By Alan Prendergast
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Last May, a sick and injured Peruvian sheepherder showed up on the doorstep of a rancher near Meeker. The herder, Remigio Inga Damian, had spent several days walking from the remote backcountry pasture where he'd been tending a herd of 1,000 sheep. Exhausted and feverish, he'd hidden in an abandoned house for four days as he looked for help. Damian told the rancher that his boss had flown into a rage and thrown him to the ground, injuring his neck. He said he felt severe pain in his head and neck and a tingling sensation in his arms, hands and legs; he also had a fever and an upset stomach. The rancher, John Halandras, noted that Damian had no appetite and looked gaunt and dehydrated.
Halandras took Damian to his personal physician, who wrote that the patient suffered "pain in his head, hot neuritis-type pains on his scalp, pain in his posterior neck, periods of shaking, and periods of carpal pedal spasm associated with an apparent assault." Afterward, Halandras drove Damian to the emergency room at St. Mary's hospital in Grand Junction, where he was examined again and given prescription painkillers.
A letter from Halandras (who wouldn't comment for this story), a police report and a record of the medical exam were forwarded to the office of the Peruvian consul in Denver. The consul then forwarded the information to the U.S. Labor Department's regional office in Salt Lake City, where the name of the rancher accused of beating Damian -- Louis Peroulis -- was immediately recognized.
For years, the department had been hearing complaints from the sheepherders who worked for the Peroulis family, which owns hundreds of acres and thousands of sheep in Colorado and Wyoming. Many of them told horrifying stories of beatings, verbal abuse, a lack of food and water, and an atmosphere of constant humiliation that one former employee compared to slavery. One herder said the family had even burned a Bible he was using to teach himself English.
The herders had all been allowed into the United States under a little-known government program that permits ranchers and farmers to hire foreigners for agricultural jobs that Americans don't want. Under the program, known as H-2A, employers pay the workers a set amount of money and are required to provide food, water and shelter. In return, the workers agree to a specific and often quite rigorous set of duties.
The Peroulises pay their herders the federally set wage of $650 per month to tend flocks of sheep for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The men, who often work alone, live in sheep wagons or trailers scattered around the vast spread owned by the Peroulis family, which extends from Moffat County all the way into Wyoming. Since they don't speak English and live in isolated spots on the open range, the herders are completely dependent on their employers for food, housing, supplies and medical care.
The H-2A program has been criticized for making workers so dependent and therefore vulnerable to exactly the sort of abuse alleged by Damian.
The Department of Labor organized a surprise sweep of the Peroulis property that included agents from the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They interviewed the Peroulises and their employees and inspected the books, which angered the family, according to affidavits written by Labor Department agents. The department then filed suit in U.S District Court against John Peroulis and his sons, Louis Peroulis and Stan Peroulis, accusing them of violating the federal labor laws that govern working conditions for H-2A employees.
The Peroulises have denied the charges of abuse and insist that the stories come from a handful of disgruntled former workers. At an October hearing in which the government requested a preliminary injunction that would force the family to treat its employees better, seven former herders testified in Spanish about their treatment by the family. Five Labor Department investigators also submitted affidavits to the court that showed complaints against the Peroulises dating back to 1990.
Almost all of the men who went to work for the Peroulis family had wives and children in Peru who depended on the money they sent home to survive. Leaving behind all their loved ones, the herders ventured to a land thousands of miles from home, where they didn't speak the language or understand the customs. And what they found in Colorado, many of them say, was hell on earth.
For over a century, sheepherding has been a way of life in northwest Colorado. Between the sage-covered bluffs and mesas that fill that part of the state, trailers or wagons can be seen tucked away in remote valleys, each surrounded by hundreds of sheep. For decades, foreigners have worked as herders here, since the long hours and low pay don't appeal to many native-born workers. Many of the early herders were Basque, and a good number of Western Slope families can proudly trace their heritage to a Basque shepherd.
Since the 1950s, though, most sheepherders in Colorado have come from Latin America. Many are from countries such as Peru that share a mountainous terrain and sheepherding tradition with Colorado. There are hundreds of Peruvian sheepherders now working around the West, and most ranchers in Colorado pride themselves on taking good care of them, especially since the shepherds are safeguarding flocks that can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.