TWO MINISTRY FOLLOWERS PLEAD GUILTY TO CONSPIRACY

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Chula Vista house was part of a countrywide begging scheme   

Members of the Imperial Valley Ministries in El Centro were involved in a five-year-long, forced-labor scheme  where many of the victims were homeless, some as young as 17. Dozens of victims were enticed with the promise of food and shelter, as revealed in recent federal indictments against ministry leaders and members. 

Imperial Valley Ministries (IVM) has 30 affiliated churches throughout the United States. As noted in the indictment, one ministry branch was located in the 500 block of Jefferson Avenue in Chula Vista. 

Jose Gaytan and Sonia Murillo were home directors at the Chula Vista ministry residence.  Both also were involved with running the El Centro residence the church used. The two defendants admitted they knew it was illegal to threaten the victims; warning them if they didn’t panhandle “on behalf of IVM they would suffer serious psychological, financial, or reputational harm.”  Other members of the ministry are awaiting trial.

It was revealed in court documents that church members imprisoned the victims when they weren’t working as panhandlers on the streets. The IVM homes were locked by deadbolts and only IVM church members could unlock them

An expert on begging and forced-labor activities, Marisa Ugarte, Executive Director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, was tracking the work of the federal task force, which she says broke the back of the cruel scheme.

Ugarte says the ministry members “locked windows, they locked doors. You are restraining people from leaving so they can’t escape. This is part of human trafficking. It’s a violation of human rights.”

The victims were told if they didn’t beg, they had no place to sleep nor food to eat. Part of the scheme involved taking EBT food stamp cards from the homeless men and women and selling them to make money for the ministry. Their identification papers and personal belongings were also taken from them.  

Some victims were denied medical treatment, the indictment alleged, including a diabetic who was refused her medicine and food but managed to escape and contact the authorities  

All the alleged victims have been identified and support services have been made available for them.

This is not a new form of trafficking. There are numerous ways innocents have been victimized for years by labor trafficking says Ugarte. “Other organizations like the one in Chula Vista also use begging; panhandling on street corners or shopping centers” to raise money by employing “force, fraud, or coercion.”  These are similar characteristics as used in sex trafficking, she notes.

Ugarte  points out more than 21 million people are victims of forced labor across the world, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), based in Geneva, Switzerland.   Anne Hoiberg, President of the BSCC board, notes that Ugarte has been involved in fighting all forms of trafficking for years. In her efforts, “she has been a visionary, warning of the dangers well before they became a widely known crime.” Hoiberg continued, “Marisa never gives up, speaking out while rescuing victims and providing shelter.”

Front of Imperial Valley Ministries Church
— credit–(Google Maps)
El Centro residence the church used.
— credit–(Google Maps)

Aerial view of back of residence the church used in Chula Vista, CA
— credit–(Google Maps)

Below you will find two court documents of Gaytan and Murillo pleading guilty of their charges.

JW August, Communications Director for the BSCC