He set out to sea in search of freedom, but he will be spending a year in jail on American soil instead — and possibly, deported to Cuba when his prison term is completed.
A federal judge sentenced a Cuban migrant to a year and a day in prison, in connection to a disorderly landing off the South Florida coast which involved a machete, knives, and the use of Taser guns and pepper spray.
Lázaro Mora Gutiérrez, 40, faced two charges for aggravated assault against a federal agent after authorities accused him of swinging a machete at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer, who was attempting to stop the decrepit vessel offshore from Dania Beach, in Broward County.
Facing a maximum sentence of up to 20 years for the assault charge, the Cuban migrant and the prosecutor’s office reached an agreement; however, the migrant pleaded guilty to the second charge: obstruction of boarding by law enforcement, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.
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Also, a recording of the incident exhibited during the trial suggested that Gutiérrez didn’t use the machete in a threatening way to harm the agent, according to court records obtained by el Nuevo Herald.
The confrontation took place on June 25, when the U.S. Coast Guard spotted a group of migrants — 10 men and one woman — aboard a 12-foot homemade wooden vessel powered by an old four-cylinder Honda motor. The migrants are said to have come from the Camagüey and Villa Clara provinces.
U.S. Coast Guard and CBP agents tried to intercept some of the migrants who made it ashore, near the Dania Beach pier, but they refused to turn off their boat’s motor and drop their weapons.
According to the original complaint, one migrant threw a machete that hit the side of the Customs and Border Protection boat.
Some of the migrants aboard the small wooden vessel, “armed with knives, machetes and other weapons, became agitated and began to make gestures with the weapons threatening law enforcement officers until they finally responded. This continued at a level such that one of the rafters tried to hurt himself with a knife,” the complaint said.
That’s when Gutiérrez took multiple swings with the weapon at the CBP officer who approached the boat; Gutierrez dropped the machete, and aware he might be sent back to Cuba, picked up a knife and tried to stab himself, according to the complaint.
Only those Cuban rafters who avoid being caught by the Coast Guard at sea and reach land are often permitted to stay, under the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows migrants to obtain permanent residence after one year and a day. The only way for them to stay make it to shore after having been intercepted at sea is if they are seriously wounded and require immediate medical assistance.
All of the migrants on this boat finally made it onto the beach, which was capture on video. Once ashore, Gutiérrez jumped out of the boat “with a knife in his hand.”
“As a result, officers [from the Broward Sheriff's Office] were forced to employ less than lethal means by shooting Gutiérrez with bean bag rounds,” the complaint said.
Gutiérrez was the only one arrested from the group.
After his release, the Cuban rafter will remain on probation for two years, and although it is not clear whether he will be deported, Gutiérrez will have to appear before immigration officials to determine his status in the United States.
Follow Sergio Cándido on Twitter: @sncandido