One month after a charge of disrupting a public meeting was dropped against him, Mercedes mayoral candidate and community activist Israel Coronado has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, its current mayor and police chief.
Coronado, who has long claimed his arrest was an act of political retaliation meant to silence residents who are critical of the city’s leadership, alleges the same in the civil rights lawsuit filed at the McAllen federal courthouse Wednesday.
“(O)n December 3, 2019, officials from the City of Mercedes targeted one of its own citizens, abusing the State’s police powers to retaliate and to silence criticism,” reads the complaint which Coronado filed against the city, as well as Mayor Henry Hinojosa and Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez in their individual capacities.
Coronado alleges the defendants violated his First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights by conspiring together to form “an official policy to retaliate against Coronado” for his public criticisms of the mayor and commission, and for his then-recently announced candidacy for mayor.
“The City of Mercedes, through the Mayor and Chief of Police, formed a premeditated plan to intimidate Coronado in retaliation for his criticisms of city officials and/or for announcing that he would run for Mayor of Mercedes,” the complaint reads, in part. “The City of Mercedes, through the Mayor and Chief of Police, executed that plan by ordering Coronado’s arrest on December 3, 2019.”
Coronado was arrested by Mercedes police shortly after leaving city hall that December night. At the time, officers told him he was being taken into custody on a warrant for disrupting a public meeting, but not the ongoing meeting he had just left.
Instead, officials claim he had disrupted a meeting three months prior — on Sept. 17, 2019.
That meeting had devolved into chaos before it could even begin and resulted in the arrests of four residents — three just before the mayor called the meeting to order, and a fourth during public comments.
Dozens of residents had arrived to city hall that day to protest what many viewed as an attempt by the majority of the commission to oust City Commissioner Leonel Benavidez, who — along with Commissioner Jose Gomez — had been raising numerous criticisms about the city’s leadership and administration.
However, before the meeting was slated to begin, officials locked the three entrances to city hall, barring entrance to dozens of residents and some members of the media, citing the 85-person capacity of the legislative chamber. The action led to an uproar from those inside and outside the building.
“Seeing community activism as a threat to their effort to remove Benavidez, the Mayor and Chief of Police did the unthinkable: They had the doors to City Hall locked before the meeting began,” the complaint reads.
“In doing so, they excluded dozens of members of the public ready to speak. They also locked out reporters and camera crews intending to cover the City Commission’s discussion.”
Coronado had made it inside city hall before the doors had been locked. As the crowds pressed against the plate glass doors, demanding police officers let them inside, Coronado could be seen walking in the hallways and speaking with residents who were withheld admittance to the building.
After the raucous meeting and the arrest of four residents that day, Coronado spearheaded an effort to recall the mayor and Commissioner Leo Villarreal — an effort that ultimately failed after city officials rejected the signatures Coronado and his supporters had collected.
He mentions the recall petition in the lawsuit’s timeline of events.
Then, on Nov. 25, Coronado announced his intent to run for mayor.
All the while, he continued lobbing criticisms against the city for its response to various natural disasters, as well as the crumbling drainage infrastructure that exacerbated those disasters. Coronado was also critical of public spending and of the city’s lack of fiscal transparency.
It was his campaign announcement that ultimately spurred the city’s illegal retaliation against him, Coronado alleges.
“In response, the City of Mercedes’ elected leadership deployed the full force of its police powers to prevent Coronado from exercising his clearly established First Amendment right to criticize them and to run for elected office,” the complaint reads.
“The City’s retaliation was swift, calculated, and deliberate, authorized and instigated entirely by the final decision makers — the Mayor and Chief of Police.”
Last month, Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez dismissed the sole charge against Coronado for lack of evidence.
“Based on reviewing the case and based on what we had at this point, we felt that we couldn’t go forward on this case at this point and prosecute the case,” Rodriguez said in May.
The district attorney continued, saying Mercedes police had turned over as evidence a single video recording from the meeting.
Coronado alleges that police had no probable cause to arrest him — in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights — and that the city had violated his First Amendment right to free speech, “to petition the government for redress of grievances,” and to run for public office.
He also alleges the arrest violated his 14th Amendment rights to due process.
His suit asks the court to issue a “permanent and mandatory injunction” against the city to stop “its campaign of intentional harassment and retaliation.”
Coronado also seeks unspecified damages for out of pocket expenses, damage to his reputation, emotional distress and mental anguish, as well as attorneys’ fees.
Reached by text message Friday, Mayor Hinojosa said he was unable to comment on the suit “as per attorney” advice.
Hinojosa is slated to step down as mayor in November, having served the maximum three terms in office as outlined by the city charter.
A message left with City Attorney Anthony Troiani went unreturned.
Court records show the city has not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit, which has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa.
Hinojosa set an initial conference in the case for Sept. 11.