BLOOD AND WATER
Cuban Migrants Confront Harsher U.S. Tactics at Sea
Colliding Policies Feed
Speedboats, Shootings; Treating Ms. Machado
By ROBERT BLOCK
2007; Page A1
KEY WEST, Fla. --
Agustin Uralde could barely hear his wife above the roar of the
smuggler's speedboat last summer as it tried to outrun two U.S.
Coast Guard vessels and a helicopter, bearing down with sirens
wailing. Huddled around the couple were 27 other wet and
frightened Cubans. "She said, 'Pray for me, my love, because I
am praying for you,'" Mr. Uralde recalls.
Moments later, a
Coast Guard gunner shot two copper slugs into one of the boat's
engines, forcing it into a hard left turn before it groaned to a
stop. Mr. Uralde says the abrupt motion threw his wife headfirst
into the side of the boat. By the time the Coast Guard had
brought her ashore for treatment two hours later, following a
long debate over whether she was really badly hurt, Anay Machado
Gonzalez, 24 years old, was dead. She was the third Cuban
migrant in just over a year to die of traumatic head injuries
after a high-speed ocean chase.
For nearly 13
years, Coast Guard and Border Protection agents have been
chasing human smugglers around Florida. In 1994, President
Clinton changed U.S. policy to allow only Cubans who physically
made it to U.S. soil to stay in the country, while those caught
at sea were returned to their Communist island. Before that the
Coast Guard simply plucked Cuban migrants off homemade rafts and
brought them to Miami as refugees.
Now amid a heated
national debate over illegal immigration, and growing concerns
about terrorism and border security, federal agents are adopting
ever-harsher interdiction methods at sea, colliding -- sometimes
tragically -- with the vagaries of U.S.-Cuba policy.
While the law
offers permanent escape to Cubans who make it here, current
terrorism policies compel agents to stop migrants almost any way
they can. High-speed boat chases at speeds over 45 miles an hour
in rough seas are commonplace. Many chases now end with federal
agents firing live ammunition -- a technique developed for drug
traffickers -- at boats filled with migrants.
Since March 2003,
half of the estimated 50 cases of customs agents shooting out
engines of fleeing boats took place in the bustling sea lanes
off Florida and involved illegal-alien smuggling from Cuba,
according to U.S. government figures. The rest involved mostly
drug traffickers. A recent Coast Guard report shows that four of
eight deaths and all of the 13 injuries to Cubans who tried to
enter Florida illegally in 2005 and 2006 involved high-speed
chases with Coast Guard or Customs and Border Protection
vessels. In some cases, enforcement agents were also hurt.
officials and the Coast Guard say they're enforcing the law and
accept no responsibility for the casualties. The U.S. Attorney's
office in South Florida blames the human traffickers, who it
says dangerously overload their boats. All deaths are added to
charges filed against the smugglers.
In the case of Ms.
Machado, two Cubans living legally in Florida who were accused
of driving the boat pled guilty to accidentally killing her when
they failed to heed Coast Guard orders to stop. A third was
acquitted of any role in Ms. Machado's death but convicted of
being part of the smuggling conspiracy. All three were sentenced
to 12 years in prison.
Mr. Uralde, Ms.
Machado's widower, puts equal blame on America's Cuba policy and
the methods employed by the Coast Guard. "It's madness," says
Mr. Uralde, who is now living legally in the U.S.
dry-foot" policy has its roots in the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act,
the legislation underpinning Cubans' right to remain in the U.S.
after defecting. Cuba had long complained about the act, and in
1994 President Fidel Castro opened his island to mass
emigration. Some 33,000 took to rafts and headed to Florida,
leading to howls of outrage from U.S. politicians. So in
exchange for Cuba closing its beaches to rafters, and to placate
U.S. politicians who didn't want to change the 1966 act, but at
the same time opposed Castro's use of mass emigration,
"wet-foot, dry-foot" was born.
divided over the issue. Some support the right of all Cubans who
gain freedom to stay, while others feel the policy is reckless.
Many Coast Guardsman and Homeland Security agents say they want
"wet-foot, dry-foot" abolished, but there's no movement in
Washington to change it. U.S.-Cuban policy is a sensitive
subject governed by strong emotions and Cold War sensibilities.
Instead the government is focused on expanding the tactics used
in Florida's waters as it exerts more control over the Southwest
border with Mexico.
"The Coast Guard is
building plans to deal with the possibility that we will see
more movement around the coast as we seal the border more," says
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Shooting at a
boat's engines is just one option. Other tactics include
dropping cables to entangle boat propellers and ramming a boat
off course, a technique called "shouldering." They all became
standard operating procedure in 2003, when the Coast Guard and
Customs became part of the newly created Department of Homeland
There's no evidence
the harsher methods result in greater success: According to U.S.
government figures, more than half the Cubans who attempt to
sneak into the U.S. make it, with 3,076 Cubans arriving in
Florida in fiscal year 2006, compared with 2,530 who reached the
state during the same period in 2005.
are moves to grant federal border protection agencies the same
aggressive powers on land that they have at sea. Congress last
year extended authority to land agents to shoot at fleeing
vehicles. The Department of Homeland Security is studying how to
adapt the Coast Guard's interdiction techniques to roads and
In most cases,
sirens, loud hailers and the occasional shot across the front of
a boat are sufficient to make vessels stop. Not in Florida,
where the promise of safety to all Cubans who land successfully
has given rise to a multimillion-dollar-a-year smuggling
industry. Smugglers charge passengers as much as $10,000 a head
to board $350,000 speedboats mounted with as many as four
engines that can reach speeds of 65 miles a hour.
Mr. Uralde and his
wife's ill-fated journey was pieced together from Coast Guard
videos and radio transmissions of the July 8, 2006, chase, as
well as court documents and interviews with U.S. agents, Mr.
Uralde, and several migrants who were on the boat with Mr.
Uralde and his wife.
Working at his
dad's Havana cafe, Mr. Uralde met his future wife through mutual
friends seven years ago. She was a waitress, and the pair hit it
off immediately. They shared the same taste in music and their
love of the beach. They married in 2002.
But in 2005, Cuban
tax authorities accused Mr. Uralde's father of tax evasion and
shuttered the cafe. Later that year, Mr. Uralde's father boarded
a smuggling boat for Miami. Mr. Uralde says bills piled up, and
the government punished the family for the father's defection.
In the meantime, letters from Mr. Uralde's father arrived
boasting about Miami life. The couple began discussing leaving
the island, too. Mr. Uralde says his wife didn't want to leave
her mother, but later relented.
immigrants who hire smugglers, Mr. Uralde won't describe how the
trip was arranged. Cuban smuggling chains usually start in the
U.S., with family members in Miami finding smugglers through
word of mouth at Cuban coffee shops. Smugglers depart South
Florida, pick up passengers at Cuban beaches, and deposit them
in remote areas of the Florida Keys or south Miami-Dade County.
Late on July 7,
2006, Mr. Uralde says he got a phone call with instructions to
go to a "party" at a beach an hour's drive east of Havana. Just
after 3 a.m., a boat with three powerful Mercury engines drifted
into shore. According to a federal indictment, the drivers had a
global-positioning system with exact coordinates of the landing
"When the boat
came," Mr. Uralde recalls, "Anay took my hand and said, 'Love,
this is really happening. We are really going to America. We are
going to make it.'"
The drivers told
the group the trip should take about three hours. Everyone knew
the drill: Get to land, call your families and then call the
U.S. Border Patrol. The Border Patrol would pick up the group,
process them, and then release them to their families within a
few days. Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, everyone would be
able to apply for permanent residency a year and a day later.
What the group
didn't know was that it was being monitored by Cuba's border
guard, which followed the boat out of Cuban waters and sent a
fax alerting the Coast Guard at 3:54 a.m. Cuban authorities
usually leave interdiction to the U.S., in part because they
lack the capabilities to chase the fast boats.
'Up to No Good'
Coast Guard Petty
Officer James Holmes was skippering the USCG 331255 patrol boat
that morning when he got the message. Cranking up his engines,
Mr. Holmes plotted an intercept course. About an hour later, he
came across what looked like the boat, running without lights in
the dark. That's usually a sign "it was up to no good," he later
told a court in Key West.
Mr. Holmes says he
pulled up to within 25 yards of the boat, threw on his blue
flashing lights, cranked up the sirens and began shouting over
loudspeakers in Spanish for the boat to stop and prepare to be
The smugglers took
off. The boat "became an airplane," Mr. Holmes said, jumping 5
feet out of the water. Mr. Holmes told the court he thought
someone was going to get tossed out. The migrants, he said, had
no life vests. "They were holding on to each other, grabbing
whatever they could," he said.
Inside the boat,
the drivers shouted at their passengers to stay down. Juliet
Escandon Hernandez, a passenger on the boat and common-law wife
of one of the accused smugglers, told reporters during the trial
that even though the migrants were scared, "We told them not to
stop, to keep going, because freedom was right in front of us."
Ms. Escandon and her husband insist they were passengers, not
According to Coast
Guard radio transmissions at the height of the chase, Mr. Holmes
told his sector commander in Key West that the driver of the
speedboat had tried to ram him six times. At the trial, he
described the incident less dramatically, testifying that the
smuggler's boat veered toward him a few times as he maneuvered
to force the smuggler off course.
prompted Key West to authorize more-aggressive action. A smaller
Coast Guard patrol boat, the USCG 232515, was sent to join the
fray, and a Coast Guard helicopter was dispatched to film the
chase for training and legal purposes.
