March 19, 2013

Court: Brothers used illegal workers at Maine restaurants

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Two brothers who own a popular chain of Mexican restaurants in Maine were convicted Monday of harboring undocumented aliens for profit and aiding and abetting document fraud.

Following an eight-day trial, Guillermo Fuentes, 37, of Westbrook and Hector Fuentes, 39, of Waterville were found guilty in U.S. District Court.

The charges stem from practices at the Fajita Grill in Westbrook, the Cancun Mexican Restaurant in Waterville and the Cancun Mexican Restaurant II in Biddeford, between 2006 and 2011.

The brothers helped illegal workers obtain green cards and Social Security cards, according to a release by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Several workers testified that they worked six to seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. with only one two-hour break.

Kitchen staff said they were paid in cash. Waiters were not paid but allowed to keep their tips.

The brothers face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count and may have to give up the profits they earned from the scheme.

The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations division and the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General and the Office of Labor Racketeering and Fraud Investigations.

Soon after it opened, Fajita Grill became a hotspot in Westbrook, known for its fast service, lively waitstaff and super-sized margaritas.

The Department of Homeland Security's investigation into the employment of illegal aliens at the Fajita Grill was prompted by a tip from Westbrook police Capt. Tom Roth, court documents say.

The documents said Roth informed the federal agency that in routine traffic stops in April 2008, Westbrook police officers had pulled over Hispanic men who appeared to work at Fajita Grill, claimed to be from Mexico and could not provide any U.S. identification.

During the investigation, James Bell, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security interviewed four illegal workers, all of whom had worked for the Fuentes brothers at a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta called El Potrillo.

They said they moved in 2006 with about a dozen other employees to work for the Fuentes brothers at the Fajita Grill and later at one or both of the Cancun restaurants.

They told the special agent they were paid $300 to $500 per week in cash for working about 60 hours.

Three of the people who were interviewed reportedly told Bell that when they arrived in Maine, they and seven or eight other illegal workers temporarily lived rent-free in the basement of the Fajita Grill.

The restaurant remains open despite the brothers' legal problems.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@mainetoday.com

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