Monday, July 05, 2004 - From Peru, two tales of immigration - Long Island News
This story was reported by VÍCTOR MANUEL RAMOS, SAMUEL BRUCHEY, JOHN MORENO GONZALES, BART JONES and ROBERT E. KESSLER, and was written by Bruchey.

July 5, 2004, 7:16 PM EDT

To federal authorities, the trafficking ring uncovered last month inside ragged homes in Amityville, Brentwood and Coram was in fact a human conveyor belt, efficient and profitable after shuttling dozens of immigrants into captivity to Long Island.

Those charged with running the operation -- José Ibañez, Mariluz Zavala and their daughter, Evelyn Ibañez -- crowded 69 fellow Peruvians into narrow bedrooms and backyard sheds, authorities said. They forced them to hold two -- sometimes three -- jobs, to settle debts for illegal visas. And when payments were not made, they threatened violence, deportation or told their tenants that loved ones back in Peru would be harmed.

But Ibañez and Zavala say they are the victims -- maligned by their tenants' false accusations of slavery. The couple and their daughter are being held without bail at the Nassau County Correctional Center in East Meadow on federal charges of smuggling and harboring illegal aliens.

In separate interviews at the jail, Ibañez and Zavala insisted they mistreated no one, threatened no one and simply ran a boarding house. For a modest cost, they said they provided food, transportation and favors -- a foothold in a foreign country.

"How am I going to have slaves? How am I going to control those many men?" said Ibañez, leaning back in his chair and pointing a finger at his chest.

"It's all a lie," said Zavala, her eyes filled with tears.

Between these two accounts lie the stories of the immigrants themselves, who are being held by federal authorities in detainment centers and motels. They have been questioned by investigators as potential witnesses, and have received counseling and medical attention from Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Authorities have not disclosed where most of the detainees are being housed, however, and have kept them hidden from reporters.

But through telephone interviews last week with several of the 69 Peruvians being held separately at a detainment center in Flushing, Queens, and interviews with immigrant advocates, glimpses of their experiences on Long Island emerged.

"I paid $12,500 for my visa. We had only the minimum" food and shelter, said Pablo Rios, 44, who lived in the Fourth Avenue house in Brentwood. "And after I paid for food and rent, there was only 20 or 30 dollars left over a week."

Federal authorities have declined to discuss the alleged trafficking ring. But an affidavit signed by the lead federal investigator and minutes recorded during the suspects' arraignments reveal a case built around detailed accounts from two of the Peruvians. They told Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that Ibañez and Zavala obtained visas, arranged their passage to the United States, and smuggled other Peruvians into the United States through Mexico.

Authorities did not explain the security breach at the U.S. Embassy in Peru that enabled Zavala or Ibañez, 42, to illegally obtain such documentation.

Getting B2 tourist visas can be a lengthy and difficult process. The embassy dispenses only a limited number annually. In order to qualify, applicants must demonstrate their intent to return home, either through extended families, long-term employment or substantial assets in their native country.

Neither informant who cooperated with authorities would have been able to obtain tourist visas.

But Zavala, 43, "was in the business of obtaining visas," according to the affidavit.

Court documents provide the following account from federal authorities:

In December 2000, Zavala hashed out a deal in Lima with the first of the two Peruvians who later cooperated with investigators, detailing the way the alleged operation worked.

The flat fee for the visa was $7,000. That price could be knocked down to $6,000 if the immigrant agreed to interview in person with the U.S. Consulate in Lima.

Zavala insisted that a down payment of $1,000 was due up front, another $1,000 after the visa was obtained, and the balance was to be reimbursed after the immigrant arrived on Long Island.

The Peruvian gave Zavala the down payment, four wallet-sized photos and a passport, and on July 15, 2001, boarded a flight to the United States.

That same year, a second immigrant who later spoke with investigators met with Zavala about leaving Peru and bringing two children. The price was $13,500 for all three.

Zavala assured both clients that there would be jobs waiting on Long Island, that their children could go to school here and that there would be child care during the day.

Sometimes, the children remain in Peru.

Four teenage children of tenants on Long Island were discovered this week inside a house owned by Zavala on the edge of Lima, after the house was raided by Peruvian police, according to Alejandro Ugarte, deputy counsel at the Peruvian Consulate in New York City.

Carlos Uchupe was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of the children, who are between 12 and 15 years old, Ugarte said. The teens were allegedly "working" for Zavala after their parents left for the United States and had no one to care for them.

Authorities say for the trip from Peru, immigrants could either fly into the United States, or, for a slightly discounted price, be smuggled in through Mexico after traveling through Colombia and Central America.

Zavala showed them questions commonly posed by consulate officials, and coached them on appropriate responses. She provided fake marriage licenses, when needed, and instructed immigrants to tell U.S. officials that spouses would remain in Peru.

After arriving in the United States, the informants would later tell authorities, Ibañez met them at the airport. He procured Social Security cards and resident alien cards. Then he drove them to one of three houses the couple owned in Suffolk County, where he confiscated their passports to ensure they could not leave.

The condition of all three houses was abysmal, authorities said. In the Amityville home, for instance, there were 17 men, eight women, and nine children "living in every conceivable space or floor of the house," Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie Klapper said during the defendants' arraignment in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on June 22.

"There was unrefrigerated food everywhere, flies everywhere, and they were just truly horrific living conditions," Klapper said.

Ibañez helped the immigrants find jobs in factories or warehouses and drove them there and back, sometimes leaving as early as 5:30 a.m.

Each week, immigrants were instructed to turn over their paychecks, so that money for visa fees, rent, transportation, and food could be deducted. Afterward, they were often left with $50 or less for the week, the informants told authorities.

