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The Cable

Trump’s Least Favorite Judge Was Once in the Crosshairs of a Mexican Cartel

U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel has faced much worse than public criticism from a politician.


Locked in a San Diego jail, an alleged hitman for a powerful Mexican drug cartel told a fellow prisoner that he’d gotten the go-ahead from his bosses to have U.S. prosecutor Gonzalo Curiel assassinated. Curiel, already tightly guarded, was put under U.S. marshal protection.

So he probably isn’t all that concerned about Donald Trump’s unusually personal attacks on his character and competence as a federal judge.

The presumptive GOP presidential nominee is going after Curiel because he is presiding over an ongoing class-action lawsuit about the mogul’s now-defunct “Trump University,” which a number of former employees, instructors and students say was a fraud.

The Republican presidential candidate has ramped up his smear campaign at stops in California ahead of its June 7 primary, the largest in the country, repeating his claims that Curiel is biased against him because he’s “Mexican.” On Friday in San Diego, where Curiel now sits on the federal bench, Trump went on an 11-minute tirade about the judge, calling him a “hater” and noting President Barack Obama appointed him.

“The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great, I think that’s fine,” Trump said. “You know what? I think the Mexicans are going to end up loving Donald Trump when I give all these jobs, okay?”

In February, Trump argued in a series of interviews that Curiel is “unfair” and “hostile,” “because of the wall, and because of everything that’s going on with Mexico and all that,” and “the fact that I’m very, very strong on the border.”

In fact, Curiel is an American of Mexican descent, born in Indiana. And while it’s true that he was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California by Obama in 2012, he was confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate without opposition and had begun his career in the U.S. Justice Department under former President George H.W. Bush. Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to the California Superior Court in San Diego in 2006.

Trump’s public attacks on Curiel are almost unprecedented, according to legal experts. And the irony is, while Curiel did recently order the release of previously sealed documents in the Trump University case after Politico published a portion and the Washington Post filed a motion challenging the secrecy, he has also sought to reseal some of the records. And it was Curiel’s decision to set the trial date for November – after the next president of the U.S. is already decided. In addition, some legal experts say Trump’s comments could be considered a criminal contempt of court.

Curiel began his career in San Diego, winning accolades as the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Narcotics Enforcement Section. His work against drug kingpin Arellano Felix and his Tijuana-based cartel in Baja, California, — once thought to supply up to 40 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. — put a price on his head, forcing Curiel to live under tight federal security by U.S. marshals.

Many witnesses, informants or Mexican officials working with his task force were tortured or killed, including a Mexican counterpart whose head was crushed by an industrial press in 2000, according to the Los Angeles Times. Curiel wasn’t immune to the threat: in 1997, the alleged cartel hitman was taped discussing his murder as Curiel sought extradition of cartel leaders from Mexico.

“This was a huge deal to many people,” Curiel told ABC News’s “Nightline” in 2002. “I think a lot of people in Mexico had lost confidence in the ability of their government, their institutions to make a difference when it came to this violent and ruthless organization.”

When Curiel’s nomination was up before the Senate, even Republicans praised him for his fight against the cartel.

“We thank you for your work and personal sacrifice,” now-Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa), told Curiel during his confirmation hearing, referring to the threats.  

For his part, Trump kicked off his swift and unexpectedly successful march toward the Republican nomination by calling Mexicans “rapists,” and saying they are criminals and drug dealers. The wall he’s consistently pledged to build on the U.S.-Mexico border grows ever taller, though observers say it would cost billions and do little to slow drug smuggling or already stagnant rates of illegal immigration. In a Sunday speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Trump’s call-and-response ploy asking the crowd who would pay for the wall drew chants of “Mexico!” and applause. “They’re killing us on the border and they’re killing us with trade,” he said. But in many respects, the U.S.-Mexico border is as secure as it’s ever been.

That’s due, in part, to the hard work of officials and judges like Curiel. Trump doesn’t seem to know — or to care.

Photo credit: JOSH EDELSON/Getty Images

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