A Crystal man will serve at least four months in jail along with probation in a rare labor trafficking case activists hope will change industry practices.

Ricardo E. Batres coerced undocumented laborers to work for his construction company under dangerous conditions that led to permanent injuries. His victims told the court at his sentencing Wednesday that his threats kept them from speaking up initially, and continue to haunt them today.

"My family and I live in constant fear considering that Mr. Batres threatened to kill us if I reported him" to authorities, one former employee said in a victim-impact statement read aloud by a victim advocate.

Batres, 47, pleaded guilty in November to one count each of labor trafficking and insurance fraud, both felonies. As part of his plea deal, a felony count of theft by swindle was dismissed.

He operated Crystal-based American Contractors, where as many as 12 people worked for him finishing wood framing and wallboard installation across Minnesota.

Activists said the case against Batres is the first of its kind in Hennepin County, and one of few labor trafficking prosecutions in state history. Many view it as the start of change in the construction industry, where some large companies are suspected of hiring subcontractors that use undocumented workers who are treated poorly.

"This case brings to light things that have been hiding in the shadows for years," said Merle Payne, co-director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a workers' rights organization that helped Batres' victims and investigated the case.

Batres brought workers to Minnesota and threatened to report them to immigration officials if they complained about being underpaid and working in dangerous conditions, according to court documents. He told injured workers they would be deported if they sought medical attention, and lied on his workers' compensation policy by reporting that he had no employees, saving himself $5,000 in premiums.

Payne said prosecuting such cases is "extremely rare" and difficult, because victims are often afraid to come forward, among other challenges. CTUL is investigating two other labor trafficking cases in the metro area and a third involving laborers from Wisconsin who traveled to Minnesota, he said.

Batres' attorney, Fred Bruno, said his client mismanaged technical aspects of his company, such as the workers' compensation insurance, but denied any wrongdoing that led to physical harm to employees.

One former employee said a workplace injury led to damage in two vertebrae. Another said a wall fell and pinned his leg. Four former employees submitted victim-impact statements, read by victim advocates, claiming unsafe work conditions, long hours and unpaid labor.

"Now, I am sometimes debilitated by back pain," said a third victim, adding that his earnings have been impacted. "He is a wolf dressed as a sheep."

Bruno called the claims "mendacious," and accused the victims of "snitching and telling lies" to earn a T visa, which grants temporary immigration status to trafficking victims, particularly those who work with law enforcement on criminal cases.

"Yes, my client made a mistake, but these people were more than adequately compensated for the things that they did," Bruno said, noting that the employees were paid $23 to $24 an hour.

To underscore his point, Bruno noted that a law clerk in Minneapolis earned an average of $18.23 an hour. Senior Hennepin County Attorney Morgan Kunz rejected the comparison as irrelevant.

When given a chance to address the court, Batres said he caused damage to the state, his "Hispanic brothers" and his family.

"I have committed terrible mistakes during the handling of my business, and for that I am extremely regretful," Batres said. "I take full responsibility."

In addition to probation, Hennepin County District Judge Lois Conroy ordered Batres to serve nine months in the county jail. He will have to serve at least four months before he is eligible to serve the rest of the time on work release or electronic home monitoring.

Kunz said his office also expects to request more than $50,000 in restitution, which will be determined at a future date.

As part of his plea, Batres was barred from working on state or federally funded construction projects. He continues to work in the industry under a former employee.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib