Longform

Bitter Sugar

In the western expanse of Palm Beach County, where sugar cane stretches to the horizon like an endless green sea, sits the Osceola Farms refinery, an island of grime-covered cement, an eyesore of human creation. A maze of steel pipes rings the five-story factory that billows waste from a pair of smokestacks. The Fanjul family of Palm Beach, the world's most infamous sugar barons, built this place. With all the zeal of Colonial-era plantation owners, the Fanjuls fashioned a fortune here on the toil of immigrants. Inside the refinery, the workers know they're as expendable as the machines. When they break, the sugar barons will throw them away.

It happened to Jose Gallardo, who literally covered the Osceola mill in his blood on the morning of July 23. Gallardo ran a drill press. He punched holes in sheet metal with one hand, then used the other to wipe away shards underneath the spinning machine. The sharp bits often sliced open his arms and hands, so against regulations, the factory allowed him to wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt.

And that's what got him. As Gallardo wiped away the shards on that July morning, the drill sucked in his shirt sleeve. The machine yanked his left hand into the press and ripped his arm clean off just below the elbow. Panicked, Gallardo ran. He flailed his mangled arm wildly. A torrent of blood painted the mill. A rescue helicopter rushed him to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, but surgeons failed to reattach his arm.

Lying in his hospital bed days later with a bandage over his stump, the 47-year-old Mexican immigrant knew his days of working at the mill were likely over. "I cannot work with one hand. They will not want me. Nobody will hire me," he said with a depressing candor. He had no money to pay the hospital bills or his rent back in Pahokee. Ten months earlier, his wife had given birth to twin boys at the same hospital. Now, he wasn't sure how he would feed them. He had worked for the Fanjuls for 17 years, since leaving Mexico, and he knew that the price of disability was to be discarded.

On the same day that Gallardo lost his hand, Jose "Pepe" Fanjul Jr. -- vice president and head of the real estate division and heir to the sugar fortune -- was playing hooky. Fanjul was supposed to meet with one of the area's top environmentalists, hoping to convince her to back the family's plans to turn their sugar cane fields into housing developments. The 33-year-old Fanjul is supposed to represent the family's softer side, a generation that cares about things like workers and the environment. He is part of the Fanjul company's attempt to recast itself as a responsible corporation that can be trusted with developing land surrounded by the Everglades carefully. To excuse his absence from the meeting, company spokesman Gaston Cantens explained that Fanjul went personally to console Gallardo's family. The young Fanjul assured the Gallardos that they would be looked after, the spokesman insisted. "He wanted to handle this personally," Cantens explained.

This was not true. Fanjul never visited Gallardo or his family, and no one from the company had explained to Gallardo whether he would be paid while recuperating. In fact, the Fanjuls had not reported the accident to government regulators, and company officials had denied Gallardo workers' compensation payments. After learning of the accident from New Times, the Florida Division of Workers Compensation and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration both began inquiries.



It was all a big mix-up, Cantens said. "We were trying to track down where they took him," he said, explaining why Pepe never showed up at Gallardo's bedside. "We could never figure out where he was." Ultimately, Cantens contended later, other company officials went to visit Gallardo and promised him groceries and paychecks. But Gallardo said such promises did not come until New Times began questioning the company.

The Fanjuls' hope of turning some of their vast sugar holdings into developed real estate may rest on their reputation, and Gallardo's accident suggests that little has changed for the often-reviled family. For decades, the Fanjuls and their company, Florida Crystals, have symbolized the harshness of corporate, big-business farming. Dozens of lawsuits and many critics have accused the Fanjuls of ignoring complaints of unsafe conditions, falsifying time cards in order to underpay workers, and of forcibly deporting immigrant workers who protested the poor conditions.

The Fanjuls did not respond to numerous interview requests by e-mail, phone, and fax. For two months, Cantens, an outgoing state representative from Miami, said the Fanjuls and their employees would be available for interviews. "We will try to make this happen," Cantens said earlier this month. "Just be patient." But Cantens continued to delay meetings, saying the Fanjuls were either too busy, leery of interviews, or out of the country.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton