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William Gil-Perenguez lived a hard-working, honest life in Cali, Colombia. He had a common-law wife and held a decent job with a cargo airline. Then, on June 22, 2007, that life turned to horror when he was mistaken for another “Willy” and arrested by Colombian and U.S. authorities as a major player in a cocaine smuggling ring. A Miami federal prosecutor had the power to end his nightmare. But it took a judge’s order in February to free Gil-Perenguez after 19 months behind bars. His confinement included about a year in Colombia’s notorious Combita prison, which has been criticized by human rights groups as one of the most oppressive in the world, before he was extradited to Miami. Now Gil-Perenguez has notified the Justice Department that he plans to sue for more than $10 million for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. “Our country is not supposed to be making these types of this mistakes,” said Coral Gables, Fla., attorney Richard J. Diaz, a solo practitioner representing Gil-Perenguez in his planned civil suit. The Justice Department was put on notice by Diaz last month. Gil-Perenguez is required to give the government six months to decide whether to settle. Federal prosecutors do not have immunity in matters of wrongful arrest, Diaz said. The potential lawsuit pulls no punches: “The USA’s conduct was at the very least negligent or at the very worst willful, wanton, evil, outrageous and with reckless disregard to the plaintiff’s rights. Such conduct is despicable and abhorrent.” The federal prosecutor assigned to Gil-Perenguez’s case is no stranger to controversy. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Hoffman was one of the prosecutors reprimanded earlier this year by U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold for taping phone calls between witnesses and members of the defense team without the approval of supervisors in a prescription drug case. Gold ordered the U.S. attorney’s office to pay $601,000 — all of Dr. Ali Shaygan’s court and attorney costs — after the Miami Beach physician was acquitted of 141 counts of illegally prescribing drugs to patients. She avoided sanctions in August when U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Garber called her on the carpet for failing to show up for a scheduled plea hearing in a third case. Alicia Valle, spokeswoman for acting U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sloman, said the office had no comment on the lawsuit notice. Sloman has made statements supporting his prosecutors in the Shaygan case while his office appeals Gold’s order. Though not named in the planned civil complaint, much of the blame for Gil-Perenguez’s imprisonment is placed on Hoffman by his attorneys. Gil-Perenguez insisted to Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Colombia that his voice was not on a tape they had acquired, but he was extradited to Miami in September 2008. Diaz and Gil-Perenguez’s criminal defense attorney, Luis Guerra of Coral Gables, said Hoffman refused to analyze wiretaps to confirm whether Gil-Perenguez’s voice was on them. The suspect’s court-appointed attorney didn’t believe him at first. After all, Guerra said, most defendants say they are not guilty. But once Guerra reviewed the audio tapes, it was clear to him that the recorded voice did not belong to his client. “When I figured out it was the wrong voice, I went to [Hoffman] and said, ‘You have the wrong guy. My guy is innocent,’” Guerra said. “She said she had several witnesses. Turns out these witnesses never really existed.” Even the main witness against Gil-Perenguez told Hoffman the government had arrested the “wrong Willy.” The witness, Neixi Garcia-Lamela, told Guerra that prosecutors refused to believe him and that he was pressured to implicate Gil-Perenguez. On Feb. 6, U.S. District Judge Donald Graham in Miami ordered a comparison between the defendant’s voice and the voice captured on what the DEA called “dirty conversations.” Three weeks later, Hoffman moved to dismiss the charges. Diaz said there was no reason for his client to be imprisoned so long. Hoffman was in trial in the Shaygan case, but Diaz said it would have taken her about 20 minutes to figure out she had a case of mistaken identity. “Why did she sit on the tapes?” Diaz asked. Hoffman has a reputation as a tough prosecutor. “I’ve had dealings with Ms. Hoffman on cases,” said attorney Joseph De Maria, a partner with Tew Cardenas in Miami. “I’ve had dealings with her on forfeiture matters, and the only thing I found is that her aggressiveness made it difficult to have professional conversations where information could be discussed. “There is nothing wrong with being aggressive,” he said, “but you have to be open-minded.” The former prosecutor said the federal system, especially in cases involving extradition, relies heavily on the prosecutor’s integrity because there is no right to a speedy trial. Diaz said his client’s life has been ruined. Gil-Perenguez is back in Cali but suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Combita, where he was imprisoned when his daughter was born. His neighbors call Gil-Perenguez a snitch, believing he must have cooperated with the U.S. government to get out of jail. No employer will touch him, and he can’t support his family, his attorney said. “Despite his innocence, people who know him still think he is a drug trafficker,” his lawsuit states. And then there are moments when he is simply paralyzed by fear. “Imagine every time he goes to the supermarket or goes for a stroll and sees a Colombian police car, the first thing he wonders is: ‘Could that happen to me again?’ ” Diaz said. The attorney said the case has made headlines in Colombia. Diaz ran into Mario Iguaran, a former Colombian attorney general, on a recent visit and got an earful. “He said, ‘What’s wrong with your government? Do you know how this makes your government look?’”

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