New York Times
By Alan Rappeport
June 3, 2016
For much of a year, Gonzalo P. Curiel, then a federal prosecutor in California, lived officially in hiding.
He hunkered down for a while on a naval base and in other closely guarded locations under the protection of United States marshals. Even his siblings did not know exactly where he was at times.
The reason: In a secretly taped conversation inside a San Diego prison, a man accused of being a gunman for a Mexican drug cartel said that he had received permission from his superiors to have Mr. Curiel assassinated.
“It was kind of scary,” said Mr. Curiel’s brother Raul. “He had to be protected. He always had one or two bodyguards with him.”
Nearly 20 years later, Gonzalo Curiel, now a federal judge, is being targeted in a very different way.
The presiding judge in a lawsuit filed by former students of Trump University, he has been called a “hater” of Mr. Trump by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee himself. At a rally last week, Mr. Trump said the judge “happens to be, we believe, Mexican,” suggesting that he was biased because of Mr. Trump’s calls to build a wall along the border to prevent illegal immigration. Angry supporters have been calling the judge’s chambers.
Mr. Trump repeated his argument in an interview on Thursday. “I’m building the wall, I’m building the wall,” Mr. Trump said. “I have a Mexican judge. He’s of Mexican heritage. He should have recused himself, not only for that, for other things.”
While Judge Curiel has declined to discuss the case publicly, those who know him best say he is handling the unfriendly glare of the Trump case with the resolve that got him through his toughest days as a prosecutor.
“He’s cool,” said Gregory A. Vega, a former federal prosecutor who has known Judge Curiel since the ninth grade. “I don’t think he’s giving it a second thought.”
Judge Curiel, 62, was born in East Chicago, Ind., to parents who had emigrated from Mexico. Raul Curiel said their father, Salvador, arrived in Arizona as a laborer in the 1920s, eventually receiving citizenship and becoming a steelworker. Their parents were married in Mexico in 1946, and their mother, Francisca, became a citizen after joining her husband in the United States.
Gonzalo Curiel went to Catholic school, fell in love with music and played the guitar in a band before following in the footsteps of his older brother, Antonio, and turning to law.
The Curiels lived in a diverse section of East Chicago called Indiana Harbor, where blacks, whites and Hispanics lived and worked together. Discrimination was rarely an issue, Raul Curiel said, but the family did face it on occasion. He recalled Gonzalo being turned away from a wedding venue in the 1970s because of his Afro hairstyle.
After graduating from Indiana University’s law school, Judge Curiel worked in private practice in Indiana and California. In 1989, he became an assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of California, a job that immersed him in the war on drugs.
Judge Curiel was a hard-charging prosecutor at a time when the American authorities were trying to help Mexico confront the Arellano Félix brothers, the heads of a murderous cartel that controlled a torrent of narcotics coming into the Western United States. In a period when Mexico was reluctant to send its drug lords for trial in the United States, Mr. Curiel’s job involved working with informants and sometimes-corrupt Mexican officials to win convictions in this country and in Mexico.
In one 1990s case, when he was pushing to extradite two men accused of being Arellano gunmen to Mexico, he found himself defending witness testimony against the men that had most likely been obtained through torture by the Mexican police.
“The government is not here to deny there is a possibility of torture,” Mr. Curiel told a federal judge. “But the forum for those allegations to be aired is the government of Mexico.”
The Arellano Félix cartel kept Mr. Curiel in its sights. One of the suspected gunmen, according to court filings, was recorded in prison saying he “had requested and received permission from the leaders of the Arellano cartel to have Curiel murdered,” forcing Mr. Curiel to live for a while under guard.
He and Mr. Vega, whose father also was Mexican, met regularly with their counterparts across the border. Mr. Vega said their ability to speak Spanish and their Mexican roots were helpful, ultimately leading to the first extradition of a suspected Mexican drug kingpin to the United States in 2001.
Judge Curiel was appointed to the bench in San Diego in 2007 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. President Obama nominated him to the federal bench in late 2011, and he was confirmed by the Senate the following year. Judge Curiel, whose parents are deceased, is married to a probation official and has a young daughter.
For his family, the attacks on their heritage have not gone unnoticed. Raul Curiel said that Mr. Trump was “ignorant” for calling his brother Mexican, noting that they were born in the United States. He said that he speaks to his brother regularly and that the most frustrating part of the Trump episode were the questions about his professionalism.
“Trump called him a hater, and regardless of whether he is or not, that has nothing to do with how he’s doing his job,” Raul Curiel said.
Mr. Trump and his supporters have said that Judge Curiel is treating him unfairly in the case, in which some former students of Trump University claim they paid thousands of dollars for worthless real estate classes. Mr. Trump’s supporters have pointed to Judge Curiel’s affiliation with La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization, and that Mr. Obama appointed him as evidence of a conflict of interest.
In the interview on Thursday, Mr. Trump said that Judge Curiel also had a conflict of interest because he was friends with one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers; that lawyer told The Wall Street Journal that they were federal prosecutors in the same office but had never seen each other socially.
Despite citing the judge’s heritage as a source of the conflict, Mr. Trump said that as president he would have no problem appointing Mexican-American judges.
“I would love to,” he said. “I would do it in an instant.”
Judge Curiel is allowing the case to go to trial, and he recently ordered the unsealing of documents that included testimony from former managers calling the classes a “lie” and a “scheme.” (He later ordered some of the documents temporarily resealed so that some personal information could be redacted.) In the unsealing order, he noted that Mr. Trump had “placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue.”
Experts in legal ethics say that seeking to discredit a judge is not a winning strategy and that the suggestion that Judge Curiel could not treat a case fairly because of his ethnicity raises questions about Mr. Trump’s ability to appoint judges.
Deborah L. Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School and the founding director of the university’s Center on Ethics, said that calls for Judge Curiel to step down from a case because of his Mexican roots were akin to saying that Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, should never have been able to decide civil rights cases.
“If race were a disqualifying factor, nobody could preside over these cases,” Ms. Rhode said.
Mr. Vega, now a corporate lawyer who was the best man at Judge Curiel’s wedding, said he did not think that the attacks by Mr. Trump would taint the judge’s approach to the case.
But, remembering when his friend, then a prosecutor, arrived at his house for a barbecue flanked by bodyguards, Mr. Vega noted the irony of Mr. Trump’s criticizing someone who had risked his life to slow the flow of drugs coming from Mexico into the United States — an issue that is dear to Mr. Trump.
“A lot of us have never been tested like that,” Mr. Vega said.
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