Four leaders of a California church have pleaded guilty to participating in a labor trafficking scheme involving homeless people.
Victor Gonzalez, pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, and his wife, Susan Christine Gonzalez, along with two other church leaders, Jose Diaz and his wife, Mercedes Gonzales, pled guilty in federal court last week to recruiting homeless people in San Diego and other cities for a forced fund-raising scheme. The court says the church leaders forced the homeless people to raise money on behalf of the church, The Christian Post reports.
According to the Times of San Diego, the ministry owns and operates group homes for the homeless in the El Centro area, Chula Vista, and Calexico.
Court records show that the church leaders confiscated personal ID documents to keep the homeless people from leaving the ministry.
Church leaders also forced them to sign agreements to adhere to specific rules, such as never leaving the house unaccompanied and turning over all identification and personal items.
The IVM was founded in the 1970s to support drug addicts.
Under the alleged forced labor work, the victims were prevented from seeking employment and forced to panhandle six days a week and hand over those proceeds to IVM.
“You can’t leave the house unless accompanied by someone and with the permission from the director— never by yourself,” the rules sheet said. “You can’t go to the front yard unless told so by the counselor.”
Church leaders also told them their loved ones rejected them and they had to stay at the house because only God loved them. The church allegedly punished by withholding food.
“The most vulnerable among us are entitled to the protection of the law,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer in a statement. “We encourage everyone to help identify forced labor victims in all locations or situations where exploitation is possible.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Rattankun Thongbun
Amanda Casanova is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. She has covered news for ChristianHeadlines.com since 2014. She has also contributed to The Houston Chronicle, U.S. News and World Report and IBelieve.com. She blogs at The Migraine Runner.