Americans' Smuggling Trial Begins

By Anita Snow
Associated Press Writer
Friday, August 27, 1999; 6:25 p.m. EDT

HAVANA (AP) -- Two U.S. residents went on trial Friday for smuggling people out of Cuba and face possible life sentences in a case the government has used to warn others against illegally transporting people across the Florida Straits.

Joel Dorta Garcia, 27, and David Garcia Capote, 33, were arrested on July 3 after the boat they were piloting capsized just outside Havana, killing one of their 11 passengers. The men -- both Cuban emigrants -- are accused of charging passengers up to $8,000 each to smuggle them out of Cuba and transport them to Miami. Five of the 11 were children.

If the five-member tribunal follows a Cuban government prosecutor's recommendation, the men will be the first people sentenced to life for human smuggling under Cuba's tough new penal code.

Garcia Capote testified in the case Friday but his words were inaudible to those sitting on the wooden benches near the courtroom's whirring ceiling fans. Even the judges on the bench had to strain to hear what he was saying.

It was not immediately known how long the trial will last. A court official reached later by telephone said that testimony continued into the late afternoon but there was no immediate word of a verdict.

Garcia Capote's parents and sister attended the trial, as did his wife, with whom he has a 4-year-old son.

``This has been very difficult,'' said his father, David Garcia Quesada.

On trial along with the two U.S. residents was Pedro Cordova Gonzalez, a Cuban living on the island who is accused of working with them. He faces up to 15 years in prison.

Relatives deny government accusations that the men charged exorbitant prices to smuggle people out of Cuba. They maintain that the pair had come to pick up family members and take them to Miami.

At least six of those aboard the boat were related to Garcia Capote, including his sister and brother-in-law. However, none of the relatives outside the courtroom Friday knew what relationship, if any, the 45-year-old attorney who died when the boat capsized had with the defendants.

The trial, which was not mentioned by the island's government-controlled media on Friday, comes at the end of a summer punctuated by tensions between Cuba and the United States.

After a surge in illegal departures for the United States, Cuba cracked down on human smuggling in late July. Cuban authorities say that crime picked up this year as more smugglers with fast speedboats began charging to take Cubans to Florida.

In a major speech last month, President Fidel Castro urged the United States to abolish the Cuban Adjustment Act, a 1966 law that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to apply for legal residency.

Castro said the law encourages Cubans to keep trying to cross the Florida Straits illegally despite U.S.-Cuba migration accords. At the time, he said Cuba was holding 40 accused human smugglers in its jails.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press