Former Fugitive Pablo Duran Sr. Pleads Guilty in Trafficking Case
Former fugitive Pablo Duran, Sr., who sat down in an exclusive interview with FRONTLINE for its investigation Trafficked in America, has pleaded guilty to encouraging illegal entry of Guatemalan nationals, some of them minors, for financial gain.
His plea and conviction are part of a major trafficking plot in 2014 that saw Guatemalan teenagers smuggled across the border into America and compelled into grueling labor at egg farms in Ohio against their will.
Duran, Sr., also known as Pablo Duran Ramirez, is one of seven people to have been convicted for their role in the case, which FRONTLINE investigated in Trafficked in America, a film produced in collaboration with the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program.
On the egg farm, run by Trillium Farms, laborers sometimes toiled from dawn until dusk, taking only short breaks to down water and energy drinks in overheated conditions that reeked of deceased, rotting chickens, those who worked there told FRONTLINE in the clip below.
Home for these teens meant squalid, cockroach-crowded trailers, one shared by up to eight people, which lacked heat and air-conditioning, one worker said.
Duran Ramirez’s plea deal, announced Monday, says he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years. He will be sentenced on January 7th, 2019.
Appearing before the court, Duran Ramirez admitted he had been fully aware some of the people brought on at Trillium Farms in Ohio were undocumented minors, and that the process of getting them to Ohio involved bullying and strong-arm tactics.
Judge James G. Carr asked if Duran Ramirez knew what he did was wrong. The defendant confirmed he did.
The judge also asked about the money Duran Ramirez had made off his labor business. “Bottom line, I don’t want him to profit,” he said. Duran’s lawyer said that the victims had been paid back in full.
The smuggling operation that brought the teens to Ohio was started with another man, Aroldo Castillo-Serrano, prosecutors said. Castillo’s mother told FRONTLINE he had smuggled adults in the past. But it was Pablo Duran Ramirez, according to Duran Ramirez’s federal indictment, who coordinated with Castillo-Serrano about beginning to send minors to the Ohio egg farms.
Duran Ramirez co-owned a contracting company, Haba Corporate Services, which Trillium Farms hired and paid approximately $6 million to between 2013 and 2014 to find workers. In 2014, Duran Ramirez and Castillo-Serrano communicated numerous times about Duran Ramirez’s need for labor, the indictment says.
One family FRONTLINE spoke to owed Castillo-Serrano $15,000 for shuttling their son into the United States. The family put the deed of their house on the line as collateral. The teens then traveled to the U.S. on foot, by bus and even via “La bestia” — the beast — a dangerous train migrants ride.
Once in the U.S., the young Guatemalans were sent to the egg farm to work off their parents’ debt — and routinely had most of their paycheck confiscated to cover it. If they complained, they became targets.
“Many of my friends told me that they received death threats,” one former Trillium employee told FRONTLINE. “They would kill their father or mother, if they didn’t want to pay or work.”
Castillo Serrano was convicted of forced labor in 2015. He was sent to federal prison on a 15-year sentence.
FRONTLINE and the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program tracked down Duran Ramirez, who was a fugitive at the time, and interviewed him in Mexico City. After initially denying that he knew Castillo-Serrano, Duran Ramirez admitted to FRONTLINE that he had spoken with Castillo-Serrano, but only once, roughly six years ago, for about 10 seconds. He also denied wrongdoing, saying he hired contractors but did not interact with workers.
“I didn’t directly hire the employees. So I wasn’t asking where they lived and what they did or what they were allowed to do,” he said. But Duran Ramirez’s son, who briefly worked for his father and alongside the teenagers at Trillium Farms, told FRONTLINE his father was the “main boss.”
Duran Ramirez was picked up by Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017. He pleaded not guilty to charges of forced labor at the time.
“This defendant profited off the desperation of children and their parents and other relatives,” U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman said. “He knew some of the workers he delivered to Trillium Farms were underage, in the country illegally and were threatened or coerced. We will continue to work to eliminate human trafficking in all its forms.”