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Texas man claims police, newspaper endangered him with smuggler label

The man says he thought nothing of a roadside encounter with law enforcement because they had not arrested or ticketed him. A week later he learned from a newspaper article they suspected he was acting as a scout for migrant smugglers.

LAREDO, Texas (CN) — A South Texas oilfield worker claims in court his life is in danger from cartels who believe he is encroaching on their business after a local newspaper published a front-page story identifying him as a “known human smuggler” based on bogus intel provided by a sheriff’s department official.

Seeking $1 million in a civil rights and defamation lawsuit, Carlos H. Gonzalez, 21, sued Zapata County, Texas, its Sheriff Raymundo Del Bosque Jr., the department's Executive Chief Joe Peña, the Zapata County News and its publisher Karran Westerman late Wednesday in Laredo federal court.

Gonzalez, who has lived in the county which borders Mexico his whole life and has a clean record other than one misdemeanor, says his problems started the night of Oct. 19 when he ran out of gas in his pickup on U.S. Route 83.

He saw a police car and flashed his headlights in hopes of getting a ride. That cop drove over to his truck and was soon joined by several Border Patrol agents and Zapata County sheriff’s deputies, as recounted in the lawsuit.

“Plaintiff was interrogated and consented to his vehicle being searched. After finding nothing amiss, law enforcement departed, leaving plaintiff stuck on the side of the road. Eventually help arrived and plaintiff departed,” the complaint states.

Gonzalez says over the following days he thought nothing of the seemingly harmless encounter with police given he had not been pulled over, ticketed or charged with any crime.

But he became distraught Oct. 27 when he read an article published that day by the Zapata County News with the headline “Cruising Around to Find Illegals” that named him as a “known human smuggler” and described how deputies had talked to him after he stopped his vehicle and turned its hazard lights on.

The article stated Border Patrol showed up and spotted a ledger—implying Gonzalez had records of human smuggling—in Gonzalez’s pickup, and Border Patrol “later caught five illegal aliens in the brush within the area, where the scout had placed the truck on the shoulder lane.”

Gonzalez says his furious mother went to the newspaper’s office the next day and talked to publisher Westerman, who told her Del Bosque and Peña had given her access to a police report containing the information.

His mother contacted Zapata County sheriff’s lieutenant David Moya on Nov. 3 and lodged a complaint. Moya texted his superiors a photo of the article and asked them who the source was.

“Peña texted back: ‘I sent to newspaper.’ Then, Peña texted: ‘It was a BIAR,’” the lawsuit states.

BIAR is short for Daily Border Incident Assessment Report. They are required of Texas border counties whose sheriff’s departments receive funds from the Homeland Security Grants Division of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office, part of the state’s Local Border Security Program. The initiative is meant to increase coordination of local law enforcement with Texas state police and military and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to disrupt operations of Mexican cartels.

Though the officers had let Gonzalez go the night he ran out of gas, they had unvoiced suspicions about him.

“Executive Chief Peña called plaintiff’s mother on November 4, 2022 and told her that the BIAR report he shared with the newspaper came ‘from a collection of suspicions’ compiled by the sheriff’s department as ‘intel,’” according to the complaint.

Del Bosque did not discipline Peña for leaking the report. But the sheriff did fire Moya on Nov. 7 after Moya expressed concerns about the alleged fabrications regarding Gonzalez.

Moya filed his own federal lawsuit against Zapata County, Del Bosque and Peña on Wednesday, accusing them of whistleblower retaliation.

Both Moya and Gonzalez are represented by Austin, Texas attorney Kevin Green  and Thomas Lyons of the Consumer Justice Center in Vadnais Heights, Minnesota.

As for Gonzalez, he says the article, for which the newspaper has yet to issue a retraction, has caused him “immense and lasting damage.”

“’Known human traffickers’ suffer to find jobs, rent housing, qualify for loans, travel freely … Plaintiff’s life remains in danger on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as someone branded by police as a competitor to actual human traffickers operating in the area,” Gonzalez laments in his lawsuit.

His father lives just across the Rio Grande in Nuevo Ciudad Guerrero, Mexico. But Gonzalez says he can longer visit his father or other family in Mexico due to the danger cartels could abduct and harm him to eliminate perceived competition.

Green said he is looking forward to engaging in discovery with the defendants as he believes they have caused lifelong damage to Gonzalez.

“Gonzalez was defamed. It was a story planted by the police and should have been investigated thoroughly by the paper but for whatever reason it wasn’t. And we’re going to get to the bottom of why that is,” the attorney said in an interview.

“And our client has been put in a horrible position where he’s been accused of a very serious crime of human trafficking and there’s nothing about his past or his record that supports that in any way at all. And it’s going to cause him problems for the rest of his life,” he added.

Westerman, the newspaper publisher, declined to comment and referred all questions to sheriff’s department official Peña. He did not respond to a phone message and email asking for comment on Gonzalez’s lawsuit.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Media, Regional

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