The courtroom was crowded in anticipation of the sentencing hearing for infamous convicted labor trafficker Ricardo Batres. The spectators reflected the amount of energy and focus the case has inspired, along with the various advocates, agencies, and institutions that have been involved in the investigation.
Hennepin County victim advocates read statements from Batres’s victims identified in the courtroom by their initials. While Batres had entered a guilty plea in November, the case was awaiting sentencing by Judge Lois Regnier Conroy. Batres’ defense council was also seeking a reduction in the probation terms from five to three and a half years.
All four of the victim impact statements requested that Conroy consider extending Batres’ confinement past the negotiated 270 days of jail times.
Collectively the statements indicated that Batres brutalized them in such a way that they not only have ongoing physical injuries but also trauma and emotional scars.
JZL had gotten into an accident on a Batres worksite with an injury to the 2nd vertebrae in his spine. The pain he continues to experience is a lasting reminder of the impact Batres had on his life. It isn’t limited to himself, “My family and I live in constant fear, considering that Mr. Batres threatened to kill us.”
LLG was worried that JZL’s injuries would lead to permanent paralysis. LLG suffered his own injuries when a wall fell and pinned him down, hurting his leg. He went without hospital care for a week and even continued to work for fear of losing the housing that Batres provided, “ working despite the pain”. Batres required LLG along with other workers to work excessive hours and work from heights without inadequate safety equipment, and while sick. Working for Batres meant ongoing stress and anxiety to where he lost his appetite. LLG stated, “Now that I do not work for him that I feel calmer in many ways.”
According to LLG “He [Batres] has the power to make people suffer. He told stories about the things he did in El Salvador.” His most cryptic story was boasting that he ordered the murder of 100 people. For LLG. “I think the proposed jail time is not enough” further stating, “I think he is a danger to society.” LLG hopes for accountability, “ [Batres] exploited me in a way that is not deserved by any human being.” For now, he lives in fear and engages in psychotherapy to recover from trauma. LLG lives in fear believing that, “Mr. Batres or his connections will come for me.”
EAD described working in the rain and on dangerous worksites, where someone could have died. “Death was very close to us,” he said. “Ricardo operated the machines like a crazy person.”
Witnesses in the case first came forward with the support of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), a community organization based in the Twin Cities that educates workers about their workplace rights. A CTUL spokesperson read a community impact statement at the sentencing explaining the broader impacts of Batres’ actions in the industry (Read CTUL’s full statement here):
“So what is the real impact of Batres’ actions in this case? Large developers and finance behind those developers have learned that they can put downward pressure on contractors on their projects to build the projects as quickly and cheaply as possible… Contractors like Batres then step into this space and firmly establish a culture of fear within the workforce by threatening workers and retaliating against workers who stand up for their rights. While Batres is not the only contractor behaving this way in the industry, he was a trailblazer in finding creative ways to cut costs on the backs of workers.”
Following the guilty plea, CTUL partnered with the Worker’s Social Responsibility (WSR) Network to publish a report that highlights the systemic nature of exploitative practices in non-union construction work in the Twin Cities metro area, beyond the Batres case. The report points out that CTUL is currently investigating four other labor trafficking cases involving dozens of construction workers in the Twin Cities, which details workers’ stories of abuse, and proposes a long-term solution to the problem through a new independent monitoring agency – Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council. Read the full BDR report here.
The State argued that Batres should be barred from bidding for public contracts.. The state explained that his whole business model was contingent on securing contracts and undercutting other labor brokers through systemic wage theft.
The most ludicrous moment of the hearing was when Batres’ attorney Frederic K. Bruno argued that in paying workers $24 an hour he not only paid well above minimum wage but also more than what law clerks make. A fact he discovered only by Googling. “My client made a mistake but these people were more than adequately compensated,” said Bruno. He also compared trafficked workers to cheerleaders since their bodies and appearance are highly regulated. He mistakingly kept referring to these cheerleaders as NHL cheerleaders instead of NFL and claimed to have a reliable source within the Vikings organization that confirmed their low wages.
Batres made his own statement. “I have made terrible mistakes,” he said. “I take full responsibility.”
In the end, the judge accepted the negotiated guilty plea and denied the defendant’s request to shorten probation.