Published Monday, September 6, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Clash at sea puts Coast Guard in spotlight

Herald Staff Writer

After eight hard days at sea, 12 Cubans who set out for Florida in a homemade wooden boat could finally rejoice. Directly ahead, city lights set the night sky aglow over Hillsboro Inlet.

They were so close, but they would never reach that shore.

Out of the darkness slid the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Point Glass, 82 feet of stubborn steel, so quietly the Cubans did not know it was nearby until it loomed alongside them. From its deck, a spotlight snapped on, its bright beam trained on the boat's anxious passengers.

Of what happened next, this much is known: There was a confrontation. The cutter collided with the 25-foot boat, and a young woman drowned.

Beyond that broad outline, though, are two dramatically conflicting versions of the events of July 9.

Five of the surviving Cubans, all of whom were sent back to the island, describe a Coast Guard crew so aggressively determined to prevent them from reaching shore that the cutter deliberately rammed their boat twice, then failed to turn away when the vessels were on a collision course.

``I never expected they would sink us,'' said Abdel Perez Rodriguez, 38. ``What happened was something terrible. It is painful to recall. But I thought then, and I still think, that they acted intentionally.''

The Coast Guard, which emphatically denies striking their boat intentionally, says the Cubans were the aggressors, waving a machete, pitching debris into the sea, maneuvering erratically to evade capture -- and ultimately provoking an accident.

``Ramming a vessel is not something that we do,'' said Lt. Ron LaBrec, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami. ``The boat apparently cut across the bow of the cutter, and the cutter couldn't stop in time.''

A Coast Guard investigation is now attempting to sort out the truth.

But the Cubans' stories, told in telephone interviews from Cuba, and Coast Guard logs and reports on the incident, released in response to a public-records request from The Herald, coincide in depicting the tragic outcome as the result of an hourlong skirmish at sea in which each side tried, and failed, to outfox the other.

The July 9 sinking casts into sharp relief questions that have been raised over the safety and effectiveness of the Coast Guard's tactics in trying to stop illegal immigrants, usually Cuban, who are determined to elude capture at sea.

As immigrants become increasingly willing to risk their lives to defy the Coast Guard, its officers find themselves often caught between enforcing immigration law and ensuring the safety of their crews and the people they are trying to detain.

``You have a change in the way the game is being played by one side,'' said Anthony Upshaw, a Miami lawyer who was a lieutenant in the Coast Guard. ``Those persons attempting to enter the country now think, `I'm not going to stop, no matter what you do.' ''

But the Coast Guard's crews cannot afford to ease up, he said.

``The word cannot become that it is only a matter of threatening the Coast Guard and you will be let in,'' Upshaw said. ``Then everyone will try it. And then more people will be hurt. It's a tough dichotomy, not just for the Coast Guard as a whole but for the guys who are out there on the boats.''

The Cubans' voyage began weeks earlier, when a small group of friends and relatives in the town of Puerto Padre, evangelical Christians and democracy activists, began planning to leave the island. Among them was Agustin Marrero Labrada, who identified himself as a member of a local human-rights group, his daughter Yaumara, 20, her husband, and the young woman's 26-year-old cousin.

Some in the group were fishermen, seasoned mariners. They assembled nautical charts, a compass, and built a boat out of scavenged materials, adapting an old tractor engine for propulsion.

They sailed first to Andros Island in the Bahamas to resupply with food, drink and fuel. Then they set off again to the north, thinking it would improve their chances of evading the Coast Guard.

Luis Enrique Mosquera, 30, a fisherman, was at the tiller: ``It was marvelous weather. Barely any swells.''

But north of Bimini, they were spotted in the failing light by a pleasure craft, which notified the Coast Guard at about 8 p.m. The Point Glass caught up to the boat about two hours later, still in international waters.

`Assassins! Dictators!'

Until the Cubans' boat crossed the 12-mile U.S. territorial limit, Coast Guard policy allowed the Point Glass crew only to attempt to persuade the Cubans to stop. A Spanish-speaking officer on the Point Glass offered them life jackets, only to be defiantly rebuffed.

Mosquera: ``The Hispanic officer said he wanted to talk. We told him we could talk on shore. He asked how many people we had, so he could throw life preservers because bad weather was coming.''

Visael Tejeda Marrero, 26: ``We yelled at them, `Assassins! Dictators!' We told them we wanted freedom. That if they had it, why couldn't we?''

The Cubans also tried appealing for sympathy with a subterfuge. One of two women on board held a bundle as if cradling a baby, while others shouted at the crew for pity.

Agustin Marrero, father of the woman who drowned: ``It didn't exist. We did it so they would have, I don't know . . . So they would be careful. So they wouldn't hurt us.''

At 10:27 p.m., Coast Guard reports show, the vessels crossed into U.S. waters. Commanders authorized the Point Glass to deploy the ``minimum force necessary'' to stop the Cubans: attempting to tangle its screw with a nylon line, to stall the engine with a stream of water from a fire hose, and to block the immigrants' path to shore, the tactics commonly used to frustrate illegal immigrants at sea.

