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Seven charged with holding Mexican deaf-mutes in ‘virtual slavery’

July 21, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ All manner of beggars and panhandlers scrounge a living on New York City subways, from musicians on station platforms to the downtrodden who recount tales of woe as they ask riders for money.

But it was the most silent of the city’s underground entrepreneurs who may have been in the most desperate of straits.

Authorities are unraveling an operation in which dozens of deaf and sometimes mute Mexicans were illegally smuggled into the country and sent to work on the subways, living in ``virtual slavery″ for bosses who confiscated their earnings as payment bringing them here.

Acting on a tip from four Mexican deaf-mutes who walked into a Queens precinct house early Saturday, police found 57 people, most of them also deaf-mutes, living in two crowded homes.

Seven other Mexican immigrants, some of them also deaf, were arrested Sunday on charges that include alien-smuggling, grand larceny and extortion. The alleged ringleader was still at large.

The immigrants, who appeared to be in good health, worked 18-hour days begging and peddling cheap trinkets, authorities said.

``Essentially they were being used as slaves,″ said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. ``This is a situation in which a certain group of people in this day and age held them in bondage.″

Such peddlers are familiar to anyone who rides the subway. They move through trains, placing keychains with tags reading ``$1, I am deaf″ on the seats, then rush back to retrieve those not purchased.

The trinket sales apparently were lucrative for someone _ $30,000 in cash was seized at one house, the mayor said.

``The conspiracy has to be bigger,″ said Giuliani, who called the arrangement ``virtual slavery.″

In Mexico City, the Rev. Martin Montoya Garcia, director of the Rosendo Olleta Institute for the deaf, said the news confirmed his fears.

``There are a lot more groups up there,″ he said. ``There are people who know the deaf community here, know the places they hang out, and know how to communicate with them. They come and take them away.″

Mark Thorn, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said federal charges of smuggling, harboring and transporting illegal aliens and conspiracy were filed against Alfredo Paoletti Rustrian, 37; Jose Paoletti Lemus, 28; Refugio Gonzalez-Santa, 21, and Rosa Beltran-Sanchez, 25.

Police said Rustrian was identified by some victims as ``the boss,″ to whom they gave the proceeds of their long days on the subway.

Prosecutor Richard Brown said Rustrian was believed to be a ``local enforcer″ working for a more powerful ringleader.

``We’re of the opinion that there’s another individual who’s above him making frequent trips to Mexico to homes for the deaf, luring two or three at a time, bringing them through LaGuardia or Newark (airports),″ Brown said. ```He was working the schools for the deaf in Mexico.″

The alleged ringleader was identified in today’s editions of The New York Times as Reinaldo Paoletti. Authorities suspect he is either in the United States or Mexico, the newspaper said.

Charged under state law with allegations ranging from assault to grand larceny by extortion were Adriana Paoletti Lemus, 29; Adelia Paoletti, 59, and Raul Alanis, 24, all of them deaf.

Lawyers for the suspects said their clients are innocent.

``These people had all come together within a business venture,″ said Martin Goldman, a lawyer for Adriana Paoletti Lemus. ``She has seen no threats, heard no threats and certainly made no threats herself.″

``There might be a very hazy line here between who was a victim and who is an exploiter,″ said Joshua Glick, a lawyer for Raul Alanis.

The INS will delay deportation proceedings to allow the immigrants to testify, Giuliani said. The INS did not immediately confirm the arrangement.

The American Red Cross was caring for the immigrants, among them 12 children ages 6 months to 16 years and three pregnant women. Red Cross spokesman Robert Wingate said the adult deaf-mutes were communicating via Spanish-speaking sign-language translators.

``They appear to be in good health, but they’re pretty scared, not knowing what’s going to happen to them,″ Wingate said.

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