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The Pineros: Forest workers caught in web of exploitation

Foreign guest laborers take jobs most Americans don't want. But those invited to work in the woods have hardly been offered our hospitality. On public and private land, they suffer injury, abuse, even death.

Stories by Tom Knudson and Hector Amezcua -- The Sacramento Bee
Published Sunday, November 13, 2005 -- 1 of 3 parts

During the day, the men swung machetes and worked in the woods. At night, they lay in ragged tents, wrapped themselves in layers of clothing and nearly froze.

As the migrant workers suffered, U.S. Forest Service officials in Idaho supervising the work were taking notes. But their primary concern was trees, not people. "Pace too slow," one jotted in a memo. "Foreman not active enough vis a vis quality, production, direction."

Pineros - pine workers, as Latino forest laborers are known - have long battled abusive working conditions. But today, there is a new edge to the drama: Much of the mistreatment is unfolding inside a government program that invites foreign workers to the United States to fill labor shortages.

Unlike millions of Latin Americans who cross the border illegally to work in El Norte, the pineros toiling on federal land in Idaho were in this country legally, part of a small army of foreign residents who fill low-paying, non-farm jobs under a little-known federal guest worker program.

Yet the 10,000 or so forest guest workers, who plant trees across the nation and thin fire-prone woods out West as part of the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative, have hardly been treated with hospitality.

Document excerpt

Diary of Pete Ruppel, U.S. Forest Service contracting officer


Pace too slow. Foreman not active enough vis a vis quality, production, direction. [Foreman] not vocal/aggressive enough. May have shifted Friday OT hours to Sunday to avoid OT on planting contract. Bottom line - good thorough work.

See the actual document

A nine-month Bee investigation based on more than 150 interviews across Mexico, Guatemala and the United States and 5,000 pages of records unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act has found pineros are victims of employer exploitation, government neglect and a contracting system that insulates landowners - including the U.S. government - from responsibility.

Foreign guest workers take jobs most Americans don't want - in fact that is a condition of their employment. They mow lawns, wash dishes, clean hotel rooms. Of the estimated 66,000 guest workers in this country, forest workers are the second-largest group, after landscape laborers.

And employers want more of them. This spring, Congress passed legislation making it easier for companies to hire the nonresident employees, officially known as H2B workers to distinguish them from H2A guest workers in agriculture. Bush administration officials support expanding the H2B work force, saying legal temporary foreign workers help solve myriad problems of undocumented labor.

But in the backwoods, where pineros often lack adequate training, protective gear or medical supplies, where they sweat, struggle and suffer, the current forest guest worker program casts a shadow across its future.

"There is a move to use this program and hold it up like it's a darling child, but on the ground, it's so problematic," said Maria Andrade, a Boise, Idaho, attorney who works with migrant laborers.

Guest forest workers are routinely subjected to conditions not tolerated elsewhere in the United States, The Bee investigation found. They are gashed by chain saws, bruised by tumbling logs and rocks, verbally abused and forced to live in squalor.

Rainstorms pummel them. Cold winds sweep over them. Hunger stalks them. And death claims them. Across Honduras and Guatemala, 14 guest workers lay in tombs, victims of the worst non-fire-related workplace accident in the history of U.S. forests.

In addition:

• Over the past decade, forest contractors certified by the U.S. Department of Labor to hire foreign guest workers have shorted them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages and violated scores of state and federal laws. Some employers have taken workers' visas and personal papers, including deeds to cars and even a home - in effect, holding them hostage to hard labor.

Related Graphic

Reforestation work

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• The H2B forest workers toil in a regulatory void. Rules that protect H2A farmworkers - such as requirements for free housing and access to federal legal services - don't extend to forest guest workers.

• In national forests, where the contractors are paid with tax dollars, federal officials overseeing the work witness the mistreatment and wretched working conditions. But they don't intervene. Responsibility for workers, they say, rests with the Department of Labor and the forest contractors themselves.

