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.
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.
And allegations like these are nothing new. Affidavits filed in court by Labor Department investigators show that herders have been complaining about the Peroulises since 1990.
"I determined that the Peroulises failed to pay wages when due, took illegal deductions from the herders' wages for transportation and supplies in the amount of around $4,100 and knowingly provided false information to the Department of Labor," wrote investigator Joseph Doolin about a 1990 visit to the ranch. Doolin also said he met with Stan Peroulis after his investigation to discuss the H-2A law and how it applied to his employees.
Doolin investigated the ranch again in 1993, 1996, 1997 and 2000 and recounted numerous conversations with employees who told him they'd been abused. In 1996 he said that two sick herders had "asked the Peroulises for medicine but were told by Stan and Louis Peroulis to die. They were not provided with any medicine."
Investigator George Peters said he interviewed a herder this year who told him he'd lost 22 pounds while working for the family. Another "told me that when he met some people who gave him a Bible and books to learn English, Louis and Stan Peroulis took the books away from him and burned them." Peters recounted other stories of herders being punched, kicked and spit at by Louis Peroulis. He also said several herders feared the repercussions of talking to Labor Department investigators. One herder told him that after he spoke to an investigator in 1993, "the Peroulises got angry at him for doing this and mistreated him even more, giving him less food and more work."
A third Labor Department investigator, Xochitl Muñoz, interviewed several herders last September. She said one told her that "he is consistently verbally and emotionally abused by the Peroulis family. He said that he was told by the Peroulises, at the time he was picked up at the airport, that he was not allowed to leave his sheep camp at any time and could not have any contact with the outside community until after his three-year contract is fulfilled. He is consistently threatened that if he does not perform work according to the Peroulises' satisfaction, he could be deported to Peru and would be prohibited from ever working in the United States again. He was also told he would not be paid if he did not fulfill his three-year H-2A contract."
The same herder told her that he was allowed to write to his family only if the Peroulises gave their permission, and that he wasn't allowed to call his family or take calls from them. He said his mail "is usually mutilated, damaged and opened by the time it reaches him. He does not complain to the Peroulises about the mail because he is afraid of being yelled at or beaten."
The Peroulises were fined by the Labor Department for violations of labor codes and paid $1,200 in 1995. They agreed to pay back wages owed to employees in 1990, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1998. In 1997, they also agreed to maintain lists of the food and supplies they gave to the herders.
In all of the affidavits submitted as part of the case, the herders' names are withheld (although those who testified in court were required to give their names). Dean Campbell, the district director for the Department of Labor, says he decided to withhold the names because he feared for the men's safety.
"I believe strongly that revealing the names of the H-2A herders who provided information to the Department of Labor would result in serious harm to these individuals," Campbell wrote in a statement given to the court.
"In light of the history of the Peroulis investigations, and of the fear exhibited by the current herders who spoke to Wage-Hour investigators during the recent sweep, I believe that these herders, who have acted as government informants, could be subjected to further abuse by the Peroulises before any protection could be afforded to them or before the Wage-Hour investigators could monitor the Peroulises' compliance with any order the court may issue. This is especially true because the herders work in such remote areas that are difficult to reach, and because they have no access to telephones or other means of communicating with our office."
The sorts of abuses alleged to have taken place on the Peroulis ranch are almost inevitable under the H-2A program, say advocates for migrant farm workers. In fact, they say, the people who come into the country legally under this program have even fewer rights than those who are here illegally.
"They're vulnerable to abuse for a number of reasons," says Kimi Jackson of Colorado Legal Services, which provides legal help to people who can't afford it, including migrant workers. "The employer has the ability to get them deported. He controls their right to stay in the country. If you or I had an employer who abused us, we would quit and find another employer. If an H-2A worker quits, they immediately lose their immigration status." In addition, the employer usually pays for the workers' transportation costs into the country and often holds their passports while they are here.
Jackson says the H-2A regulations covering sheepherders allow working conditions that most Americans would find intolerable. "They have special rules for sheepherders, which are even more outrageous and have less protections than for other agricultural workers," she says. "For most workers, the employer has to keep track of the hours they work every day. For sheepherders, there's no requirement like that. They're basically on call 24 hours a day for 52 weeks a year. I don't think anyone would work under those circumstances unless that was the only way they could get a visa."
If H-2A employees organize or try to stand up for their rights, Jackson says, the employer can always find an excuse to get them thrown out of the country. "If workers in one country organize," she says, "the employer can go to another country to get workers. They can always switch to another source of labor."
There are currently 246 people certified to work under the H-2A program in Colorado. They work for 102 different employers, indicating that most of them are hired hands on scattered ranches and farms around the state. This is a small percentage of the thousands of H-2A employees nationwide. The largest numbers of such employees are found in states like Florida, North Carolina and California, where farmers grow crops like tobacco, sugar cane and strawberries that are harvested by hand. The biggest crops in Colorado are corn, hay and wheat, which are usually harvested by machine, so most of the H-2A workers here tend livestock.
