Published Thursday, August 12, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Dad blames Coast Guard for drowning

By ELAINE DE VALLE
Herald Staff Writer

The father of a young Cuban woman who drowned last month off Broward County's Hillsboro Inlet blames the U.S. Coast Guard for her death, according to the Cuban American National Foundation.

Her last words to pursuing Coast Guardsmen, the foundation said: ``We want to be free, same as you.''

From Puerto Padre, Cuba, Agustin Marrero Labrada spoke to CANF spokeswoman Ninoska Perez on Tuesday on her weekday afternoon radio program, Ninoska at 1. Marrero said he was on the vessel the Coast Guard said was hit when it suddenly cut in front of a patrol boat July 10.

After the radio show, the foundation issued a press release quoting Marrero. The Herald could not reach him.

According to the release, he said the collision was intentional, that when fire hoses did not deter the would-be migrants, Guardsmen aimed for their 25-foot motorized wooden boat with their 82-foot cutter Point Glass.

``Upon realizing that we were not going to give up, they rammed the rear of our vessel twice,'' Marrero was quoted. ``It was horrendous. They took no pity on us. I pleaded for them not to hurt us, to allow us to reach shore, and then they became enraged and attacked us, sinking us.

``It was criminal.''

Coast Guard officials said the incident was an accident caused when the Cuban boat cut in front of them. They said the Cubans threw debris at them and used a machete to cut a rope Guardsman had fed into the migrants' propeller to stop them.

Yomara Marrero, 20, was lost at sea after the boat overturned and all 12 passengers were thrown into the ocean. The others, which also included her brother, were saved and taken to the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo for interviews by U.S. authorities.

Six days later, Marrero was shown the body of his daughter, which had been recovered 12 hours after the sinking, 45 miles north from the spot.

``She had a wound on her forehead and another on the left side of her face,'' he said, adding that the Coast Guard did not do enough to save her because they claimed to lack the necessary equipment.

Coast Guard spokesman Jeff Murphy said his colleagues did everything possible to save the woman and the other passengers on board.

``They rescued people right away. They weren't aware of her still being missing,'' Murphy said. ``They did a count and talked with them and believed everybody was accounted for.

``They were later told that there was a woman, and possibly even a child, that was missing. And they continued to search and we brought in other assets.''

The Cuban American National Foundation has asked for an in-depth investigation to determine whether the Coast Guard bears responsibility for Yomara Marrero's drowning.

``Far from fulfilling the goal of protecting the lives of Cuban rafters at sea, the policy of going to whatever lengths necessary in order to protect the U.S.-Cuba immigration accord is endangering the lives of innocent men, women and children who only come in search of freedom,'' Perez said Wednesday.

Murphy, the Coast Guard spokesman, said an investigation is under way.

Perez said the man contacted the foundation through a human rights dissident in his hometown who works with the exile group on occasion. His first call to her show was cut short, and he called again five minutes before it ended, she said.

``He later spoke to other foundation members who tape-recorded his testimony,'' Perez said.

e-mail: edevalle@herald.com

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald