Sold for $350: A Slave's Story of Toil and Fear

Jose Martinez recalls deplorable conditions and working from dawn to dusk.

May 22, 2007 — -- Jose Martinez, formerly of Mexico, believes a smuggler sold him for $350 upon his arrival in Florida in 1999.

Martinez said he expected to pay an $800 transport fee for the van trip from Arizona but was soon caught up in a scam.

He told ABC News he knew something was wrong because when he and other workers arrived at a work camp, they suddenly were "always being watched."

Martinez grew even more concerned when he discovered the living arrangements. At night, his captors locked him in a trailer with 28 other workers. The trailer had only one stove and one bathroom, both to be shared by all 28 people.

It was clear Martinez and the others were not free to leave.

"I felt like I was being enslaved," Martinez said through a translator. "They were making me work against my will."

And work Martinez did, toiling in tomato fields from dusk to dawn. The temperatures, he said, were almost unbearable at times, with his captors offering little water. At times, he even secretly ate tomatoes he had picked in an attempt to quench his thirst.

The workers were warned they would be beaten — or worse — if they tried to leave. Martinez heard of one worker who had been severely beaten around his face and ear, and he also heard that one of the captors beat another slave with a baseball bat.

In the trailer where he lived was a locker that was kept closed, but one day, when Martinez noticed it was open, he saw a bloody shirt inside it.

After four½ months, Martinez decided to risk his life and run. He escaped, but with only about $250 in his pocket — his earnings of less than $4 a day. In addition to paying the workers a tiny amount of money in exchange for the manual labor they performed, Martinez's captors deducted rent and electricity because the workers lived in a trailer provided by the camp.

Martinez, who now lives in an undisclosed U.S. city, considers himself an activist and hopes to help draw attention to the plight of slaves in America.

He says the ordeal has left him scarred for life.

"I don't think it's anything you can ever forget," Martinez said. "It's something that marks you."