There is enough local demand for Peruvian sheepherders that as many as 100 of them work in northwest Colorado, says Carlos Velasco, the Peruvian consul general in Denver, and a total of about 1,000 Peruvians work in agriculture in the western United States. "There is a tradition of taking care of sheep in Peru," he says. "They're some of the best workers out in the field. They herd sheep and llamas all over the Andes."
Cynthia Rice, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, has worked with several Peruvian sheepherders in California. She says that because of special provisions that were included in the law at the behest of former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, sheepherders receive fewer protections than other H-2A employees. For instance, while most H-2A contracts are for a year or less, sheepherders typically sign three-year contracts. Rice also says the legal standards for housing for the sheepherders are much more lax than for other workers. "Sheepherders are exempted from most regulations because of this incredibly powerful [sheep industry] lobby." A group of Peruvian sheepherders in California even filed a complaint over their treatment with the Peruvian Human Rights Commission, she adds, and there is now an effort under way to organize the sheepherders in California into a union.
"The government of Peru is very concerned about the treatment of the Peruvian sheepherders," says Velasco, adding that his office was contacted by several Peruvians about the Peroulis ranch. "Mr. Damian was battered," he says. "We proceeded according to international law and notified the Labor Department."
Jose Cabada, the editor and publisher of the Peru News Review in the Los Angeles area, says the president of the Human Rights Commission of the Peruvian Congress came to California last year to talk to Peruvian sheepherders. "He was surprised how many sheepherders don't see their paychecks and don't have enough food," Cabada says, adding that he believes about 10 percent of the ranchers who hire Peruvian sheepherders abuse or exploit them in some way. "The best solution would be if they published a list of the ranchers who abuse the sheepherders," he says.
"These ranchers have a lot of power," Cabada continues. "They work with the INS and police. It's like the old Western movies. They own the sheriff and the whole town. It's like the Old West, the same thing."
The H-2A program is named after a section of the Immigration Reform Control Act of 1986. It was created after farmers and ranchers claimed there were jobs going unfilled because Americans didn't want them. The law mandates certain minimum standards that employers must meet when hiring foreign workers under the program. This was partly to defuse criticism that H-2A was simply a continuation of the notorious "bracero" program that brought millions of Mexican farmworkers into the country beginning in the 1940s. The braceros were often treated little better than slaves, and, like the H-2A employees, they were bound by contracts. The program ended after Edward R. Murrow's famous 1960 CBS documentary "Harvest of Shame" exposed the appalling conditions of farmworkers in Florida.
Two government studies have noted the potential for abuse of H-2A employees and criticized federal agencies for failing to enforce legal protections for those workers. In 1997, the General Accounting Office concluded in a report that "H-2A guest workers may be less aware of U.S. laws and protections than domestic workers, and they are unlikely to complain about worker-protection violations fearing they will lose their jobs or will not be hired in the future."
The Labor Department's own watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, concluded in a separate 1997 report that the department had done a poor job of policing the program. It faulted the department for rarely fining employers who violated the law and noted that farmers and ranchers were almost never suspended from the program, even after a pattern of abuse had been established.
Under H-2A rules, farmers and ranchers are required to prove that they have tried to recruit domestic employees but failed to find anyone interested in the work. But the report found that many agricultural employers make only a halfhearted attempt to find local help and turn to the H2-A program because foreign labor is cheaper. It also contradicted the claim that there aren't enough legal workers in rural areas to fill the open jobs, adding that "a sudden widespread farm-labor shortage requiring the importation of large numbers of foreign workers is unlikely to occur in the near future."
Despite the criticism, the program has been growing quickly; last year more than 41,000 people were admitted to the U.S. under H-2A. There was even an unsuccessful effort in the last session of Congress to boost the number of people allowed into the country under the program to one million. And Colorado ranchers continue to insist that they can't find Americans willing to accept the demanding conditions that sheepherders endure.
"The sheepherders that come over here have special skills; they're familiar with livestock," says Tom Kourlis, a former executive director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture who runs an 8,000-acre ranch near Craig.
"It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy being alone in a remote area," he adds. Kourlis has four H2-A herders now working on his ranch. He says most ranchers take good care of their sheepherders, and the job makes a huge difference in the lives of the herders and their families. "It's a way for them to improve their quality of life," he says. "We've had herders who send their kids to school because of this or buy a house. It's a way for them to get ahead."
Charles Ryden runs 300 cows on his ranch near New Castle. He says the two H2-A men he employs from Mexico are indispensable. One of them, Jesús, has come to New Castle to work for Ryden for several years in a row. He stays seven months through spring and summer before returning to Mexico for the winter.
