Mercedes activist alleges arrest fueled by political retaliation

MERCEDES — A community activist is saying his arrest here Tuesday evening was fueled by political retaliation in response to his criticism of the Mercedes city commission.

Israel Coronado — a prominent and vocal fixture of Mercedes meetings — was arrested here shortly after he left city hall and while the commission was still in session. Speaking just hours after he made an initial appearance before a judge and posted bond Wednesday, Coronado said he felt targeted and “hunted down.”

“This was definitely a political attack. I have been very vocal against the mayor, the mayor pro-tem, as well as the chief of police, where I have pointed out many of the deficiencies that keep happening left and right in our town,” Coronado said of his arrest.

Coronado had sat within the commission chamber for three hours Tuesday as the commission deliberated a multitude of public agenda items. Shortly after they retired to closed session at 9:08 p.m., Coronado left city hall to pick up some food for residents who remained waiting in the chamber.

Approximately half an hour later, The Monitor learned Coronado was being taken into custody on an outstanding warrant for disrupting a meeting. His vehicle remained parked outside a Little Caesars pizzeria just two blocks from city hall, where a patrol officer stood watch until his wife arrived to take possession of the vehicle.

Coronado had been able to reach out to her before being transported to the Weslaco city jail, where the Mercedes police department currently houses its prisoners. “He called me and said, ‘I’m getting arrested. They’re saying I’m getting arrested because I disrupted one of the meetings,’” Rosie Coronado said about a brief phone call with her husband.

“This is a complete abuse of power,” she said.

Meanwhile, the city commission remained in executive session until just after 11 p.m. Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez declined to answer any questions about the arrest, saying it was an ongoing investigation.

Coronado can often be seen at city meetings, workshops and public events. He is known for livestreaming the events on Facebook and for making impassioned comments during open forums.

He has also been highly critical of the commission, questioning the city’s financial transparency and its leadership. His citizen activism has recently turned political, after he announced that he would be running for Mercedes mayor in the upcoming May 2020 election.

“I don’t like politics. It’s not something I want to do, unfortunately, it’s a necessity,” Coronado said during an interview at the Mercedes Christmas tree lighting Nov. 26.

The charge against Coronado was confirmed Wednesday afternoon, when he was brought for an initial appearance before Precinct 1, Place 1 Justice of the Peace Gilberto Saenz in Weslaco. Saenz was also the judge who signed the warrant for Coronado’s arrest, according to documents obtained by The Monitor.

The warrant is dated Dec. 3, though a probable cause affidavit alleges Coronado disrupted a Sept. 17 commission meeting.

After Saenz read Coronado his Miranda rights and explained the severity of the charge against him, he told Coronado he would need to post a $2,000 signature bond before he could be released from custody. However, the hearing didn’t end there. Coronado’s attorney, Tania Ramirez, had questions.

Chief among them, Ramirez asked the judge for copies of the warrant and probable cause affidavit, and asked why Saenz was presiding over the hearing instead of Mercedes Municipal Judge Juan R. Alvarez.

Ramirez also questioned why Saenz had signed the warrant, instead of Alvarez, whom she argued would have had superseding jurisdiction in the matter and would have been “first in line” to serve as the judicial officer in the case.

“We do believe this action is under the jurisdiction of the city of Mercedes,” Ramirez said.

“I’ve been wanting to ask the investigator why are we with judge Saenz and not with judge Alvarez? And if this is due to forum shopping, then I would like the PD to explain that,” she said, implying that Mercedes law enforcement may have deliberately sought out a judge other than Alvarez to sign the warrant.

Ramirez asked Saenz to place the investigating officer under oath so he could be questioned on the matter, but the judge declined, advising her to take her concerns to Mercedes city officials.

“Don’t bring it in here because this is not the place,” Saenz said, before adding, “Ma’am, that’s enough.”

Coronado has now become the fifth person to be arrested in connection with the raucous Sept. 17 meeting. The first four — Dalia Peña, Velda Garcia and her two adult children, Aileen Luna and Noel Rodriguez — were arrested the day of the meeting.

The incident prompted swift backlash from the community, which protested their arrest and also how law enforcement had prohibited dozens of residents — and, briefly, even some members of the media — from entering city hall for the meeting.

It drew further scrutiny when the four were held in custody beyond 48 hours before stepping in front of a judge for a bond hearing and to learn the charges being laid against them.

Judge Alvarez at the time said he was ready at a moment’s notice to preside over such a hearing. “As soon as they give me the phone call, I’m available. I’m available 24/7,” Alvarez said before the group was ultimately brought before him the following day.

Alvarez himself has since faced moments of friction with the city commission. A few weeks after the arrests, the commission sought proposals from candidates wishing to serve as municipal judge. Told the city was seeking only an alternate judge, Alvarez did not submit his credentials, which opened the door for the city to replace him.

After a public outcry, the commission voted to continue its contract with Alvarez, who has served as municipal judge for more than 10 years.

And on Tuesday, the judge was again the topic of discussion as the commission mulled the terms of his employment contract, including adding a method to dock his pay for what the commission implied were Alvarez’s excessive absences from traffic court.

Alvarez rebutted, explaining that two-thirds of the court cancellations had come at the city’s request, not his. He also showed the commission phone records illustrating his near daily communications with Mercedes law enforcement investigators at all hours of the day and night.

The records didn’t include his communications with court staff and other city officials, he added.

For Israel Coronado, the months-long saga of tense meetings followed by the arrests of himself and others who have also been critical of the city, has sown fear into the community and eroded the public’s trust in their leaders and the police department. “The question is, who’s next and for what reasons?” Coronado said of a pervasive fear that more arrests are forthcoming.

“I hope that this message goes through and all the citizens of Mercedes wake up,” he said.