More than two years after he was deported to Colombia, former Miami businessman, Félix Mauricio Zuñiga, has not given up home of returning to the country he calls home, and where he lived for 40 years.
Immigration agents raided his family medical goods business in Miami in late 2018 and took him into detention under President Donald Trump’s unforgiving ‘zero tolerance’ policy.’
Despite being married to a U.S. citizen for more than 30 years and leading a model life, including being an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Zuñiga was told his visa would not be renewed. They cited a bank fraud he committed more than 20 years earlier, for which he served a brief prison sentence.
Despite his special circumstances, within weeks he was deported to Colombia, the country where he was born but had not been his home in almost 40 years.
Together with his wife and their three U.S.-born daughters, the Zuñiga family have come up with a novel idea to highlight their cause using the most famous local resource. Why not create their own Colombian coffee brand, with a twist of political irony: ' Deportado Coffee'. ( 'Deportado' is Spanish for 'deported')
The idea came when the three girls were visiting their parents in a break from covid last May and they paid a visit to a local coffee farm in the hill forests of the Cauca valley, outside Cali, owned by a family friend.
“We were chatting about how to move forward and how to use the resources we had,” said Julia Zuñiga, his oldest daughter, aged 32, who is a ceramic artist in Colorado.
"I remember calling Julia in the car and saying, ‘this might seem crazy, this might sound wild, what if we call the coffee ‘Deportado’,’” recalled Alaina Zuñiga, her younger sister, aged 30, who works in advertising in New York. The youngest, Camila, 28, lives in Fort Lauderdale.
The family wrestled with the name for a while, not sure if it was too much.
But the girls insisted, pondering on the extraordinary relationship that Americans have with their coffee, despite almost none of it being commercially grown domestically. (A tropical crop, almost all the world’s coffee is grown in the southern hemisphere, though there are a few farms in Hawaii, California and Puerto Rico.)
“It was intuitive, it felt right,” said Julia, who has a branch of coffee beans tattooed on her left arm. She describes it as “an ode to my Colombian culture.”
“We decided to go with the name ‘Deportado’ because of the impact and the irony of importing coffee [made] with deported hands,” said Julia, who said it also carried an important human message. “You know, love our people as much as you love our coffee,” she said.
The sisters say they want their coffee brand to also “bring awareness to the larger immigration issues that we have in this country, not just affecting Central and South Americans, but people all over the world.”
Zuñiga ‘s deportation stems from his banking activity in the early 1990s when he was involved in the financial markets and plead guilty to wire fraud.
In order to restore his reputation and avoid deportation, Zuñiga agreed to become a confidential informant for the FBI and DEA office in Miami, helping agents build drug cases. As a result he received a substantial sentence reduction of one year in jail.
Though his crime did not involve drug trafficking, he was able to help agents penetrate the Colombian financial community in the United States where U.S. officials were tracking vast sums of money being moved around by the drug cartels in the 1990s.
“I didn’t know anybody in those realms of drug trafficking but they needed somebody that was Colombian, spoke the language, to be able to be plugged in to a case or two,” he said.
“They had to teach me quite a few tricks to deal with those situations,” he said. Despite his conviction he said he lacked the criminal mind of the cartels. “I was basically a good guy, so I had to be coached quite a bit to be able to become somebody else,” he added.
Due to his extensive government cooperation he says he was promised a special ‘S’ visa for informants that would allow him to recover US resident status.
But the promise was not fulfilled.
The DEA declined to comment about Zuniga's story saying it cannot discuss the work of informants for their own safety. But two DEA agents who worked with Zuñiga confirmed his story and provided documentary evidence of his cooperation as an informant.
In one letter to the judge in his case, former agent Hector Pesquera, wrote in July 1998 that “Mr Zuñiga assisted this office by identifying individuals suspected of being involved in drug trafficking and money laundering activities,” which involved meetings suspects and recording conversations.
Zuñiga “always displayed a great deal of enthusiasm and willingness to accomplish the investigative objectives given to him,” the letter added.
In another letter, former DEA agent, David Tinsley, laid out in detail Zuñiga’s “substantial assistance” to the DEA, noting that he had “committed himself totally” to an undercover operation that “continues to produce incredible results.”
Tinsley detailed more than 30 undercover meetings in New York and Miami “which resulted in significant narcotics and financial seizures.”
He added that Zuñiga had become an invaluable asset in a major operation to penetrate “the highest levels of the international banking community, which are historically difficult areas for undercover penetration.”
His cooperation has resulted in more than 50 arrests, 30 interceptions of illegal bank transfers wire, $60 million in cash seizures and 30 vehicles.
Tinsley also commented on what he said was the “transformation” in Zuñiga’s character. “He has placed himself in numerous undercover meetings in the United States and Colombia, without regard to his personal safety.”
He ended the letter by stating that in lengthy discussions with numerous DEA, IRS, FBI and Secret Service agents “everyone had highly favorable comments regarding Zuñiga’s substantial assistance.”
The 'S' Visa
S visas are highly valued by law enforcement agents but are notoriously hard to obtain, partly due to their scarcity – only 250 are available by law each year – and inter-agency competition.
They were created by Congress after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in order to protect informants who “provide continued cooperation and information to the United States to combat terrorist activities and criminal organizations.”
But agents complain the bureaucracy is sometimes too slow leaving informants in danger.
A 2019 Department of Justice audit cited complaints from agents that the S Visa process was too “long and cumbersome”. It concluded there was a need for “a more efficient process for S visa adjudication.”
Some agents complain of having to wait six to eight years for S visas to be approved.
Prosecutors and agents say informants are vital to build complicated cases and deserve proper protection for the risks they take. "We rely on informants to dismantle international criminal groups and we try to keep them here because sending them back to their country of origin can put them in a very perilous situation," said former DEA agent, Mike Vigil.
“The government needs to increase the number of S visas. There just aren't enough of them to go around,” said Richard ‘Dick’ Gregorie, a former senior federal prosecutor in Miami, who led many drug trafficking and money laundering prosecutions.
He said too often informants are given temporary visas to stay in the US from year to year, with no guarantee of renewal. “So, they're often living in on a very dangerous schedule,” he said.
Zuñiga says he deeply regrets his mistakes in the 1990s and, until his deportation, had lived an exemplary life in the United States, running a medical goods business in Miami with his wife and volunteering with a Christian faith-based ministry visiting prisons.
For decades he was allowed to come and go with the sponsorship of the DEA, on a special ‘Public Interest’ visa parole. In 2016 he began the process of residency but after Trump took office his parole was eliminated under the ‘zero tolerance’ policy which flagged his former felony conviction.
On October 31 2018, ICE agent came to his office and arrested him in front of his wife and employees.
“There were like five guys there and they had their vests and guns and cars with lights, like it was a big deal. It was ridiculous,” said Roxanne Zuñiga. “I said, ‘what's going on’ and they said ‘we're taking him into custody,’” she added.
"We'll take care of everything"
She called one of her husband’s DEA contacts who told her not to worry. “I’ll contact Immigration and we'll take care of everything,’” she says she was told.
DEA Special Agent, John Costanzo, from the Miami Field Division, attended Zuñiga’s deportation hearing at Krome Detention Center hoping to speak on his behalf. But the judge refused to allow him to address the court or present any evidence of Zuñiga’s extensive cooperation, or concerns about his being deported to Cali, despite his involvement in a number of Colombian drug cases.
After six weeks in immigration detention he was deported on December 17 2018, back to the country he left aged 17.
Zuñiga says he feels fortunate that he still has family in Cali, the city where he grew up, and has been was able to reconnect with some of his high school friends. One of them, who owns a coffee farm, agreed to help the family produce its new specialty brand from small micro farms that struggle to compete with large producers.
“We’re so fortunate to be here the coffee capital of the world so we can select our own beans and blend and mill it here,” he said.
From deported to imported
The family’s brand received its official certification from the Colombian National Coffee Federation and the first 400 pounds were shipped earlier this month.
Deportado Coffee has given Felix Mauricio new purpose and hope for the future as he awaits an interview at the U.S. consulate in Bogota to appeal his deportation. Due to the pandemic, which closed down embassy operations most of last year, he may have to wait until the summer of 2022, due to the backlog of cases.
“We’re on the back burner. I have learned to take it one day at a time,” he said.
In a letter to the US ambassador in Colombia, he wrote: “I am humbly asking for you to study my case. I truly believe that not only have I placed my life on the line, but I have paid my dues and contributed unconditionally to the requests of our government.”
His wife says she still doesn’t understand why the immigration system treated him so harshly, especially given his family circumstances.
“People make mistakes in their life and I don't think that you should be judged on that for entirety. People change. My husband is a good man. He's a wonderful man. He's a great father. His employees loved him,” she said.
The coffee project also keeps his mind off the chemotherapy for his cancer which returned last year after being in remission. He had gotten over a previous bout with prostate cancer, but it recently returned.
“I’m getting excellent medical treatment here,” he said, noting that Cali has a well-developed medical tourism industry that attracts foreign patients due to its high quality and lower cost.
“I’m doing much better. The lab results are very positive,” he said.