DEA Jails Innocent Man for 5 Weeks as ‘Frog’

     LAREDO, Texas (CN) — “I am not Rana,” an innocent man indicted in a Mexican drug cartel conspiracy, and jailed for 36 days, says he told DEA agents who arrested him and insisted he was a drug dealer known as the Frog.
     Felipe de Jesus Gonzalez-Flores sued the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration and its agent in charge in Houston, Joseph Arabit, on Tuesday in Federal Court.
     Gonzalez, 48, a legal U.S. resident through his marriage to a citizen, is a man of routine. On the morning of Feb. 18, 2015, he went to get coffee at a Laredo McDonald’s before heading to work at his one-man car wash, as he had done for years.
     “He was sitting at the McDonald’s by himself — drinking his coffee — when he received a phone call on his cell phone. The caller-ID on his cellular phone showed the call coming from a ‘Restricted Number,'” the complaint states.
     The caller identified himself as a police officer and said he had some questions for Gonzalez, who agreed to meet him at the McDonald’s.
     “Mere minutes later, Mr. Gonzalez-Flores noticed approximately 30 armed men — some in camouflaged uniforms, others in civilian clothing with badges hanging on their necks, others with military style goggles and helmets, carrying military-style rifles — running around outside the McDonald’s,” the lawsuit states.
     Scared and confused, Gonzalez says, he walked outside with his coffee and saw more armed men in unmarked black SUVs and they asked him to identify himself, which he did.
     “One of the armed men then accusatorily asked Mr. Felipe Gonzalez-Flores, ‘You are ‘La Rana‘?’ Mr. Gonzalez-Flores then said, ‘No.'”
     Rana is Spanish for frog.
     The DEA agents and Laredo police were executing a warrant on a federal grand jury indictment, accusing Gonzales-Flores of involvement in a Los Zetas cartel ring that smuggled tons of marijuana from Mexico into Laredo, shipped it to Dallas, sold it there and sent the money back across the border.
     The Zetas are an offshoot of Mexican security forces, many of whom received U.S. training. Their founding members worked for the Gulf Cartel but split off and formed their own cartel in early 2010.
     Gonzalez says the agents arrested him and asked if he wanted to leave his pickup at the McDonald’s or take it to his car wash. On the drive to the car wash, he says, the agents interrogated him without reading him his Miranda rights.
     “He was asked, ‘Hey, Rana, did you package the marijuana?’ Mr. Gonzalez-Flores responded to the officer, ‘I believe you are mistaken, sir. I am not ‘Rana.’ Look, I don’t know anything about marijuana; I don’t know how much it is worth; I don’t smoke marijuana. Please check your facts because you are making a big mistake!”
     One officer asked him: “Where did you disappear to all this time? Where have you been all this time, Rana?” Gonzalez’s attorney wrote in the 33-page complaint.
     Gonzalez says the agents ignored him when he said he had been living a simple life for eight years, leaving his modest Laredo home each morning, stopping by McDonald’s for coffee, going to his car wash, “where day-in and day-out he would wash cars in the scorching Laredo heat — shirtless and in plain view of any passerby” and going to a local bank two or three times a week to deposit cash from his car wash.
     They didn’t blink when he urged them to check the bank’s security footage. “The officers paid no attention to Mr. Gonzalez-Flores and said, ‘Look, Rana, we are just here to arrest you.'”
     Gonzalez was taken before a U.S. magistrate judge who declined to set a bond for him, or appoint him an attorney.
     His wife had to borrow $10,000 to pay for his defense and he spent 36 days in federal custody — five days in Webb County jail and the rest in a prison outside Laredo owned by the GEO Group, a private prison company. After he spent five weeks and a day in jail, the government filed a motion to dismiss the indictment.
     “No explanation was provided by the prosecutors of the United States Attorney’s Office as to why the indictment was being dismissed against Mr. Felipe Gonzalez-Flores,” the complaint states.
     Despite his release from custody, and his innocence, Gonzalez says, the damage to his reputation lingers on the Internet and in public records.
     In January this year, nearly a year after his arrest, a PACER search of federal court records brought up his name as a defendant in the case.
     Courthouse News checked the docket Wednesday and he is the third defendant, listed as “Felipe Gonzalez-Flores (closed 03/24/2015).”
     A Google search of “Felipe Gonzalez-Flores Laredo” brought up five stories, the first a Department of Justice press release, all saying he was arrested with 16 others for their alleged roles in the conspiracy.
     “Due to this miscarriage of justice, Mr. Felipe Gonzalez-Flores seeks $2,000 for each day he spent in custody, a sum of $72,000,” the lawsuit states.
     He also wants the government to pay him his $10,000 in attorney’s fees, $5,000 for future attorney’s fees he’ll need to expunge his record, and $100,000 for “pain and suffering, emotional distress, and mental anguish” for a total of $187,000.
     His legal claims are negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act, Bivens claims, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment.
     He is represented by Norberto Cardenas in Laredo.
     A DEA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

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