"We couldn't make it without Jesús because of the cost of labor for local employees," Ryden says. Jesús helps with calving in the spring and then puts up hay in the summer, he adds. "His work ethic is outstanding. I try to make them stop working for one or two days a week, but they're on a mission to work. They want to work so they can go home."
Ryden pays the men $800 a month and gives them a bonus every year. He sends Jesus to the grocery story to buy his own food. "I sign a check for him, and he goes down to City Market because he knows what he likes to eat," says Ryden. "We have to take care of him."
Because they come from rural areas, the Mexican workers know how to do basic ranching tasks like building fences and plowing, he says. "I've had some tremendous American workers, but when they get married, they have to make more money. A lot of Americans don't know what farming is. These guys come up here and know what to do."
The Peroulises have denied all of the allegations made by their former employees and say they have always followed the law. Their attorney, Lee Christian, insists there have been no beatings or violence against the herders. "We categorically deny that," he says. "There may have been raised voices, but never any physical abuse."
Christian also questions the herders' motivations for testifying. "Most of these guys walked off the job or were fired," he claims. "The testimony was often inconsistent. They said they were starving, but they were allowed to purchase food at any time." He says that although the visas of many of the former herders have now expired, the men have been allowed to stay in the United States in return for cooperating with the Labor Department.
None of the Perouslies would return phone calls for this story.
One witness at the hearing, Eddie Lopez, spoke in defense of the family. Lopez works for an association of ranchers in southern Wyoming that includes the Peroulis family. His job was to monitor the range land where the sheep are kept, and he said none of the Peroulis herders ever complained to him about being hungry or abused.
The Peroulises are being persecuted by the government, says Christian. "The Department of Labor doesn't like my clients because they stand up to them. The Peroulises have spent a bloody fortune trying to clear their name."
In a response to the Labor Department motion filed with the court, Christian noted that the Peroulises have many herders who have been with the family for years, including some relatives of the herders who testified against them. He also noted that Damian -- the herder who was allegedly beaten by Louis Peroulis -- wouldn't be appearing in court since he has returned to Peru. (Peruvian Consul-General Velasco says Damian is still recovering from his injuries in Peru and was too ill to come to Denver to testify in court about his treatment.) Damian had abandoned his camp and cruelly left his horse tied up to the sheep wagon, Christian claimed, then sought shelter with a rancher in competition with the Peroulis family.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch rejected the Department of Labor's request for a preliminary injunction against the Peroulises in October, saying it was too vague, and instead ordered the family to submit a plan demonstrating how they would comply with laws covering H-2A workers in the future. The Peroulises filed a preliminary plan with the court in December, and Christian says the two sides are now in negotiations over a possible settlement. An agreement would likely include detailed, step-by-step instructions about exactly how much food the herders will receive, how their hours will be counted, what can be deducted from their paychecks and other guidelines.
The Moffat County Sheriff's Office investigated the alleged beating of Damian, and the case is still open. However, no charges have been filed.
"It's a hard case for us because the Peroulises are a good family," says Moffat County undersheriff Jerry Hoberg. "Any time you have employees, they may have sour grapes. It's unfortunate it happened, but it's something that needs to be looked into." Hoberg says his office has investigated three other incidents involving the Peroulis family and their employees over the last eight years and that none of those investigations resulted in criminal charges being filed. "Usually the victim is unavailable," says Hoberg. "They go home or get another job. They just don't want to deal with it."
David Waite, chief deputy district attorney for Moffat County, says he couldn't file charges in the Damian case unless the victim was in the country. Even if Damian was here, Waite says, it would be difficult to press charges against the Peroulises: "It would be his word versus theirs. It would be a difficult case to prosecute."
That won't be much comfort to the men who herded sheep for the family.
Celso Bruno, a 32-year-old Peruvian, testified that he had worked for the Peroulis family for ten years before leaving in 1999. He said he had been hit by Louis Peroulis after he began working there, and suffered without adequate food and water when he took the herds into remote desert land. He says he eventually quit working for the Peroulises because he "couldn't take it anymore."
Like most of the other former Peroulis employees who testified, Bruno now works for another local rancher and says he is treated well.
So why, asked an attorney at the October hearing, did he work at the Peroulis ranch for so long?
"I wanted to work and look out for my family," he told the court. "I had to support my family in Peru. We are a big family -- twelve brothers and sisters and my father and my wife."
Why didn't he try to find another job?
"Because I didn't know. I thought here in the United States all the ranchers would treat you the same."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Big Pot Grow in Routt National Forest an Environmental Hazard, Feds Say
Fri., Sep. 4, 7:00pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:30pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 7:30pm
- Reader: Denver Is Safe Because Cops Will Crack Your F*cking Skull
- Saying Goodbye to 8 Denver-Area Restaurants, Hello to 21 New Ones