Yarelys Ríos was 16 weeks pregnant and shot under her ribcage when she decided to get on a raft in Cuba with her husband and 24 others to try to make it to the United States.
Moments earlier, she says, gunmen had shot her, her husband and five other migrants in an attempt to steal their raft. After the Coast Guard intercepted them on Saturday afternoon about 50 miles from Key West, only six of the wounded — those requiring medical assistance — were brought to the United States. The others awaited deportation.
On Monday, Ríos and her husband, Denny Rumbaut, as well as two other rafters, denied rumors that they had shot themselves to avoid being returned to the island. In total, seven of the 26 rafters had gunshot wounds.
“I know that in American waters there are several boats that can assist you and at that moment I could not go back not knowing who were the people shooting at us and what could happen,” said Ríos, 37, only 15 minutes after being released from Jackson Memorial Hospital. “That [to intentionally shoot yourself] would have been something very hard. I am pregnant and I’m not going to risk my baby to come to a country that, yes, where I want to be, but not that way.”
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The woman pointed to the left side of her torso, in the space between the ribs and the hip, as the place where the bullet wounded her. Rumbaut pointed to a similar spot to show where he had been shot.
Jorge Luis Escalona, one of the two rafters in the office of the Church World Service, the Doral agency that helps resettle refugees, lifted his shirt to show a wound similar to that of the couple’s.
Yaser Cabrera, another member of the group, spoke to the media on Sunday and showed his wound, similar to Escalona’s, on the left side but a little closer to the abdomen. A fifth immigrant who spoke to el Nuevo Herald but asked to remain anonymous showed a bullet wound in his left shoulder. None of the gunshots impacted vital organs or arteries.
The seventh wounded rafter, who had been shot in the foot, was transferred with the other 19 to a Coast Guard vessel to await their return to Cuba, unless one or some of them declare they fear persecution upon their return, in which case they would be taken to the Guantánamo Naval Base to be processed and relocated to a third country.
In general, when the Coast Guard finds wounded or sick rafters, they are brought to shore for medical attention. This allows the rafters to stay in the United States and apply for permanent residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
According to the stories told by the rafters in Miami, most of the 26 lived in the neighborhood of Marianao in Havana. They were taken by truck early Saturday to a desolate swamp in the Bay of Matanzas, where a raft, nearly 23 feet long by eight feet wide, built on 55-gallon plastic barrels and propelled by a five-cylinder Mercedes-Benz engine, waited for them.
Nearly half of the travelers were already on the raft when several men surprised the remaining ones at about 3 a.m.
“They told us, ‘Stop, we are the ones leaving and you’re not going anywhere.’ But we were already determined to do what it took. We jumped on them and they pulled a gun on us,” said Escalona, 46, who worked in a car body shop in Cuba.
The passengers resisted and refused to give up the vessel. A fight broke out during which several were wounded by one of the alleged assailants’ gun.
Some of the rafters said they heard three or four shots while others say there were nine shots. They do not believe the assailants were government officers.
“I’m sure they were not police officers or anything having to do with the government. In cases like this, the police do not shoot but try to catch the people,” Rumbaut said.
With the help of the others, the wounded were able to board the raft, covered their wounds with rags and took off toward South Florida.
Asked about the rafters’ story, Frank Miller, a spokesman for the Border Patrol, said that there is an ongoing investigation and declined to elaborate “on the case or the wounds.”