Cuban Migrants Confront Harsher U.S. Tactics at Sea

Colliding Policies Feed Speedboats, Shootings; Treating Ms. Machado
July 23, 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.

Homeland Security 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.

'It's Madness'

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.

The "wet-foot, 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.

Cuban-Americans are 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 Security.

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.

Nonetheless, there 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 highways.

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.

[Blood and Water]

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.

Like most 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 site.

"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 boarded.

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 crew.

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.

The reports 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.

Minutes later, 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.

Because bringing 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.

Choppy Waters

Lt. Henkes 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."