The Hamilton Spectator

Guilty plea in Hamilton human-traffickin­g case

Victims, from Mexico, were controlled, lived in cramped, dirty residences and worked jobs without seeing all of their pay

- NICOLE O’REILLY REPORTER NOREILLY@THESPEC.COM

A Hamilton man among several charged in a large human traffickin­g investigat­ion that uncovered victims from Mexico working illegally and living in horrible conditions has pleaded guilty.

Mario Roca Morales pleaded guilty to three counts of human traffickin­g in a Hamilton courtroom Monday. In a joint submission, the Crown and defence are asking for an eight-and-a-half-year sentence. Court heard the 50-year-old is a Canadian permanent resident and likely to be deported to Guatemala after serving his sentence. Roca Morales was among six charged following a two-year investigat­ion by the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency. When police announced the charges in February 2021 they said 80 foreign nationals were working illegally largely at farms, factories and other minimum wage jobs in the Hamilton and Niagara areas.

They were being forced to live in cramped residences infested with bedbugs, cockroache­s and rats.

In court, Roca Morales pleaded guilty to charges related to three victims. However, details from six victims who lived under his control were included in a written synopsis for Ontario Court Justice Stephen Brown to consider. Roca Morales told the court all the details in the synopsis are admitted.

According to the synopsis, the investigat­ion began with CBSA officers in August 2018 who found 10 foreign nationals working without authorizat­ion. Further investigat­ion revealed employment agencies using Mexican foreign nationals to provide labour throughout Hamilton and Niagara.

Border police then met with RCMP and a joint criminal investigat­ion began. Six victims, all from Mexico, were under the control of Roca Morales between November 2018 and September 2019.

“Mr. Roca harboured each of these six people at (189 Picton St. E.) and another address on Barton Street for the purpose of exploiting them,” the synopsis reads. They worked in constructi­on, recycling, landscapin­g, cleaning and other industries for his financial benefit and he controlled them through threats of “physical and psychologi­cal safety.”

The victims, who cannot be identified due to a publicatio­n ban, told investigat­ors Roca Morales was often drunk and had a gun. Some of the women experience­d sexual harassment and assault. They lived in crowded, bug- and vermin-infested residences where some did not have enough food.

Two of the victims were sisters who arrived in April 2018 after paying about $2,200 Canadian in fees to an employment agency, plus about $630 for flights to find work in Canada to support their families. No one showed up to pick them up at Toronto’s Pearson Internatio­nal Airport, but they were later connected with Roca Morales who promised he could find them a place to live and work. He tried to charge them $350 rent, but they only had $100. He told them they would have to work off what they owed him.

The sisters were forced to live in a one-bedroom apartment at 100 Forest Ave. with Roca Morales and his partner, where they slept on a mat in the living room. It was infested with bugs and cockroache­s. He was often drunk and wouldn’t leave them alone.

When police executed a search warrant at 189 Picton on Sept. 10, 2019, they found several victims who told similar stories about being charged for rent, food and travel and then not seeing all of their earnings for work.

Many of the victims said Roca Morales

threatened them with deportatio­n.

One woman was sexually assaulted by a drunk Roca Morales, but she managed to fight him off.

“The loss of rent already paid and the ever-present threat of unemployme­nt and homelessne­ss in a country that the workers did not know were tools Mr. Roca used to keep workers living under his control and working on his behalf,” the synopsis reads.

Another victim, also a woman, was told she could repay debt by sleeping with Roca Morales. She refused but he was often vulgar, including yelling about “whores” and saying he wanted to have a child with her. This victim was so afraid of him that she was scared to do anything and felt like she’d never get out of the situation.

Another victim, a gay man, was called a homophobic slur and berated. At one point Roca Morales suggested the victim help launder money and said that when he was in Guatemala he was “someone who killed people.” The victim said he “felt like garbage and that he was worthless.”

Of the five others charged in the investigat­ion, two — Cheang Kim and Nora Rivera Franco — had their charges stayed; Miurel Bracamonte pleaded guilty to employing a foreign national contrary to the Immigratio­n and Refugee Protection Act last year; and the case against Myriam and Christian Vitela (a mother and son) remains before the courts.

Roca Morales returns to court Feb. 27 for a sentencing hearing.

The sisters were forced to live in a one-bedroom apartment at 100 Forest Ave. with Roca Morales and his partner, where they slept on a mat in the living room

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