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Chinese nationals victims in labor trafficking pot bust

17 people were unknowingly working in illegal marijuana operation in Shiprock

FARMINGTON – It has been more than seven months since 17 Chinese nationals, identified by the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender to be human labor trafficking victims, were arrested in connection with a marijuana bust in Shiprock, and despite having their cases dropped, they have not found life to be any easier.

On Oct. 8, the Farmington Police Department was called to the Travel Inn Motel for complaints of a strong marijuana odor. When police arrived, they found 2,000 pounds of marijuana worth $3 million to $10 million depending on the quality and street value, and 17 Chinese nationals trimming away, seemingly without worry they were in the presence of law enforcement. All 17 were arrested.

In summer 2020, the 17 people were brought to the Shiprock area from Monterey Park, California, the largest Chinatown in the United States, with a promise of $200 a day and room and board to “cut flowers.”

Instead, they were arrested and each faced 10 to 13 years in prison, said Lynn Sanchez, program director for human trafficking aftercare for The Life Link and co-chairwoman of the New Mexico Human Trafficking Task Force.

Once group members were brought to the area, they were set up in hotel rooms at the Travel Inn Motel. Sanchez said the person responsible for the operation usually doesn’t want a money trail leading to him or her, so the people running the operation convinced one of the Chinese men to put the hotel rooms in his name.

From back left, Heather Atsye, Silver Van Fleet, Anna Pell, Kelle Pena, Lynn Sanchez and Maureen Lomahaptewa stand with an unidentified federal agent at a Navajo Mobile Command unit dispatched to help victims of a human labor trafficking operation involving 17 Chinese nationals who were arrested on multiple marijuana charges.

“You have to keep in mind that they don’t speak English, they don’t know their rights, they are migrant workers and the people connecting them to jobs don’t check to see if the jobs are legal or not,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said group members thought what they were doing was perfectly fine because it was all taking place in greenhouses and motels in plain sight.

“In the probable cause statement, it even said that they just opened the door for law enforcement and then kept working,” Sanchez said. “They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.”

Trial attorney for the Law Offices of the Public Defender Nicole Hall heard about the incident and decided on her own to take action apart from the department.

Hall said when law enforcement stepped in, they kept trimming the buds off the marijuana plants.

“If you knew that you were doing something illegal, you’re going to scatter, right?” Hall said. “You’re going to stop what you’re doing. But they didn’t even stop.”

Kelle Pena, Anna Pell, Mariana Landaverde, Heather Atsye, Maureen Lomahaptewa, Silver Van Fleet and Lynn Sanchez meet up after law enforcement brought the victims of a human trafficking operation to the Shiprock High School to connect them to services after their release from jail Oct. 11. The 17 victims were arrested and charged with marijuana crimes before being released after authorities came to understand they were part of a human-trafficking operation.

In a probable cause statement, written by Farmington Police Department Detective J. Barreto, he said he knocked on the door of one of the hotel rooms, and when one of the Chinese men opened the door, Barreto could see “large amounts of marijuana.” Barreto also said he saw a man with scissors and ordered him to put them down.

“As he was placing the scissors on the ground, the other occupants of the room had scissors in their hands and were actively trimming the marijuana plants inside the room,” the probable cause statement written by Barreto said.

When Barreto went into another room, he said a man opened the door with scissors and tried to “conceal himself.” The officers removed the man and detained him for the officers’ safety “due to him attempting to conceal himself behind the door while holding the scissors.”

The other occupants of the room continued to trim just as the others did in the first room.

“The other occupants of the room appeared to not care that we were asking them to exit the room,” Barreto said in the probable cause statement. “I observed several individuals still cutting weed plants with red scissor handles.”

Officers cleared out about a dozen rooms that either stored the plants or were working rooms, and gathered the 17 people.

Of the 17, 16 were charged with trafficking a controlled substance (manufacturing), a second-degree felony; distribution or possession with intent to distribute, a fourth-degree felony; and conspiracy to commit distribution of controlled substances, a fourth-degree felony. The 17th man had more charges against him because the motel rooms were in his name.

Silver Van Fleet at a command post set up at the Shiprock High School for human labor trafficking victims to receive services after they were released from jail.

Sixteen of the cases were dismissed on or right after Nov. 23 – more than a month after the initial bust. The final case involving the man who had the hotel rooms in his name was not dismissed until April 26. Hall said she believes the charges were dropped because of the state’s move to legalize marijuana.

The 17 initially stayed in jail for five days before they were released with conditions. Among those conditions, they were not allowed to leave San Juan County, New Mexico, according to managing attorney for the Law Offices of the Public Defender Sarah Field, who added the people were all “victims of the worst of our society.”

A letter from Field on behalf of the labor trafficking victims to the New Mexico Crime Victims, an organization that helps bring reparations to victims of crimes, said many attorneys representing the clients requested that their clients be allowed to return to their homes out of the state.

“The court outright denied the request and required our clients to remain in San Juan County where they had no food, shelter, transportation ... .” Field wrote. “Ultimately, after long discussions with the prosecution, the state agreed to file dismissals. ... However, they still suffered arrest, conditions of release and criminal prosecution.”

The group was recognized as labor trafficking victims and were provided some reparations, Sanchez said. Those reparations were for lost wages while they were told to remain in New Mexico and couldn’t find other work from Oct. 11 to Nov. 23.

Since then, however, Sanchez said members of the group have expired work visas and need help reinstating them. They have also lost job opportunities because Google searches return only information about their arrests but not the clearing of their names.

“If it hadn’t been for the public defender flagging this case, there’s 17 people who would have just gone off to prison and disappeared with no voice and no rights,” Sanchez said. “So I am thankful, first of all, that it didn’t happen that way and that I met (Hall). But it is scary to think about how many times in this country and how many places where that really does happen – where a victim doesn’t have a voice and no one is aware of the situation.”

Sanchez said the people in charge of the operation have still not been held responsible. Spokesman for the FBI Frank Fisher said the investigation is ongoing, but he could confirm that no other arrests have been made.

The people identified as having been trafficked, excluding the man who put the motel rooms in his name, are: Bi Xuan Xie, Qi You Li, Ji Hua Kan, Xiao Xia Si, Chungui Xiong, Chunying Haung, Wen Chun Wei, Siqing Qin, Qinliang Wang, Shuang Fa Jing, Pin Hui Gu, Hao De Tan, Jing Jiao Qin, Zhi Qiang Tan, Jing Ming Qin and Wei Lian Jiang.


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