INS Agents Say They Faced Resistance, Assaults

By Luisa Yanez © 4/26/2000, The Sun-Sentinel, South Florida

The predawn raid to snatch Elian Gonzalez was traumatic not only for the boy and his Miami relatives, but also for the federal agents who carried out the mission, according to the reports they have turned in to their supervisors.

As the eight principal agents who stormed the house began turning in their individual accounts of what happened, their versions show they, too, were shaken by the events, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said on Tuesday.

One veteran agent, part of what INS called the “high risk” entry team that went into the Little Havana house at 5:15 a.m. Saturday, said of the experience: “I have never encountered this much resistance.”

Agents said they were jostled and screamed at, and their orders were disobeyed as they tried to enter the house. The front door was blocked by a heavy couch, an indication that the family realized they were there to take the boy, the agents said.

On their way out three minutes later, the female agent carrying Elian was pushed into the bushes with the boy in her arms, the reports say. On her way in, she was thrown to the ground. She was bruised by the assaults.

Excerpts of the agents’ oral and written accounts were provided by Maria Cardona, a spokeswoman for the INS. A request for the full reports was denied.

In many instances, details given by the agents contradict those of family members and their supporters who were inside the house.

Cardona said the agents’ accounts show why a strong show of force was needed.

“They said we used too much force, but what would have happened if we hadn’t been prepared?” she asked.

President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno have defended and praised the federal agents for their quick removal of the boy without loss of life or serious injury.

But family attorney José Garcia-Pedrosa, who was not inside the house at the time of the raid, defended the family.

“Any violence that occurred at the house was brought there by Janet Reno,” Garcia-Pedrosa said on Tuesday.

The agents’ reports state that they encountered immediate resistance from a small but determined group.

As the convoy of minivans drove up to the house, agents said, some street demonstrators rushed them while family allies ran to the front door to block their approach. The agents used tear gas to hold back the demonstrators, who threw lawn chairs, bottles and rocks at them.

At the front door, a small group, said to be about four men and three women, quickly linked arms to form a human chain as the agents approached.

“The agents met an aggressive, physical resistance,” Cardona said.

Television footage shows that Ramon Saul Sanchez and Fernando Rojas, both members of the Democracy Movement exile group, and Sylvia Iriondo of Mothers Against Repression were among that group at the front door.

A struggle broke out, and INS agent Betty Mills, assigned to carry Elian from the house, was pushed and fell.

Sanchez and others in the house have said they were manhandled by the agents. One agent struck Sanchez on the head with the butt of his assault weapon. Sanchez collapsed and was taken to a hospital for treatment. A female demonstrator said she suffered bruised ribs. Others said they were pushed around.

Once inside the house, the agents demanded the boy in forceful tones. The family has said the agents shouted obscenities.

“Tell me where the f------ boy is, or I’ll shoot you!,” Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elian’s cousin and caretaker since his rescue five months ago, has said one agent shouted.

On ABC’s Nightline on Monday, Reno said she had scanned the preliminary reports and found no mention that obscenities were uttered.

The agents said they herded about a dozen people in the house into one area as other agents moved through looking for Elian, who, by then, had been taken by fisherman-rescuer Donato Dalrymple to a back bedroom. The agents said an NBC television crew in the house was in their way and had to be removed.

Members of the television crew later said they were thrown on the floor and against a table. They said the agents’ actions prevented them from recording events in the house.

The federal agents said they then moved to the back of the house looking for Elian. They had been given a diagram and knew where the boy slept, in Marisleysis’ bedroom. But the boy was not there.

The agents said they moved to another bedroom, which was locked. They knocked on the door. When no one opened it, they knocked it down.

There they found Elian and Dalrymple pushed against an open closet door. An Associated Press photographer; Marisleysis’ mother, Angela; another relative; and a 5-year-old playmate of Elian’s also were in the room.

A Border Patrol agent took Elian from Dalrymple and gave him to Mills. All the while, family members and their supporters were screaming at the agents.

The Border Patrol agent pictured with Elian in Dalrymple’s arms had the safety lock activated on his weapon, according to his report. The agent, whose name was not disclosed, said he put the lock on “anticipating a physical struggle that might cause his weapon to go off accidentally,” Cardona said.

Cardona said the decision on the use of safety locks was left up to each agent.

As the agents left the house, they again encountered resistance. That’s when a female demonstrator lunged at Mills, pushing her into the bushes and knocking off the towel that covered Elian’s head. The woman was tossed to the side, and Mills, clutching Elian, was grabbed by a second agent and rushed to the van.

As they moved out, they vans were pelted by the demonstrators.

Cardona said a total of 130 agents, some from other parts of Florida, took part in the mission. All will be debriefed.