Chef Roberto Montes likes to talk about his journey from Mexico to Niagara Falls and how it influenced his love for the "true" flavors and subtleties of Mexican cuisine.
The owner of El Cubilete also will tell you that no other Falls restaurant compares to his in terms of authenticity.
But a new federal indictment tells a far different, far darker story about the 57-year-old Sanborn man and his Niagara Falls business.
At the core of the indictment is the allegation that Montes, identified in court papers as Roberto Montes-Villalpando, used threats of serious harm to keep four undocumented immigrants from Mexico working at his restaurant.
He and Abraham Montes, 27, of Lockport, are also accused of causing "serious bodily injury" to one of the employees.
"The defendants took advantage of these aliens by using threats and, in at least the case of one victim, physical force, in order to exploit them,” U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. said in a statement.
The Buffalo News left a message requesting comment with a man answering the phone at El Cubilete, which remained open for take-out Sunday.
Kennedy said the forced labor amounted to human trafficking and noted the involvement of the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Meghan A. Tokash said the four victims were supervised by the defendants and worked as cooks, food preparers and dishwashers at El Cubilete while it was located at 9400 Niagara Falls Blvd., and later when it moved to 2050 Cayuga Extension in Niagara Falls.
Tokash said the four workers also sublet an apartment in Niagara Falls rented by Montes-Villalpando.
Recruited while living and working in Ohio, the workers were promised better pay and fewer hours but were later threatened with serious harm, according to court papers.
The grand jury charges against Montes-Villalpando and Montes range from forced labor and conspiracy to commit forced labor to harboring an alien for financial gain and causing serious bodily injury. Montes is also charged with transporting an alien for financial gain.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.
“Forced labor strips individuals of their basic human freedom and has no place in a modern society or in our community,” Kevin Kelly, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Buffalo, said in a statement.
The defendants were arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy and released on conditions.
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