• And, where government oversight of contractors exists, it's often inconsistent. Companies cited by one branch of the Labor Department for abusing forest guest workers are regularly certified by another branch to recruit and hire more.

This fall, 17 guest workers slashed through dense stands of pine and fir in Montana's Bitterroot National Forest for a contractor with a history of labor violations: Universal Forestry of Orofino, Idaho.

While cutting a dead tree without safety goggles - another violation - one of them was struck in the face by a branch, which gouged a deep crescent beneath his eye. The company declined to discuss the situation in Montana. But other crew members complained of unsafe working conditions, of unexpected payroll deductions and of hunger.

"We are uneasy because we don't even have enough money to eat," said Luciano Hernández, who said he was down to his last $15.

One worker found nutrition in a tiny pond behind a gas station. Tying a piece of line to a branch, he baited a hook with chicken scraps and caught two small trout. Back at his cabin kitchenette, as the fish were being fried, a colleague eyed them hungrily.

"You can even eat the bones!" said Luis Andres Molina Hernández.

"No, you can't," replied the fisherman, Johnny Beitia.

"Yes, you can," said Molina, peeling away a partly cooked bone, placing it on his tongue and swallowing. "But you have to be careful."

For years, the plight of H2B forest workers has remained out of sight, concealed by the remote job sites and the wariness of the workers, who generally don't speak English and fear retaliation by employers. Last spring, though, allegations of shabby treatment surfaced in a petition filed with Mexico's government under the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, a part of the North American Free Trade Agreement devoted to labor rights and standards.

"Abuse is endemic to this system," said Mary Bauer, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama who has sued three forest contractors on behalf of guest workers. "Basically, we're importing indentured servants to perform government functions. That's really what this is."

The labor contractors who hire guest workers and put them to work on public and private land characterize accounts of mistreatment as overblown. They say they are beleaguered by government regulations, worker advocates and pineros who distort the truth and don't work hard enough.

"There are so many things you are continually battered with," said Robert "Wade" Zaharie, an Idaho contractor previously cited for federal labor violations and sued by his workers. "In this industry, you are always going to be painted as a bad person."

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Guest workers

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Paved with yearning for a better life, the road to a forest guest worker job begins in the gullied fields and gritty towns of Mexico and Central America. It springs from a landscape of scrawny cattle, rickety bikes and stifling poverty, where workers earn as little as $2.50 a day.

It weaves through a blur of bus stations, cheap motels and crowded work vans and ends in forests across the United States, where many arrive in debt to their employer for travel and other expenses.

Mexicans and Central Americans first began to trek north as H2B workers in the late 1980s, following the landmark 1986 federal Immigration Reform and Control Act's sanctions for hiring undocumented workers.

Since then, the demand for legal guest workers in forestry has soared, from about 4,000 in 1996 to about 27,000 in 2004, records show. Though not all those requests are filled, the H2B workers represent a large portion of the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Latinos laboring in America's woods.

Over the years, the work of novelist John Steinbeck, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and labor organizer Cesar Chavez thrust the plight of farmworkers into the public consciousness, peeling away their status as los olvidados, the forgotten ones.

But forest workers continue to live and work in obscurity.

"Somos los desconocidos" - we are the unknown ones, said Odilio Castro, an undocumented pinero injured by a falling tree last year in the Sequoia National Forest. "When you tell somebody you work in the woods, they have no idea what you do."

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Manuel Burac, a foreman for Universal Forestry, watches ... Manuel Burac, a foreman for Universal Forestry, watches his crew in the Bitterroot National Forest in September. He returned to Panama in October. Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

Voices: 'We are not animals'

Meet the new boss - not like the old boss.

On arrival in New Orleans three years ago with a guest worker visa, Manuel Burac was excited and ready to get to work for the company that hired him: Universal Forestry.

