the asylum seeker’s job to do it.”

So kids like Iriarte, seeking a chance to work, fade off to do just that. Once initiated into the underground economy, he thought he’d found a friend in Batres, a professed Christian who purported to teach and shelter him.

Even in jail, Iriarte kept faith. He believed the boss had a lawyer working for him on the outside, and when organizers from CTUL asked to hear his story, he lied to protect Batres.

“Everything was thanks to my co-worker Adalid [Zavala Lopez],” Iriarte says now. “He told me it was time I woke up and stopped covering for him.”

Finally the two men decided to help investigators—the most elusive ingredient in prosecuting traffickers, says Freeman.

The county attorney’s office originally hoped to punch higher up the contractor chain, but Freeman didn’t feel there was hard evidence—written or recorded missives—of an intentional conspiracy. Still, there’s deterrent value in embarrassing the companies responsible, even if they can’t be found legally culpable.

Says Freeman: “If I were a general contractor right now, I’m looking at all my subs—and the subs to the subs—and saying, ‘Make sure your subs aren’t like this. We don’t need the bad publicity. We don’t need the hassles.’”

Initially, there were fears that key witnesses would be deported before the case could lift off. One option was to get them in line for the U visa—a protective status for crime victims who collaborate with police to catch violent offenders. It opens a path to permanent residency and potential citizenship.

Yet only 10,000 are issued each year. As applicants shuffle through an 11-year waiting list, they can be deported at any time.

That leaves the T visa, which is narrowly tailored for victims of “severe trafficking.”

Attorney Jesus Torres Garza, who represents Zavala Lopez, says the Department of Homeland Security has granted his client a reprieve from deportation until the case is adjudicated. Given the T visa could be issued in a matter of months, and it could be more than a year before Batres stands trial, Torres Garza is confident his client will be able to remain in America.

Iriarte, who’d spent the last five years of his life traversing the country without being able to enjoy its beauty, hopes he will as well.

“In this industry a lot of us are victims,” he says. “And, truthfully, I think that I would still like to be someone in this life, and blaze a path for new generations. I want them to understand that we’re not animals.”