The chase had
lasted nearly an hour, and the boats were now just miles from
Key West. According to court testimony, Petty Officer Perry
Lanning, the Coast Guard gunner, took out a shotgun and assumed
a position on the bow of his boat. To successfully knock out an
engine, Mr. Lanning, who was trained specifically to take out a
boat from another boat, had to hit it dead center. If he failed,
the copper slug could ricochet into the boat or the engine could
fragment, sending shrapnel towards the boat's occupants. Because
of the dangers, disabling fire is generally the last step in the
Coast Guard's arsenal.
Mr. Uralde says
that when the migrants saw the Coast Guard officer with the gun
pointing at them, they began to yell: "Don't shoot. There are
women here, pregnant women. There are children here." One of the
passengers tried to crawl on top of the outboard motors; he
later told agents he was trying to buy some time. But the boat,
bouncing along the Caribbean, was going too fast, and in the
video the passenger can be seen falling back into the hull.
With the target
clear, Mr. Lanning testified, he aimed a laser sight at the
middle of the starboard engine and fired twice. He was about to
fire again when the boat turned hard left and then stopped. Mr.
Uralde says it was then when his wife flew out of his arms. She
slammed into the side of the boat and her head hit its top edge.
"It was a split second," Mr. Uralde says. Holding her limp body,
he says he screamed for help. According to the Coast Guard's
video, it was 6:29 a.m.
three Coast Guard officers boarded the speedboat to arrest the
drivers. Petty Officer Mona Benefiel, a member of the boarding
party, was trying to move people when one of the migrants tugged
at her shirt. "I turned over to look at him and he was pointing
something out to me," she told the court. Ms. Machado was
unconscious, bleeding from her ears and nose, breathing fast and
shallow. "I knew that this wasn't good," Ms. Benefiel said.
Ms. Benefiel had
been an Army medic before joining the Coast Guard. After
examining the unconscious woman, she told Mr. Holmes they had a
medical emergency. "I also told him that she needed to be
evacuated, ASAP," she said.
Mr. Holmes radioed
the Coast Guard's sector command headquarters in Key West. A
drawn-out debate ensued over whether Ms. Machado was injured by
the disabling fire and if she was really hurt badly enough to
require being brought ashore.
her ashore would entitle her to claim asylum, the first question
raised was whether Ms. Machado was faking her injuries. "Just
make sure these are not acting cases," a voice on the radio from
sector command told Mr. Holmes. Over the next 30 minutes, there
were at least seven more requests for corroboration of the
extent of Ms. Machado's injuries.
At 7:33 a.m., an
hour after the officers first boarded the boat, Lt. Daniel
Henkes, a physician's assistant with the U.S. Public Health
Service, arrived with a special lifter that could be hoisted
into the helicopter. He testified that Ms. Machado had severe
head injuries and needed "immediate" medical treatment onshore.
He requested help from the helicopter still in the air filming.
Coast Guard command in Key West refused, he said, because the
helicopter was on law-enforcement mission status and would not
be switched to search-and-rescue status.
In response to
questions, Coast Guard officials originally said they didn't
have the correct lifter for the helicopter. Later they said they
opted to send her by boat because no one was qualified to deal
with her injuries on the chopper.
stabilized Ms. Machado, put her on oxygen to help limit brain
swelling, and transferred her from the speedboat to the smaller
Coast Guard patrol boat. He told the driver to head slowly but
steadily to Key West, where an ambulance was waiting. The boat
bounced in the choppy waters and her condition worsened en
route. According to Coast Guard records, Ms. Machado reached
shore at 8:33 a.m. and was pronounced dead on the spot.
A coroner's report
later said Ms. Machado had bruises all over her body consistent
with someone who had been bouncing around a boat going at
excessive speed. The cause of her death was listed as "blunt
force head trauma."
Capt. P.J. Heyl,
then the Key West Sector commander, told a news conference later
that day that Ms. Machado died because the smugglers had refused
to stop. "Medical help would have come a lot sooner if they
hadn't ignored our orders."
A Coast Guard
spokesman, Capt. James A. Watson IV, told the conference that
while the death was regrettable, the disabling-fire process was
not to blame. "It worked perfectly," he told reporters.
Mr. Uralde and the
other passengers were transferred to a Coast Guard cutter ship,
which had arrived to process and interview the group before
taking them back to Cuba. Mr. Uralde says he assumed that his
wife was getting the treatment she needed, and took comfort in
the fact that at least she would be able to stay in the U.S.
Hours later, a Coast Guard officer informed him that she was
dead on arrival.
Two days later, the
three men arrested for driving the boat were indicted and
charged with having killed Ms. Machado without malice. The court
ordered everyone who was on the boat with Ms. Machado to be
brought ashore as potential material witnesses. Her death
allowed the others to reach U.S. shores.
Now living with his
relatives south of Miami, Mr. Uralde wishes he never came.
"Happy to make it to land? I'd rather be dead," he says. "The
price was too high to pay. She did not need to die."