Federal agents staged a lightning raid Saturday morning on the home of the relatives of Elian Gonzalez, removing the boy by force and reuniting him in Washington with his father. The sudden raid ended a months-long standoff, triggered minor disturbances and calls for a general strike from some in Miami's Cuban-American community.
At 5:15 a.m. EST, several white vans of the Immigration and Naturalization Service roared up to the small house in Little Havana, surprising a group of some 30 protesters holding vigil outside. About 20 INS agents in commando gear jumped out, some of them carrying rifles and some wearing cloth masks over their faces.
The agents, wearing riot gear, pounded on the door demanding entry, and when they were refused, they broke down the door and stormed the home of the family which had defied INS orders to relinquish the child. According to Attorney General Janet Reno, a team of eight agents entered the house and spent only three minutes inside.
A Spanish-speaking female agent wrapped the 6-year-old boy in a white blanket and, with the help of a male agent, carried him outside to a van. Her expression was anguished as she faced the glare of reporters cameras and protesters outside the house. Protesters threw chairs and other objects at the agents, who responded by firing pepper smoke into the crowd. No serious injuries were reported.
Elian was then whisked to Watson Island, near Miami Beach, where he was transported by helicopter to Homestead Air Force Base, some 20 miles south of Miami. He was then flown in a U.S. Marshal's plane to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where under extraordinary secrecy, he was reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. The site was closed to the media, and officials said the family would likely remain there for several days.
By early afternoon, at least three of the boy's Miami relatives -- including his cousin Marisleysis and great uncle Lazaro -- had followed suit, boarding a plane for Washington. Once there, they planned to request meetings with Juan Miguel and President Clinton.
A hearing is scheduled in federal court May 11 to consider the Miami family's petition that the boy be allowed to stay in the U.S. A federal district court in Atlanta has also ordered that the boy not be removed from the U.S. before that hearing. Juan Miguel Gonzalez's attorney said the father had no intention of trying to do that.
"Juan Gonzalez has made a commitment to stay in the United States during this appeal and he will live up to that commitment," said Gregory Craig.
The raid came two days after President Clinton stated the boy should be reunited with his father. But when asked Saturday if he had ordered the raid, he denied having done so.
"She (Reno) managed this, but I fully support what she did," the president said.
Accordingly, members of the Miami Gonzalez family and their supporters attacked Clinton.
Speaking to reporters inside the family's house, an emotional Marisleysis Gonzalez had harsh words for Janet Reno and the president. "He dishonored his own family and now he has dishonored mine," she said, with a reference to Clinton's sex scandal with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Marisleysis Gonzalez said the raid took the family by surprise. "We were talking to them," she said of the Justice Department negotiators. "Then they put us on hold and when we were on hold they pounded on the door."
In the house at the time was Donato Dalrymple, one of two fishermen who rescued the boy from the sea on Thanksgiving Day after his mother and other rafters drowned in an attempt to escape Cuba. Dalrymple was hiding with the boy in a closet. Marisleysis accused the federal agents of pointing a rifle at the boy, but Reno later denied that. Dramatic news photos taken by an Associated Press photographer who was inside the house, also indicated that weapons were brandished but were not pointed at the boy and the INS agent did not have his finger on the trigger.
Reno and other Justice Department officials had conducted negotiations by telephone all night with Gonzalez family attorneys and other Miami community leaders who were in the Little Havana house. But she said those negotiations failed and she had no alternative but to order the raid.
"Up until the last we tried anyway we could to encourage Lazaro Gonzalez to deliver the child to his father," she said at a Washington press conference after the raid. "But every time we thought we had achieved what they wanted, it was not enough." She said Gonzalez consistently placed "roadblocks" in the negotiations.
Reno defended the use of armed agents. "We had received information there were guns perhaps in the crowd, perhaps in the house," she said. "We knew this could be traumatic. We set it up in a way to minimize that." INS' Doris Meissner said the boy had been given toys to play with on the plane, including Play-Doh, which children can squeeze to reduce stress.
Meissner said the unidentified female agent who took the boy from the house also accompanied him to Washington. The agent was prepared to talk to the child and tell him he was being reunited with his father, and to assure him that he was not being sent back to Cuba or put back on a raft -- a fear the child had expressed, according to his Miami relatives.
Back in Little Havana the mood turned ugly quickly. Police cut off traffic for blocks around the house and by 6 a.m. angry Cuban-Americans flocked to the roadblocks to protest. Rocks, pieces of concrete and bottles were thrown at police who answered with tear gas and pepper smoke.
Lt. Bill Schwartz, head of media relations for the Miami Police Department, was mobbed by protesters outside the house and hit in the head with a bottle of water after it was revealed that the federal agents had been accompanied by a high-ranking Miami Police official during the raid. The Miami Police had promised the Cuban exile community that the department would not assist in any raid, and Schwartz explained that the official was only there to make sure Miami Police on guard duty understood who the raiders were and not to interfere with them.
Schwartz had to be rescued from the crowd by helmeted officers and taken from the scene in a police car. He was not seriously hurt.
Miami Police also reported that at least two of its officers were
injured when they tangled with a demonstrator wielding a bat. And the
Florida Highway Patrol said one of its officers was also injured. Neither agency reported how serious those injuries were.
Other protesters blocked intersections in Little Havana, threw newspaper racks into the street, destroyed a bus stop and built bonfires. Other demonstrators, waving the Cuban flag, briefly blocked a major highway leading to Miami International Airport, but were dispersed by Florida Highway Patrol officers. By evening, police had detained at least 180 people; it was not known if charges were being filed against them.
For the most part, the crowds were small and scattered. Cuban exile leaders, meanwhile, were meeting to pick a site for one large protest and there was also talk of a work stoppage Tuesday in South Florida.
"Clinton and his people will pay for this," screamed Cuban exile Magali de la Cruz, 48, at a police roadblock just blocks from the house. "Our children will know who to vote for and who not to vote for in the future."
Angela Perez, 50, stood in the middle of the street weeping. "Both my father and brother were put in prison by the Castro regime," she said. "Cuban state security would break into our house that way to search. When I saw that on television it made it all come back. It's horrible."
"It looked like a drug bust," said Ivian Perez, 38.
Rudy Lopez, 35, issued this threat to police: "If they want action, they're going to get action." "This ain't over yet. Wait till Tuesday. Everything is going to freeze. Payback is a bitch. And tonight we're going to make Miami police earn their money. It's going to be a late night."
Gabriela Caparos, 41, a government social worker argued with other protesters at a roadblock, begging for calm.
"We built this neighborhood, we own these buildings and these businesses," she said to another angry protester who had been threatening violence. "We can't let Castro win. We need to show the world we believe in the law. Please, no violence, no blood."