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In the summer of 1997, U.S. marshals in San Diego picked up alarming intelligence: A convicted gunman for the Tijuana drug cartel was overheard saying he had put a “hit” on the federal prosecutor who had sent him to jail.
The claim, made to a fellow inmate turned government informant, was no idle threat, the marshals quickly concluded. After the jail cell was wired, the gunman repeated it, boasting he had gotten approval to assassinate the prosecutor by one of Mexico’s most powerful drug lords, Tijuana cartel chief Benjamin Arellano-Felix.
As a result of that threat, the prosecutor, Gonzalo Curiel, was placed under 24-hour protection by the marshals for a year. He was moved to a naval base, and later, for a while, to Justice Department headquarters in Washington. When he came back to work, so did the gun toting marshals, trailing him wherever he went.
“It was unsettling,” said Gregory Vega, Curiel’s oldest and best friend, who later became his boss as U.S. attorney in San Diego. “That threat was taken very seriously.”
But Vega says Curiel never wavered from his commitment to put Mexican drug traffickers behind bars. “He stayed focused on his job,” said Vega, who later promoted Curiel to chief of the U.S. attorney’s narcotics enforcement division, putting him in charge of all the office’s cases against the drug cartels.
The soft-spoken Curiel, now a federal judge in San Diego, has suddenly found himself in the public spotlight thanks to Donald Trump. In a startling 13-minute digression during a speech last week in San Diego, the presumptive Republican Party nominee tore into the judge, referring to him as a “Mexican” and a “hater” who showed bias against him because he has allowed fraud lawsuits against Trump University to proceed. “I’m getting railroaded by the legal system,” Trump said. “They ought to look into Judge Curiel.”
On Thursday, Trump doubled down on his attacks, telling the Wall Street Journal in an interview that Curiel had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over the Trump University cases because of his “Mexican heritage.”
“He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico,” he asserted again Friday afternoon to CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Curiel, for his part, has declined through a clerk to respond to Trump’s attacks; late Thursday, he refused to permit a court filing from an outside party alleging “contemptuous statements” — presumably by Trump — to become part of the official record in the Trump University cases.
But for Vega and other lawyers who have worked with Curiel or appeared before him, Trump’s comments were offensive and wildly off the mark. And they are certain nothing Trump says outside of court will affect the judge’s handling of the lawsuits.
“What’s so ironic is that Gonzalo gave so many years of his life to protecting America from drug traffickers,” said Vega. “He had a credible threat on his life. Do you really think being called [names] by Mr. Trump is going to frighten him? How silly.”
(Trump’s comment also drew a rebuke Friday from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Appearing on a radio show the day after he endorsed Trump, Ryan said: “Look, the comments about the judge the other day just was out of left field to my mind. … I completely disagree with the thinking behind that.”)
“It’s laughable,” said Jeremy Warren, a San Diego defense lawyer who represented some of the drug traffickers that Curiel prosecuted, about Trump’s comments. “He was a prosecutor in an office where 80 percent of the defendants are Mexican or of Mexican” descent. If Trump were an attorney and he made these comments, he’d be sanctioned.”
As for Curiel being a “hater,” Trump’s charge makes no sense, added Thomas McNamara, a former colleague of Curiel’s in the U.S. attorney’s office and now a defense lawyer in San Diego. “Hater and Gonzalo Curiel in the same sentence don’t even compute. It’s ridiculous,” said McNamara, describing the judge as “incredibly measured” and “gentlemanly” in his courtroom demeanor.
That measured approach was on display last month during a pre-trial conference in the Trump University case when lawyers for the plaintiffs — who alleged they were defrauded by Trump University — asked Curiel to set a trial date in the 6-year-old case for this summer, right after the Republican convention in Cleveland.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” argued plaintiff’s lawyer Jason Forge (another former colleague of Curiel’s at the U.S. attorney’s office.) “There are people who are still paying their debts from the money they paid to Trump University.” For his part, Trump’s lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, asked Curiel to put the trial off until next February so it wouldn’t become “an unwarranted intrusion” on the electoral process.
Curiel listened carefully to both sides and then split the difference: He set the trial date for Nov. 28, three weeks after the election but nearly two months before the inauguration. He wanted to “accommodate” Trump’s political schedule, he told the parties, but in the event Trump was elected president, he didn’t want the “leader of the free world” to have to take time out from his Oval Office duties to take the witness stand in his courtroom. (Both sides took note of the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1997 ruling in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones against Bill Clinton that presidents are not immune from civil litigation.)
What struck Curiel’s friends and former colleagues about Trump’s remarks is that the judge’s background seems like a classic American immigrant success story: He was born in East Chicago, Ind., in 1953, one of four children of Mexican immigrants. His father worked in one of the two steel mills in town, owned by Youngstown Sheet and Tube. (Vega was born the same day in the same hospital in East Chicago; his father worked for the town’s other mill, Inland Steel.)
Curiel attended Indiana University and Indiana University Law School; after a few years of private practice, he landed a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego where, as the top deputy and later chief of the narcotics division, he targeted the Arellano-Felix organization, otherwise known as the Tijuana cartel, then one of Mexico’s most-feared drug organizations, responsible for one-fifth of all the cocaine smuggled into the United States.
Vega recalls a crucial meeting in Mexico City in 1999 when he, Curiel and the top DEA agent in San Diego met with the Mexican attorney general and other senior Mexican officials. At the time, cooperation between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement had stalled, and cartel leaders faced little threat of extradition to the U.S. Conducting the meeting in Spanish, Curiel made the case that it was in Mexico’s interest to work with U.S. law enforcement against the cartels. “Mexico is the country of our parents,” they told their opposite numbers. “We are neighbors. Let’s work together.”
The meeting proved a breakthrough, and led two years later to the extradition of Everardo Arturo Páez Martínez, one of the Tijuana cartel’s top deputies, Vegan said. It was the first time Mexico had extradited a major drug trafficker to face trial in the U.S. “It did open the door” to extraditions, said Vega. “Gonzalo was the one who got the ball moving.” (In 2011, 10 years after Páez, cartel boss Arellano-Felix was extradited and is now serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S prison.)
In 2006, Curiel was appointed by California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Superior Court judge in San Diego County. He was nominated by President Obama in 2012 to the federal bench — and confirmed by the Senate without dissent.
As part of Trump’s evidence that Curiel is biased, one of the candidate’s surrogates has pointed to his membership in La Raza Lawyers of San Diego — a local bar association for Hispanic lawyers, suggesting the group was aligned with the National Council of La Raza, which has organized rallies to oppose Trump over his stand on immigration.
But Luiz Osuna, president of the La Raza Lawyers of San Diego, said his group had no connection to the National Council of La Raza and “we haven’t been involved in organizing any rallies” against Trump. Curiel, he said, had been a longtime member of the San Diego La Raza organization, and was actually just honored by the group at a reception last week.
Curiel was being honored, in part, for helping to organize a program in San Diego to teach poor children about the justice system. “He took the lead on that,” Osuna said.
At last week’s reception, Osuna said, “I gave a speech about his career as a prosecutor, about his prosecution of the Arellano-Felix organization, about his record as a judge appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger,” Osuna said.
The subject of Donald Trump, he added, never came up.