El Centro, California - United States Attorney Robert S. Brewer, Jr. announced the unsealing of a multi-count indictment today, charging 12 persons affiliated with Imperial Valley Ministries (IVM), with crimes arising from a forced labor conspiracy. Defendants were arrested today in El Centro, San Diego, and Brownsville, Texas. IVM leaders are charged with holding program participants against their will, coercing participants to surrender welfare benefits, and compelling participants to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, for the financial benefit of the church leaders.
IVM operates a non-denominational church headquartered in El Centro, and has opened approximately 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico, including Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Jose; Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and Brownsville, Texas.
IVM’s express purpose is to “restore” drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation group homes and raise money to open churches in other cities to do the same. In addition to their church and main office, IVM owns and operates two women’s group homes and a men’s group home the El Centro area. IVM also operated homes in Calexico and Chula Vista. Many participants were recruited from outside of El Centro, including San Diego, and as far away as Texas. IVM members allegedly induced many participants to accompany them to receive free food and shelter with the false promise that they would be provided resources to return home. Many participants, including many who did not require rehabilitation services, claimed they were later held at IVM properties against their will.
IVM members checked in participants at the IVM group homes, where they were required to sign agreements to adhere to rules, including never leaving the house unaccompanied, turning over all identifications and personal items, and “not to discuss things of the world.” At least three of the IVM locations were locked with deadbolts for which only IVM leaders had keys to unlock from the inside. Windows were also nailed shut at some locations, leading one juvenile participant to break a window, escape, and run to a neighboring property to call police. The juvenile was brought to the El Centro Medical Center for cuts sustained from the escape.
The indictment alleges the defendants benefitted financially from a venture that required IVM participants to obtain panhandling proceeds through a scheme intended to cause IVM participants to believe that if they did not panhandle on behalf of IVM they would suffer serious psychological or financial harm. Defendants also allegedly confiscated identification documents in order to prevent IVM participants from leaving IVM and to maintain their labor. Defendants are further alleged to have extorted the surrender of participants’ Electronic Benefits Transaction (EBT) cards obtained through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by the CalFresh Program, by using actual and threatened fear of economic loss. The IVM leaders allegedly then used the SNAP benefits for improper purposes, including providing them to ineligible persons, and improperly instructing the intended recipients to not seek or accept outside employment.
Leaders of IVM, including former Pastor Victor Gonzalez, allegedly instructed other members to refuse to return EBT cards and personal property to participants who asked to leave. IVM members also allegedly used various means to coerce participants to stay and continue panhandling for IVM’s financial benefit by saying their children would be taken away if they left, that they would not receive transportation home, or that loved ones had rejected them and they must stay because “only God” loved them. In many alleged instances, requests for medical care or the return of EBT cards and personal belongings were refused. Punishments for violations of home rules, including talking about the outside world, allegedly included the withholding of food.
IVM members are further accused of using up to 100% of participants’ SNAP benefits, despite only promising to take up to 40%, while also requiring participants to panhandle up to nine hours a day.
- Victor Gonzalez Age: 40 Brownsville, TX
- Susan Christine Leyva (aka Susan Christine Gonzalez, Christy Gonzalez) Age: 39 Brownsville, TX
- Jose “Joe” Anthony Diaz Age: 39 Brownsville, TX
- Mercedes Gonzales (aka Mercy Diaz) Age: 37 Brownsville, TX
- Arnoldo Bugarin Age: Unknown 47 El Centro, CA
- Azucena Torres (aka Susana Bugarin) Age: 43 El Centro, CA
- Sergio Partida Age: 32 El Centro, CA
- Ana Karen Robles-Ortiz (aka Karen Partida) Age: 29 El Centro, CA
- Jose “Chito” Morales Age: 47 San Diego, CA
- Jose Demara Flores (aka Joe Flores) Age: 52 Brownsville, TX
- Jose Gaytan Age: 47 El Centro, CA
- Sonia Murillo Age: 51 El Centro, CA
SUMMARY OF CHARGES
Conspiracy – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 371 Maximum penalty: five years’ imprisonment and $250,000 fine
Forced Labor – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 1589 Maximum penalty: 20 years’ imprisonment and $250,000 fine
Document Servitude – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 1592 Maximum penalty: 20 years’ imprisonment and $250,000 fine
Food Stamp Act (Benefits Fraud) – Title 7, U.S.C., Section 2024(b) Maximum penalty: 20 years’ imprisonment and $250,000 fine (If the benefits were $5,000 or more)
Federal Bureau of Investigation
*The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.