In this case, they were of little avail.

Close-quarters maneuvers

Abdel Perez Rodriguez, 38: ``We would turn toward land, and they would cross our path. We would try to get away from them. And they would come back and get in front of us. And we would try to get away again. And so on like that.''

Mosquera: ``They would make passes in front of us, so close the wake would wash over us.''

The Point Glass launched a Zodiac-type inflatable boat that could more easily maneuver around the Cubans' boat. Its crew -- the Cubans say there were three personnel -- tried to wind a line around the Cubans' boat, hoping to snare its propeller. But Visael Marrero used a machete to slice the line, then cut down the boat's rigging and mast and threw some of the debris in the water.

To the Coast Guard crew, the machete was a dangerous weapon, and the debris was meant to damage their boats.

Visael Marrero scoffed at the notion. He said he cut down the mast so the Coast Guard could not rope the boat like a rodeo steer: ``How are we going to fight off a Coast Guard ship with a little machete? If a machete was any kind of a weapon, then we would have already overthrown Fidel. They were in a big, quality boat. We were in a piece of garbage that we improvised. What kind of fight is that?''

At 10:57, the Point Glass reported its crews had opened up their fire hose, coming alongside the Cubans' boat and aiming a stream of water at its engine's open intake pipe.

The Cubans say there were at least three hoses, and complained that the high-pressure streams were aimed at them as well.

`Small boat struck twice'

Abdel Perez: ``I was covering the engine's intake with a jar. The water hit me on the head, in the face.''

Ramnes Fernandez, 18, held onto the plastic fuel container, protecting an open funnel. He said he was hit in the right ear, and was later diagnosed at a U.S. military hospital at Guantanamo Bay with a perforated eardrum.

At one point, the Point Glass reported that the water made the Cubans' boat engine sputter: ``Vessel propulsion appeared to have been affected and vessel was going in circles,'' a report noted.

What really happened, the Cubans contend, is that they were struck twice from behind by the Point Glass. The first hit pushed the boat forward, said Abdel Perez.

The second impact ripped the tiller and rudder off the stern, Mosquera said. With the engine still running, Mosquera said he regained control of the boat using oars.

There is no mention of those collisions in the Coast Guard reports, as would be required. Upshaw, the former Coast Guard lieutenant, said he doubts they occurred. Any contact, no matter how slight, would be instantly reported, he said. A crew would be foolish not to, he added, because they would be called to account for any damage to their hull.

Then, at almost precisely 11 p.m., the Point Glass raised an alarm: It had struck the Cubans' boat, and all 12 passengers were in the water.

A turn, then a collision

The Point Glass' commanding officer, whose name was withheld by the Coast Guard, said the Cubans' boat, while maneuvering to evade the fire hose stream, made a turn from right to left directly in front of the cutter's bow.

Although its engines were already in neutral, and the cutter quickly reversed its engines, forward momentum carried it into the right side of the Cuban boat, the Point Glass reported.

The Cubans' boat rolled sharply to the left, water flooded over the gunwales, and it sank in moments.

To the Cubans, the collision seemed coldly deliberate. They say Mosquera did make a turn before the collision to avoid the fire hoses. But they say the Point Glass had plenty of time to turn away.

Mosquera: ``They kept coming closer and closer, until the bow passed right over us. They were very conscious of what they were doing. They cannot deny this.''

The Coast Guard reports do not indicate how fast the boats were going or how far apart they were maneuvering just before impact, factors that LaBrec said investigators will consider in determining who was at fault.

When the boat was struck, Yaumara Marrero, 20, was in the boat's covered cabin, wearing a partially inflated automobile inner tube around her waist. It may have doomed her. A Coast Guard report said she was unable to free herself and went down with the boat.

`A terrible confusion'

Agustin Marrero, her father: ``When we fell in the water, there was a terrible confusion. Each one tried to save himself. I kept shouting at the Coast Guard officers to try to get my daughter out.''

Mosquera: ``The rest of us were saved only because God was near.''

After the collision, the Point Glass backed up, the Cubans said. The survivors swam toward the inflatable boat, which was still in the water, and clambered aboard.

At 11:08, the Point Glass reported that 11 survivors had been rescued.

Because of the Cubans' claim that there was a baby on board, there was initial confusion among the Coast Guard officers, who did not realize that a woman was missing, the agency said. The Cubans complained that none went into the water to look for her.

Search-and-rescue efforts were under way within minutes. By 11:19, the cutter Pea Island and two other boats were on the scene. During the next 12 hours, the Coast Guard would launch four helicopters, four small boats, four cutters and search 600 square miles of ocean.

At 10 a.m., the cutter Point Barnes recovered Yaumara's body, still inside the inner tube, off Jupiter Inlet.

The 11 survivors were interviewed at Guantanamo by immigration officers and Coast Guard investigators, then repatriated. The Cubans say they deserved U.S. political asylum.

Agustin Marrero: ``Our goal now is for justice to be done. We want the world to know about this abuse. Anyone in our place would have done the same thing. You have to fight for freedom. That's all we ever wanted.''

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald