The Witch's Way

Natacha Seijas is at it again.

By Francisco Alvarado

The Wicked Witch of West Miami-Dade appears to be casting evil spells again. Lourdes Aguirre, a Miami Lakes businesswoman who is challenging county Commissioner Natacha Seijas in the August 26 election, claims Seijas — through an emissary — threatened to cut off county funding for Miami Bethany Community Services, an Allapattah-based charity that clothes and feeds poor families. Aguirre is the group's chairwoman.

"To pick on me is one thing," Aguirre says. "But for her to have the audacity to pick on the little people really makes me angry."

The emissary — Frank Castañeda, who is chief of staff for Miami Commissioner Angel Gonzalez, a Seijas ally — denies it.

Castañeda says Seijas expressed concern to his boss that Miami Bethany was getting involved in Aguirre's campaign. So this past Monday, Castañeda called the agency's president, Rev. Obed Jauregui. "I told him it wasn't wise to involve a nonprofit in a political activity," Castañeda says. "And that was it."

Aguirre offers a much different account. She says Castañeda informed the reverend that Seijas is not happy to be challenged by the head of a nonprofit that receives county funding. Seijas implied that Aguirre might use Miami Bethany's resources for her campaign, Aguirre says. "The mere suggestion that I would use this organization for my personal benefit is major disrespect on Seijas's part."

Jauregui did not respond to an interview request, and Seijas declined comment.

Taking out her opponents through third parties is a signature Seijas tactic. During her 2004 re-election campaign, she tipped off Miami-Dade's inspector general about her opponent, Jorge Roque, reimbursing people who donated to his campaign to help him qualify for public campaign financing. Last year, Roque was convicted of three counts of perjury, one count of grand theft, and one count of lying on campaign reports.

When she faced a recall in late 2006, Seijas contacted law enforcement authorities, including Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, about petitioners allegedly forging voters' signatures. The commissioner gave investigators about 200 affidavits from voters who said they were misled during the petition drive.

Even though the effort to remove Seijas from office failed, the criminal investigation lasted almost two years and did not result in the arrests of any of the initiative's leaders. Police charged two bit players — public notary Luz Dunlap and signature-collector Anibal Roberto Orellana-Ramirez — on felony counts of forgery, falsely taking signatures, and receiving signatures to mislead a public servant. Dunlap, who was accused of notarizing hundreds of signatures without witnesses, pleaded guilty to nine misdemeanor charges of making false official statements. Orellana-Ramirez is awaiting trial.

Aguirre says she is not intimidated by Seijas. "She's messing with the wrong person," she says.


Punch Buggy

This one might punch back.

By Janine Zeitlin

On a sweltering July afternoon, a teal 1993 VW Golf with a rusting hood rolls backward through the heart of Little Havana. Two men push the car from a spot on SW Sixth Street to the humid concrete garage of Nick-O Auto Diagnostic.

They are Donato Helbing, a 25-year-old electrical engineer with shaggy brown hair, and Nicolas Rodriguez, whose blackened hands signal he is Nick-O's 31-year-old owner. The Golf's back window reads, "www.miamievproject.com."

The pair — along with Danny Alva, a web designer in his midthirties who arrives minutes later in white flip-flops — is behind an undertaking to make the car electric.

"People think you've got to be a genius or some mad-scientist guy to do it," asserts Helbing, who is wearing a T-shirt that proclaims, "The Future Is Green." "If we really want to push the electric car movement, we have to show people that anyone can do it."

The joint venture began percolating one weekend afternoon about four months ago over beers at Alva's apartment on South Beach. "That's when most of our ideas come," Helbing smiles slyly.

The Golf was Alva's first car. He had once used it to zip around Miami during his gig as a courier. But for three years, it had been sitting idle at his family's Kendall home. The green-leaning car buffs considered tricking out the old VW, until they got the idea to convert it to electric.

Two days later, they went to see the car. "We thought, If it starts, it's a signal," Helbing says. And it did. They researched conversions online, and Rodriguez volunteered his shop and expertise.

So far, they've invested about $5,000 of their own money in the project. They've removed the engine and ordered a $1,500 electric motor but are waiting on an adapter to install it. They need at least $10,000 more to finish the job.

Once the project is complete, they claim, the vehicle should run 50 to 60 miles per charge and will take four hours to rejuice from a dryer-size outlet and eight from a regular electrical outlet.

Alva and Helbing plan to split VW custody and use it for their commutes from South Beach to Coral Gables and Doral, respectively. They aim to finish the car before Art Basel in December and are talking with MTV Latino about inviting Latin American artists to submit designs for the exterior and interior. A friend has asked them to put the Golf in a green art space during Basel, they say.

"This started as a personal project, but everyone has taken an interest," Alva says.

They also hope to prove electric cars can run fast. "Not like z-room, but like zeez-zeet," Helbing demonstrates with a rapid hand gesture toward SW Sixth Street.

Soon, Rodriguez closes up the small corner shop in the modest barrio, and Alva and Helbing head to their rides parked near the Money Orders and Meat store across the street. Helbing's souped-up 1998 white Mitsubishi Eclipse zooms up to Alva's 2003 gray Porsche Boxster. They wait, side by side, at the stoplight.


Hero Halted

The feds try to gag immigrant students' best friend.

By Janine Zeitlin

Gaby Pacheco should be a hero to subtropical immigrants. The tall, outgoing soon-to-be Miami Dade College senior has for years advocated for undocumented students' rights. Once president of the student government, she has lobbied lawmakers on behalf of immigrant students, led student marches, and even addressed reporters at the National Press Club.

But late last month, she ended up in the front row of the sixth-floor U.S. Immigration Courtroom of Judge Carey Holliday on South Miami Avenue. Authorities want to deport her family — father Gustavo, his wife Maria, and Gaby's sisters Erika and Maria — because they overstayed tourist visas after arriving from Ecuador in 1993.

Two years ago, immigration agents led an early-morning raid on the family's home, where, Gaby says, her white Honda Civic was parked outside. It was marked with messages such as "Yes to Fair Immigration Reform!"

Erika, who is 29 years old and seven months pregnant, explains that one agent said, "Tell your sister to take that shit off her car."

Another said, "Thank your little sister for all this."

Gaby, who has a legal student visa, says she questioned another agent about his knowledge of her activism. "What channels have you seen me on?" she asked him.

"What channels have I not seen you on?" she says he responded.

Gaby never thought her actions could bring consequences for her family. "It really hit me that everything I did created this reaction," she says. "I wasn't doing anything wrong. This country has been built on free speech."

In a March court filing, Judge Holliday responded to Gaby's argument this way: "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones. In this case, it appears Gaby Pacheco might have indeed lived in a glass house. She freely chose to draw unwanted attention to herself and her family."

Geoffrey Hoffman, the lawyer representing the Pacheco family pro bono, argues the government violated Gaby's constitutional rights. "Just as the government may not target someone for deportation because of their race, religion, or gender, the government may not target someone's family at the expense of that person's First Amendment free speech rights."

During the Tuesday hearing, Judge Holliday gave the family until mid-September to find a way to stay in the country legally. "God bless America," proclaimed Gustavo, a 51-year-old former Baptist minister.

But then as the Pachecos filed out of court, three plainclothes immigration agents blocked them in the hallway. Their brief moment of relief was gone. They were told they were randomly selected to be tagged with ankle bracelets.

Gustavo, eyes now downcast, put an arm around Erika as agents escorted them all away. (Eventually officials would put bracelets only on Gustavo and 28-year-old Maria. They did not cuff the others for health reasons, Gaby says.)

A frustrated Gaby waited downstairs in the lobby. Her tired brown eyes filled with tears. "I call this the humiliation program," she said, her voice tense. "This is not out of chance."

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