Every transaction was recorded into a ledger. If immigrants did not pay down their debt, Zavala held meetings to remind them just how tenuous their foothold in the United States really was, they told investigators.

"The defendants would state that they were 'OK' in the United States because they were legal, but that the aliens were 'nothing' and could be deported at any time," according to court records.

At least once, Zavala and Ibañez warned one immigrant that if she did not cooperate, "her family in Peru would suffer the consequences," the affidavit stated.

But Zavala and Ibañez said they've been through the same hardships here that their tenants experienced. It was not so many years back, Zavala and Ibañez said in separate interviews at the jail, that they had to scrape and claw to begin their new lives in the United States.

As most immigrants do, they juggled odd jobs for low wages. For Ibañez, that meant factory work, landscaping and, for years, driving a furniture warehouse truck. Zavala, meanwhile, said she worked as a nanny. But the two also sold clothes and other goods on Manhattan streets. Eventually, they bought their first home in Amityville, they said.

In addition to Evelyn, Zavala has 14-year-old twin boys who are staying with a sister in Wyandanch, and is three months pregnant with her fourth child.

They began their room-and-board business about five years ago, both said, when some of Ibañez's cousins left Peru and moved into the Amityville house to help cover costs.

Those cousins referred others, who told others. Gradually, the trickle of boarders turned into a steady stream of undocumented Peruvians. All were accepted, no questions asked.

What the couple collected in rent made it possible for them to buy a second home in Brentwood, the two said. Earlier this year, they bought a third house in Coram, which became their home, and began construction on a house back in Lima, where they frequently return. But the Coram house, both said, turned out to be a bad investment. The workers from Peru did not want to live there because there are no Hispanic businesses in the area, no places to wire money back home. So, Ibañez and Zavala were forced to put the house up for sale months after they bought it.

For fellow Peruvians, there were many advantages to staying with them, Ibañez said. Rent was only $150 a month; meals, five days a week, cost $35; transportation was $30 a week, even for immigrants who held two jobs and needed four rides a day; and only a dollar fee to cash weekly checks for those who had no photo identification or bank account.

There were volleyball nets at each house, a basketball hoop, and all of the immigrants who lived at the Coram house were allowed to use the pool there. Most importantly, Ibañez said, every man and woman living in their homes -- some of whom had cars -- were free to come and go as they pleased, contrary to what federal authorities allege.

The supposed ledger used to keep track of debts, Ibañez and Zavala said, was just a notebook where they recorded transactions to make certain each tenant got back all the money they were due.

Both insisted they had no role in bringing Peruvians to this country. The most they did -- only occasionally -- was refer relatives or acquaintances back home in Lima to a man who prepared "folders" of real and fake documents needed to apply for tourist visas.

Here in New York, Ibañez said he and Zavala offered tips to newcomers on how to get false work papers and where to look for work. On at least two occasions, he said he took some of the undocumented tenants to Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, so they could buy Social Security cards from hustlers who sell them on street corners.

But Ibañez said he would wait for them in his van and did not get involved, because they bought the counterfeit documents at their own risk.

A few of their tenants had legitimate work papers when they arrived, the couple said, but they learned that many had overstayed their tourist visas. And they knew that others had entered the country over the Mexican border with the help of smugglers.

It is because she and Ibañez were so accepting of such circumstances that Zavala says she feels betrayed by the people they tried to help.

On the very day they were arrested, Zavala had planned to return to Peru to see a doctor because she had been bleeding. Now she is worried that the child she is carrying will be born in jail.

"We have been destroyed," Zavala said, her hands trembling as she spoke. "I can't believe that there are people with so little compassion to do this to us."

The plight of the Coram couple engendered no sympathy from the immigrants interviewed by Newsday.

Some expressed fear that their debts were too high to overcome. Others said they were confused about why they were being held, or worried whether they would be allowed to stay in the United States. Some feared that they or their families in Peru might still be in danger, or that detainment had rendered them unable to earn and send money back home.

Anne Mayer-Kristiansen, who befriended a 48-year-old resident of the Brentwood house for two years, spoke about the woman's increasing anxiety that she had entered into a contract that had virtually imprisoned her.

"I knew she was definitely at the mercy of whoever was creating the situation," said Mayer-Kristiansen, an engineer at a Melville research laboratory. The woman worked as a janitor at the laboratory to pay her son's tuition at a university in Peru.

Reached in Peru, the son said his mother was trapped. "They kept her visa and her passport, so she couldn't leave," he said, asking that he and his mother remain anonymous. "She still managed to send $130 to $140 every few weeks, for my studies."

Another immigrant, Dave Vega, 20, said he was not bothered by having to sleep in a 10-by-10-foot shack in the back yard of the Brentwood property because he had come to the United States only to work.

Interviewed by telephone from the privately-run Wackenhut detention facility in Jamaica, Queens last week, Vega said he found work as a welder for a Wyandanch company and sent money home to his wife.

"My entire life was work" he said flatly, defending the shack that he shared with another man as a comfortable living space, heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. "I went there at night after working all day. I didn't even talk to anyone in the house. I just sent money home."

None of the six immigrants being held at Wackenhut have been told why they were separated from the others, said detainee Pablo Rios, who lived in the Brentwood house. Nor have they been told if they will be released.

"We have no information about why we are being kept here," Rios said. "I don't want to return to Peru. There is no work there. There is nothing there."

Vega was unsure if detainment had improved his fate. "It isn't too bad here," Vega said of the Wackenhut facility. "The food is good and it's better than being in a jail. But in some ways it was better to live in the shack, because then I could still work."


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