Longform

The Bermudez Triangle

Page 5 of 10

Bermudez found a way to generate a lot of cash via document preparation. He calls it "innovation." Others, including the lawyers at Community Legal Services, the organization that tried cases for the United Farm Workers, call it exploitation.

When amnesty came through in 1986, Bermudez began linking workers and employers. He even opened nine offices in Mexico to facilitate the process.

"I would get [the workers] the permit to cross the border and the employer would pay me. Later [the employers] began to ask me to get people for them. So that's how I began the recruitment service," he says. "I had 6,000 workers nationwide."

But work conditions were not always as promised. When workers got to their posts, as far away as Virginia or Hawaii, they'd find there were not always jobs, living conditions were sub-par, and they were not always paid the wages promised.

David Alan Dick, a former prosecutor for Community Legal Services now practicing in Mesa, tried several of the cases against Bermudez. He says Community Legal Services filed many class-action suits against farmers and labor brokers between 1989 and 1994.

"He [Bermudez] was one of hundreds of farm labor contractors that did the same thing," says Dick. "He was just one of the biggest and most problematic as far as making promises."

Take, for example, the case of Rafael Durazo, Javier Luna, and Carlos Ponce. In 1989, the three men were recruited by Centro de Progresso to work at Beaver Creek Nursery in Virginia. According to affidavits filed in United States District Court, they were told they'd find up to three months of work, that they'd work at least 10 hours a day, six days a week and receive $4.50 per hour for their labor. They were also promised transportation to and from the work site and free housing. None of the promises were realized. The men rarely worked, were paid only about $1.50 an hour when they did work, and found themselves stranded when they wanted to go home.

According to Durazo, Bermudez was not sympathetic.

"I called Elias Bermudez to tell him Jose Carlos Ponce, Jesus Javier Luna, and myself wanted to go home because we had not been paid wages, we had no food and the working conditions were not as promised," he says in an affidavit. "Elias Bermudez told us there was nothing he could do for us."

This case is typical of the others filed against Bermudez.

But Bermudez says he was the victim in these cases.

"Politically, they were getting $5,000 from the federal government [for each person they represented] so they began suing the hell out of me," he says.

Similar claims were filed against Bermudez, Centro de Progresso and various employers five times in U.S. District Court. Of the five cases brought against him by Community Legal Services, one was dismissed, one was settled, one awarded compensation to the plaintiff and the others resulted in default judgments (meaning he failed to answer or appear in court) against Bermudez.

Maria Elena Badilla, a San Luis native, worked as Dick's paralegal at Community Legal Services. She says Bermudez was notorious for exploitation in San Luis. Attempts to locate the migrants who filed suits against Bermudez were unsuccessful.

"He's [only] interested in making money," she says.


Farm workers are not the only commodity along the border in San Luis. Like many border towns, the drug trade flourishes there — a fact that would have serious ramifications for Bermudez's future.

Behind the wheel of his car, driving between his radio station and his mortgage broker's office in Phoenix, Bermudez recalls what it was like to face kingpins and drug dealers every day. He acknowledges that he knew who they were, even stopped in occasionally for a drink at a nightclub owned by the local drug lord.

"Being from San Luis, I knew everybody. The drug cartels, you run into them on a daily basis. The only way to demonstrate to these people that you are not afraid is to be courageous enough to say I don't want any dealings with you," he says.

Bermudez says this attitude won the drug runners' respect. He tells a story that, if it's true, is just one more scene of high drama in the life of a man who is a magnet for controversy and danger.

"One of the stories in San Luis was that one of them tried to kill me," he says. "He tried to scare me by shooting at my feet. I put the gun on my chest and said, 'You are not going to scare me. This is where you need to shoot.' He had to pull the trigger; he was compromised. The bullet didn't explode, so I said, 'I'm leaving. You have bad luck.' The story carried out that I was very daring. Well, you have no choice."

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin