Meaner Pastures

Life can get wild and woolly for herders who flock to the U.S. under a special law.

The work is demanding. Not only do the flocks have to be moved to fresh grassland, but a herder has to make sure the sheep don't eat poisonous plants and must guard against attack by coyotes and other predators. During the lambing season, the herders assist with the births and help protect the newborn lambs from the elements. Many herders go to work well before dawn and don't come off the range until after dark. A government nutritionist testified during the October hearing that young men engaged in active, physical work need 2,800 calories a day, and that working without adequate nutrition would eventually weaken the immune system and put them at risk of serious illness.

But many of the men who tended sheep for the Peroulises say hunger defined their experience -- along with fear.

"Sometimes we were hungry for days and didn't have food," testified Lolo Casas, a 22-year-old Peruvian who worked for the family for eight months in 1998 and now works for another rancher. "A week or seven days, we didn't have food to eat. We would have a tortilla and water."

Like the other herders who appeared in court, Casas said the Peroulises would bring cans of beans, rice, pasta and other supplies periodically, but it was never enough to last. The only meat he got from his employer was a sheep's head and liver, and he told the court that his requests for more food were ignored. Casas lost about twenty pounds during the time he worked there: "They saw there was no food, but they would leave and not come back. How were we supposed to sustain ourselves?" At one point, Casas walked into town looking for help, a foray that earned him an angry rebuke from Stan Peroulis. "When I came back, Señor Stan told me it was my fault he couldn't get any more men," he recalled.

"I was hungry, especially in the winter, because there were two people, and the food they gave us was not sufficient," testified Onofre Bruno, a 24-year-old who worked for the Peroulises for six years. "In the winter they brought us food every ten days. It was not constant."

"With a cup of coffee in the morning, we had to work all day until the evening," said Fredy Casa, 29, who worked for the Peroulises from 1997 to 1999. "They would say, 'All you guys think about is food. You don't think about work.' Casa said he was afraid to eat in front of his bosses. Several former Peroulis herders said that requests for more food were often met with anger and even physical violence.

"The problem was when I was first starting to work," says Mauricio Quiñones, a 28-year-old Peruvian who worked for the Peroulises for three years. "It happened when I went to help a Mexican bring his lunch and I went back to the trailer. Señor Louis got very angry when he saw me carrying some food. He told me all I could think about was my fucking belly, and he punched me in the belly." Quiñones testified that he was assaulted again by Peroulis after he was accused of coming back to the ranch too soon from tending the herd. "He said, 'Why weren't you looking after the sheep?' He threw me against the stable wall. He had me up against the stable wall. He had me by the jacket. He threw my jacket and said, 'Take your fucking stuff with you.'"

In the herders' testimony and the affidavits filed by Labor Department investigators, there are repeated accounts of beatings and assaults by Louis Peroulis.

"When I started working there, Señor Louis hit me," said Celso Bruno, another former herder. "When I was working with the ewes, he told me I didn't need to be there and he knocked me over. He knocked me to the ground."

Several men said their mail from Peru was often open when they received it, and although their families said they wrote frequently, many letters didn't turn up. The herders said they were often berated for writing too many letters. "Sometimes I sent two or three letters," said Lolo Casas. "They told me I was spending more time on the letters than on my work."

Bruno's young wife in Peru died while he was working for the Peroulises. He told the court that his family had tried to reach him when his wife became ill. "My father told me he tried to contact me with the phone number I had given him. He said he didn't get through. My wife, when she was sick, wrote a letter in June, and I didn't get that letter until September."

Bruno learned of his wife's death through a relative who was also working in Colorado. He said the Peroulises then gave him permission to return to Peru for a few weeks.

All of the herders who testified said they were afraid of the Peroulises, even though they no longer worked for them. One even refused to name his current employer, saying he feared the Peroulises could still make trouble for him.

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