July 1, 2014

Two South Florida women detained in Havana

Airport officials accuse them of carrying illegal drugs when they landed.

A young woman and a grandmother from South Florida have been detained in Cuba on charges that they tried to smuggle synthetic marijuana when they landed at the Havana airport over the weekend, relatives say.

Melissa Acosta, 20, and the older woman were arrested after they had cleared customs and were about to leave the airport, the relatives said. Acosta was being held in the Havana jail known by its street address as “100 y Aldabó.”

Acosta’s mother, Jenny Valdes of West Kendall, declined to comment to El Nuevo Herald, saying that she had been advised to make no further public comments because of the sensitivity of the case.

But Monday, she told WFOR-CBS 4 that Acosta was arrested Saturday after she landed in Havana with her brother’s fiancée, the couple’s 5-month-old baby and the fiancée’s mother.

It was Acosta’s third trip to Cuba in the past month because the fiancée’s family owns a business that charges South Florida customers to deliver suitcases filled with belongings to relatives and friends in Cuba, Valdes told the TV station.

“I haven’t slept. I mean, I’m scared, I want my daughter home. She’s a good girl. She’s never been in any trouble, and I’m just scared for her,” the mother told CBS 4 reporter Gaby Fleischman.

The three adult passengers and the baby made it through customs at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, but authorities at a second checkpoint as they were about to exit the building claimed to have found synthetic marijuana, Valdes said.

Police first detained Acosta and later took the grandmother into custody after the older woman declared that the luggage they were carrying was hers, according to a family friend who alerted CBS 4 to the case.

“I’m just shocked. I feel she’s been set up,” said Valdes. Her daughter “has a learning disability and she’s got the mind capacity of a 12- to 15-year-old, so imagine being over there not speaking a word of Spanish and being strip-searched.”

Valdes said she has not been able to speak to her daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, or obtain a visa to visit her in Havana, but is doing whatever she can to bring Acosta home. Cuba’s news media have not reported on the case.

“I love her, I miss her [and] I want her home,” Valdes told the television station. “She’s scared, but we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to find someone who will help her.”

The family is trying to hire a defense lawyer in Cuba, has contacted several U.S. government officials for help and is asking the public to write to government officials to support their requests for Acosta’s freedom.

The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana said it was aware of reports on the arrests of two U.S. citizens and was ready to provide them with consular services, but said it could not comment further because of privacy restrictions.

Its webpage says the mission also “cannot negotiate or secure a U.S. citizen’s release from jail (as U.S. citizens in Cuba are subject to the laws of Cuba), but the American Citizen Services Unit can help protect your legitimate interests and ensure that you are not discriminated against.”

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