Work, though, was scarce. At one tree-planting site in Mississippi "we sat around for 15 to 20 days - wasting money and wasting time," said Burac, raised on a coffee farm in Panama.

Eventually, Burac and other guest workers were loaded into a van and driven to Idaho. "I had to pay $150 for the trip. We were squeezed in so tight I couldn't move," he said.

At gas stations, the foreman shouted at the men as they lined up to go to the bathroom - barking at them to hurry up or be left behind. No one dared speak up.

"As a worker, you do not have an opinion," Burac said. On that long drive, he made himself a promise: If he ever became a foreman, he would act differently.

Later, laboring on a national forest in Washington, Burac suffered once more when a foreman forced his crew to camp at a miserable location just because it was near the work site.

"There was no water, no nothing," he said. "Every three days, we'd come down and find a little creek to use for a shower."

This year, the 38-year-old Burac is himself a jefe - Spanish for boss - for Universal. As a foreman, he is shaping the lives of other guest workers, in ways his own foremen did not.

On a job this fall in Montana, he did not shout. At quitting time, his workers were driven to a trailer in town, where conditions were cramped but everyone got a shower.

"Those of us who come here to work are of humble upbringing," Burac said, "but we are not animals."

- Tom Knudson


The forest worker season begins in November on corporate pine plantations in the South, where trees grow in rows and most of America's wood is now harvested. But by April, the pineros drift toward the jade-green forests of the mountain West.

Pineros plant trees and thin vegetation on a gargantuan scale. Saddled with gear - from the bags of seedlings weighing up to 50 pounds that swing from their hips to the gallon-sized jugs of gas, oil and water strapped to their belts - they trudge across rough ground where heavy equipment can't go: the slippery slopes, soggy stream banks and rock-infested ridges.

Whether here as legal or undocumented workers, pineros share a common experience. They tend to live on the rundown edges of rural towns, sleeping three or four to a bed and sprawling across the floors of rental homes, trailers, budget motels and even tarp lean-tos. Often, they're on the move - commuting long distances to work, slipping through mountain resorts before dawn.

Other things set the legal guest workers apart.

"Most are the kind of people who would not pay a 'coyote' to cross the border," said Maria Andrade, the Idaho lawyer. "Some are professionals in their home countries. Most have never been to the U.S. before. They have no family members here, no support network."


That isolation increases the danger, as an inspector for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration discovered in 2002 at a job site in the Ouachita National Forest in western Arkansas.

"They go just as fast as they can through the woods, cutting on the run," the inspector wrote. "Almost all the employees have been hit by branches of trees other employees have felled ... . One worker was operating a chain saw ... when the saw became pinched, he jerked the saw back and the chain on the saw tore into his leg, creating a gash approximately 5-6 inches in length ... . When he exposed his injured leg, it was obviously infected."

Vicente Vera Martínez, a Mexican truck driver, remembers the incident well. He was the one hurt.

"It happened so fast," he said when tracked back to his home in Santiago Ixquintla, south of Mazatlán. "The pine tree was a little crooked. The chain saw wasn't sharp. I had to force it. That's what caused the saw to kick back."

Sitting on a plastic chair in his father's backyard, Vera Martínez pulled up his left pant leg to show the scar. It resembled a giant brown leech. His father, Jesús Vera Flores, scowled.

"We had no training," said Vera Flores, who worked with his son in Arkansas. "The foreman just took us to a place and said, 'Get to work.' "

"They wouldn't give us goggles," he added. "The chaps only came to above our knees. The saws had no safety locks. When my son was hurt, we had to carry him down a hill. It took about an hour. The van we were riding in didn't have a first-aid kit."

Three years later, word of the critical OSHA inspection still had not reached top levels of the Ouachita National Forest, much to the surprise of some there. In response to The Bee's inquiries, the forest's public affairs officer, Cheryl Chatham, said, "We're going back and taking a look at what's going on out there."

For many forest guest workers, though, the greatest pain is financial. Back home, recruiters tell them they will earn $7 to $13 an hour - a fortune for most Latin Americans. But once in the United States, many see their wages whittled away - sometimes to less than the minimum wage - by deductions for gas, food, lodging, tools and even, in one case, using a portable outhouse. Often, the work is spotty.

Rafael Pérez Pérez listened to a recruiter and couldn't resist.

Pérez was a Mexican bookseller in 1996 when he traveled north as an H2B worker to earn some extra money for his wife and four children by planting trees in Mississippi. Earlier this year, he sat in a hotel restaurant in the provincial capital of Aguascalientes, took a sip of black coffee and pulled out a check he earned working on Georgia Pacific land.

Related Document

Related Document

Click image to see the check for $1.98 that Rafael Pérez Pérez received from Progressive Forestry Services, Inc.

For 15 hours of work, Pérez grossed $105.01 - $7 dollars an hour. But after deductions for travel ($20), a recruiting fee ($50), a salary advance ($25), Social Security and Medicare ($8.03), his actual paycheck was for just $1.98 - 13 cents an hour.

"It was unbelievable," Pérez said. "I didn't even bother to cash it because it cost $2 to cash a check."

"If we worked 12 hours, the foreman would write down eight," Pérez said. "If we planted 2,000 trees, they'd say you planted 500 of them bad. They had the perfect formula to have the worker unable to escape."

With so little money, Pérez and his fellow guest workers had to borrow from their employer, contractor Progressive Forestry Services Inc. That meant more deductions. With every paycheck, "we would earn less and owe more," he said, "until we realized, 'We're never going to be able to pay this off.' "

The low point came over a hot plate with other workers in a motel room on Dec. 25. "We didn't have money to go to a restaurant. So we bought hot dogs for Christmas dinner - nothing else, just hot dogs. It was very sad."

Pérez quit after two months and returned to Mexico. Later, he and three others sued Progressive Forestry in a class-action federal court case. The total settlement for 380 guest workers was $127,500. Pérez recovered $4,175.

Following the suit, Progressive Forestry's owners formed new firms and continue to employ H2B workers. They said Pérez's lawsuit destroyed their company and they disputed his charges.

"The guy did not want to work," said Bruce Campbell, a co-manager of Progressive Environmental LLC in Idaho. "He was - and I hate to use the word - a bad egg. He was not there to work. He was there causing problems."

Robert Zaharie, who signed Pérez's $1.98 check as Progressive's president and has since formed the forest contracting firm Alpha Services LLC, responded via fax: "Employers lose thousands of dollars each year being humanitarians," he wrote. "When workers show up, employers give cash advances. ... Sometimes they leave with the money and never work. We have been more indentured to our workers than they have ever been to us."

Manuel Burac, foreman for Universal Forestry, faced a difficult time as a pinero after coming to the United States from Panama. Long van rides, poor treatment and a lack of work all made for a hard life. Listen as he tells his story to Bee reporter Tom Knudson during an interview in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana.

Former partners turned competitors, Zaharie and Campbell are part of a tangle of Idaho-based H2B contractors linked by legal woes and regulatory infractions. Zaharie began his career with Evergreen Forestry Services, which has been cited for hundreds of federal labor law violations. Evergreen's owner, Peter John Smith III, joined Campbell's company while appealing the government's efforts to put him out of business. Universal Forestry's owner, Heber Matute, once worked for Smith.

"Most of these guys know each other," said Jill Ellis, co-owner of Renewable Forestry Services Inc., an H2B reforestation firm in Georgia. "It's amazing. If you tried to chart it, it would look like tree roots."

Only a handful of outsiders have peered into the world of forest guest workers. One is anthropologist Josh McDaniel, who interviewed contractors and pineros and published his findings with a colleague this year in the Journal of Forestry, one of the nation's most prestigious forestry publications.

"Contractors seemed to play a lot of games with workers' pay," said McDaniel, who recently stepped down as an assistant professor at Auburn University to move to Colorado with his wife. "They would withhold money until workers had nearly fulfilled their contracts. Then they would work them really hard until they would leave and forfeit their last big chunk of money."

Pineros have little recourse. Under the H2B program, they cannot take a job with another employer. That, McDaniel said, is an invitation to abuse.

Legal responsibility for guest workers is spread widely. The State Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol oversee visas and entry to the United States. The Department of Labor, which certifies employers to hire workers, is charged with monitoring pay and working conditions.

McDaniel found that oversight of workers is rare. "There are not a lot of inspections," he said. "The crews are really hidden. I had a hard time finding them - and I was really trying. There is very little regulation at all."

Regulation of H2B workers fell into a bureaucratic catacomb from the very start, when Congress split a pre-existing guest worker program for agriculture into two branches in 1986. At the time, it grafted rules to protect farmworkers, including the right to a federal legal aid lawyer, onto the H2A branch of the legislation. But it left the H2B limb bare.

"There weren't many H2B visas issued then, so it wasn't an issue," said Michael Dale, an Oregon lawyer and migrant advocate.

Candelario Pérez is one of many guest workers who have found themselves in need of those protections. Like most, he borrowed money for the journey to the United States - $900 for a plane ticket, $300 for his visa, even $50 for a physical required by the guest worker program.

Back home in Panama, a company recruiter had told him he would earn $10.50 an hour. But that promise was evaporating. Working for Universal Forestry in Idaho, his paychecks were late. Deductions for gas, food, motels and a chain saw eroded his pay. Pérez and his co-workers grew so desperate, they poached deer out of season. "I was hungry," he said. "I had to eat."

Feeling cheated, he sought legal help. But by law, he could not turn to the first line of defense for most migrant workers: a legal aid lawyer. Instead, after months of looking, he found Andrade, the private attorney from Boise, who took his case.

Interactive: Documents tell story of difficult working conditions

Interactive: Documents tell story of difficult working conditions

Documents reflect the difficulties faced by reforestation workers, also known as pineros. This series of documents centers on one labor contractor, Universal Forestry, which has been cited for numerous labor law violations.

In general, H2B workers aren't that lucky.

"Most private attorneys don't want them," said Roman Ramos, a paralegal with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid Inc. "For all practical purposes, there is nobody to turn to. It would take an act of Congress to give these folks some protection."

Pérez's plight was among those presented this spring in Mexico under the NAFTA labor accord. The petition bulges with allegations of wage exploitation, wretched living conditions, backbreaking labor and regulatory neglect.

It says that Pérez and five co-workers were forced to camp in the mountains as temperatures approached freezing. "There were no sleeping pads, mattresses or sleeping bags," the petition reports. "The only drinking water was untreated and came from a creek."

Document excerpt

Diary of Mark Klinke, U.S. Forest Service contracting officers representative


Francisco worked the crew straight thru lunch and finished planting out the trees at 1410. It was a sunny, hot day and the crew was dragging near the end.... I told Francisco that even though it was hot and the guys appeared tired that they still needed to dig deep holes to accommodate the 14" roots.

See the actual document

On Sept. 26, 2000, Pérez and another worker filed complaints with the Department of Labor. Four months later, the department responded that, "it could not take action because the complaints were in Spanish," says the petition.

Finally, in early 2003, the federal agency found Universal had shorted 29 forest guest workers out of more than $6,400 in wages, including Pérez, who was owed $631.25.

Allegations about living conditions went unsubstantiated, the petition says, because the Labor Department was too slow. The work was done, and the workers gone, by the time the government got involved.

Only months after the Labor Department's findings, Universal was back at work on a federal contract in the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. The focus once again was the trees, not wages or working conditions.

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Maria Guadalupe Luna Pérez persuaded ... María Guadalupe Luna Pérez persuaded Mexican authorities to intervene on behalf of her husband, Natividad. Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

Voices: 'It was like slavery'

María Guadalupe Luna Pérez first knew something was wrong when the money her husband promised to send never arrived. The wife of another worker called María to say she'd heard from her husband that the men were being treated miserably.

The longer María listened, the more upset she became.

"It hurt me he had to suffer," she said at her simple home in Santiago Ixquintla, a dusty farm town south of Mazatlán.

On a national forest in Arkansas, María's husband, Natividad Pérez, and her friend's husband, Jesús Vera Flores, were desperate. Each had just put up collateral - Natividad signed over his home, Jesús his car - to get their jobs. But the thinning on the 2002 job was going badly.

For two weeks, they were paid $270 each - $1.50 an hour, Natividad said. The tools were dull. A co-worker sliced his leg with a chain saw. At night they slept on the floor of a filthy trailer. The water smelled so bad they couldn't drink it.

The men said they pleaded with the contractor to let them go.

"We said, 'We'll pay you to let us leave,' " Natividad said. But the contractor, who held the notes to their property, refused. "It was like slavery," Natividad added.

In Mexico, María sprang into action. She sold her blender for 200 pesos - about $19 - to buy a bus ticket to the state capital of Nayarit to meet with government authorities.

At that meeting, someone suggested she call the Mexican Consulate in Texas. So she did. Someone at the consulate asked her where the men were living. "I have no idea," María recalls replying. "I just have a telephone number."

Three days later, Natividad reached her by phone. "He said: 'You won't believe this but some authorities showed up - and now we are in Kentucky,' " María said.

They were free.

- Tom Knudson


"Francisco worked the crew straight thru lunch and finished planting out the trees at 1410 (2:10 p.m.)," one Forest Service inspector wrote in his field diary on May 24.

"It was a sunny, hot day and the crew was dragging," he added. "I told Francisco that even though it was hot and the guys appeared tired they still needed to dig deep holes to accommodate the 14" roots. Francisco got on the crew and they finished out the day OK."

Asked about that field diary, the supervisor of the Clearwater National Forest, Larry Dawson, said it did not bother him. Contractors set working hours, not the government, he said.

"If the contractor makes the choice to continue working, recognizing that they're hot and conditions are difficult, we continue to hold them accountable to plant the trees correctly," Dawson said.

"If they're hot, yeah, what else is there to say?" he added. "Of course, it is difficult work."

Migrant advocates had another take on such incidents. "We are financing these abuses - and the profits people wring from them," said Maria Andrade.

Universal's owner, Matute, said he doesn't mistreat his employees, but acknowledged he works them hard.

"With these government jobs, I have pressure to get the job done," he said. "I am pressing the guys to do the job that needs to be done. Otherwise, I don't get paid."


Emilio Morales Donis of Guatemala City, who worked four months for Universal in 2002, said he felt Matute sometimes pushed too hard - and not always on the job. He said he watched Matute seize the passports of a group of Mexican H2B workers. "They couldn't even go out on the street because they had no documents, Morales said. "In my way of thinking, he detained them like slaves."

Matute said he needed the documents to fill out office paperwork. "Everybody got them back," he said.

Jesús Vera Flores and Vicente Vera Martínez, the father and son from Santiago Ixquintla, say something similar happened to them as they sought employment with another contractor for work in the Arkansas national forest. They turned over the deeds to their cars as a guarantee they would finish the work.

"We felt like we were imprisoned, held captive," said Vera Martínez. "What else did he need, a whip?"

In the choppy, green hills of northern Guatemala, Edilberto Morales Luis has more than memories to remind him of his time as a guest worker in U.S. forests.

A quiet, solidly built man in his mid-20s, Morales is the lone survivor of a van accident in Maine that took the lives of 14 H2B forest workers.

It happened not on the job - but on the grueling drive to work on private land owned by a timber company called Pingree Associates. Shortly before 8 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2002, the driver of a van in which Morales was riding lost control while crossing a one-lane wooden bridge and tumbled upside-down into the Allagash River.

