By Terrence McCoy
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Since they arrived from Cuba in 1962, Andres Senorans and his family have been patriots. American flags fly from cars parked behind the auto parts store they own at NW 21st Avenue and 36th Street. In an office above the store is a framed picture of Senorans shaking the hand of Oliver North. Senorans's son Andy also posed with the Iran-contra defendant-turned-politico.
Recently, though, the family's pro-government attitudes have been put to the test. They aren't yet scrambling to join a militia, but they're not exactly whistling "The Star Spangled Banner," either. "Right now I really wonder what happened at Waco," muses 37-year-old Andy Senorans, who runs the business his father started in 1969. "The government can't be above the law."
The incident that caused this fundamental shift took place July 7. At a quarter to four on that Friday afternoon, Andy Senorans decided to get a haircut. He removed his concealed weapon ("You know, I need it because of the business I'm in, but I didn't really need it to get a haircut") and placed it in his briefcase. He put on a clean shirt and walked out the shop's glass front door.
As he poked his head outside, Senorans saw a flock of men wearing flak jackets and wielding guns, swarming around the El Romance restaurant next door. A man in the restaurant's doorway was being pulled back inside by the pants leg, Senorans could see. A woman was up against a wall with a gun at her head.
Thinking robbery, Senorans immediately shouted for the keys, which are kept behind the shop's front counter. As an employee tossed the keys over a display of Volkswagen paraphernalia, Senorans turned to his left and saw through a side window that one of his own staffers was sprawled facedown on the ground, a flak-jacketed man standing over him barking obscenities so loudly they could be heard inside the shop.
Just then the armed men, who Andy could not immediately identify but who he later determined to be U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs Service agents, burst through a side door and into the auto parts shop. "Get your motherfucking hands up!" they screamed. "Get your ass down!" The officers gathered Senorans, his father, and everyone else -- including two high school girls who were working on a term paper in the upstairs office -- and ordered them outside.
In all, six people sweated it out on the hot pavement as two agents searched the shop. The shotgun the senior Senorans stores behind the counter to ward off robbers was dismantled. "They were really scared," recalls employee Ralph Cortez. "They were more scared than us. They kept pointing their guns at us and telling us to get down. We were already down. How much farther down could we go?"
Andy Senorans figured it was as good a time as any to ask what was going on. "One of them said, 'We saw somebody running into your restaurant,'" he remembers. "With my hands behind my back, I said, 'Look, I don't have a restaurant. This is an auto parts store.' He said to shut the fuck up so I said no more."
Nelson Valedor, proprietor of Auto Concept Sales across the street, saw the commotion. Grabbing a Polaroid camera he keeps on hand for insurance claims, he trained the lens on the scene and clicked the shutter. "The agents told me not to take the picture. I shouted out, 'Why not? It's a free country,'" Valedor says defiantly.
After what Senorans estimates to be about eleven minutes, the agents allowed the workers to get off their bellies and rest on their knees. Seven or eight minutes later, he says, Metro-Dade police officers arrived and chatted with the agents. Then, in what Andy describes as an "odd" gesture, the federal officers climbed back into their unmarked cars and took off. "They didn't even say they were sorry," he says.
Nelson Valedor says the feds might have raided the Senorans's shop by mistake, because it was painted the same color as the restaurant next door. (Not any more: Three weeks ago, the Senoranses added a stripe of red and orange "to make it different.") But in Valedor's eyes, that doesn't excuse the government's rudeness. "I know when they walk in there they don't know who they are going to bump into and that they just have to do their jobs, but when they came out, they should have said, 'Hey, sorry man. Everybody makes a mistake.'"
Since the incident, Andy Senorans has persistently searched for an explanation for the raid, meeting with officials at the DEA, Customs, and Metro-Dade without getting a satisfactory answer. Though no one was hurt physically during the raid, Senorans says he can't forget the sight of his 56-year-old father lying facedown with a gun at his head.
"He is a guy who spent his whole life working. He never did anything wrong and he was very pro-government," Senorans explains. "Now the emotional stress really lingers. He was very depressed afterward."
Neither DEA nor Metro-Dade spokesmen could confirm that an incident took place, much less clarify their departments' role for this story. Customs Service spokesman Michael Sheehan insists he knows nothing about the July 7 raid, though he is certain that his agents always act with professionalism and courtesy. "I am confident to tell you that our people would have said, 'Hey, you know, sorry about all this. We were searching the restaurant next door,'" Sheehan asserts. "And the guy probably didn't understand it or didn't hear it. It is not exactly our way of doing business to burst into a shop and put guns to everybody's head and then not apologize about it."
The owner of the El Romance restaurant was not available for comment. A waitress there says that as far as she knows, there haven't been any problems at the restaurant concerning Customs or the DEA.
Andy Senorans says he's glad no customers were present in the shop during the altercation. He's also happy he removed his concealed weapon before the agents arrived. "This whole thing might have been different had they seen that," he notes. "But really, the only thing I want is an apology. I don't believe that the government can do something like this and then just leave without an apology.