One morning last spring, Morales shuffled across a small bedroom in his home and pointed to a picture of eight guest workers, posing for a group photo in the Maine woods.

"He died. He died. He died," he said, touching one face after another. "That one's my uncle. He died."

In early 2002, Morales had left Guatemala with an H2B visa to work for Evergreen Forestry Services, an Idaho-based reforestation contractor. But there was something he and his co-workers on the Maine job did not know, something buried in the U.S. government's files: Evergreen had a long record of mistreating workers.

"Subject has a lengthy and woeful history of non-compliance," a federal inspector wrote in 1998. "(Its) history reads like 'The Anatomy of a Worst Violator.' " Evergreen had altered timecards and failed to pay overtime, the files say, shorting workers out of more than $250,000 in all.

Two years later, another investigator cited Evergreen for a thicket of additional violations, including transporting workers in an unsafe van. "The vehicle ... had visible bald tires," the investigator wrote.

The Bee tried to reach Peter Smith, Evergreen's owner, on several occasions, but he did not return calls.

Death Toll

Like livestock, pineros are crowded into work vans where death finds them in bunches. Since 2001, 23 pineros are known to have died in the woods - 21 of them in van crashes on long commutes on winding, woodland and mountain roads.

Among those killed in a 2002 van crash in Maine are, from left to right standing, Alcides Chávez Hernandez, Alexi Alcántara Acosta, Juan Saénz Méndez, son and father José Santos Euceda Cebeda and Pablo Euceda Amaya; squatting in front are Alberto Sales Domingo and brothers Cecilio Morales Domingo and Sebastian Morales Domingo.

Following is a list of those who have died. To learn more about each man, mouse over each name.

Killed when a van plunged down an embankment on Jan. 3, 2005, near Reedsport, Ore.:

Crushed after he fell off a moving truck Aug. 4, 2004, in Shasta County:

Killed in a head-on van crash in Washington on March 27, 2004:

Froze to death Jan. 24, 2001, in Washington:

Drowned when a van plunged into the Allagash River in Maine on Sept. 12, 2002:

Government files also contained letters from migrant advocates, pleading with the Labor Department to stop Evergreen from hiring foreign workers. Yet while one branch of the Labor Department, the wage and hour division, was repeatedly citing Evergreen, another branch - the employment and training administration - was authorizing it to hire H2B workers.

After the van accident, migrant advocates were outraged.

"The very agencies whose duty it was to protect workers fell down on the job," said Lori Elmer, an attorney for forest workers in North Carolina. "They had all the information and still didn't do anything. It was a complete breakdown."

In December 2002, the Labor Department revoked Evergreen's license. Last year, it fined the company $17,000 - $1,000 for each fatality, $1,000 for Morales and $2,000 for failing to register the van or driver as required under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

That fine has not been paid and Smith remains in business at Progressive Environmental, where he became president this year, Idaho state records show.

Since 2003, Smith's new company has been awarded $238,000 in government contracts for work on Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in Oregon and Montana, according to the Federal Procurement Data System, an online inventory of federal contracts.

Labor Department spokeswoman Dolline Hatchett said Smith's involvement with another reforestation company is legal because he has appealed the agency's revocation of his license. "It's all still up in the air," she said.



Scattered across Central America are the remains of 14 Evergreen workers whose perspectives on the matter will never be heard. One is Morales' uncle, Juan Saénz Méndez, who had journeyed north to earn money for his wife and six children.

Today, Saénz lies in a concrete-block tomb draped with pink, green, white and black ribbons. At midday, the cemetery is quiet. The ribbons flutter in a hot breeze.

"We will always remember you dear Juanito," the inscription on the tomb reads, in Spanish. Below that, it adds:

El sueño Americano nos privo de tu presencia - the American dream has deprived us of your presence.