The day federal agents seized Elián González from the home of his Miami relatives

Documentary Trailer: Elián

Just after dawn on Thanksgiving Day 1999, two South Florida fishermen rescued a 5-year-old boy from the Florida Straits. Thus began the saga of Elián González, who became caught up in a bitter international custody battle.
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Just after dawn on Thanksgiving Day 1999, two South Florida fishermen rescued a 5-year-old boy from the Florida Straits. Thus began the saga of Elián González, who became caught up in a bitter international custody battle.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on April 23, 2000.

Armed with automatic weapons and firing occasional rounds of tear gas, federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives before dawn Saturday.

About 30 agents arrived at the home in white vans shortly after 5 a.m. and used rams on the chain-link fence and on the front door. A short time later, a woman brought Elian out of the home and put him in a van that drove away.

Some of the approximately 100 protesters gathered at the home climbed over barricades to try to stop the agents. The agents, wearing Immigration and Naturalization Service shirts, shouted, “Everybody move out of the way. Everybody get out of the way.”

They fired tear gas in front of the home and behind barricades, before departing with the boy.

“The world is watching!” yelled Delfin Gonzalez, the brother of the little boy’s caretaker and great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez.

“They were animals,” said Jess Garcia, a bystander. “They gassed women and children to take a defenseless child out of here. We were assaulted with no provocation.”

Carlos Saladrigas, a community leader in the home trying to negotiate a peaceful transfer of the boy, said the raid came as “we were on the phone talking to [Attorney General Janet] Reno.”

“We were in the house negotiating in good faith when we heard a noise and everyone started saying they are here,” said Saladrigas, chief executive officer of ADP Totalsource, an employer-services company.

“They pointed guns to our heads and released pepper spray. I’ve never felt so betrayed in my whole life. When the agents came in, everyone in the house started screaming and they couldn’t believe this was happening.”

Some threw rocks, garbage cans and chairs at the agents.

Within an hour of the raid, the crowd in Little Havana quickly swelled to about 300. Some threw rocks, garbage cans and chairs at the agents.

Elian was driven to Watson Island and then taken by helicopter to Homestead Air Reserve Base. He was put aboard a U.S. Marshals aircraft for the flight to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., for an apparent reunion with his father.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, the leader of the Democracy Movement, called for a work stoppage, but urged the crowd outside the house to avoid violence. No serious injuries were reported.

Mayor Joe Carollo emotionally denounced the seizure of the boy. “What they did was a crime,” he said. “These are atheists. They don’t believe in God.

“I feel I cannot trust this government.”

The Miami family’s attorneys, Manny Diaz and Kendall Coffey, were in the home during the raid. Coffey said he was “ashamed” of the way the Justice Department for conducting the surprise raid.

Reno told a press conference that the raid was justified. She said that she had attempted to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the child, and that negotiators had called her to make one more offer but that the call came “after I had set the operation in motion.

“I tried till the final moment,” she said.

Representatives of the Miami family said they thought progress was being made in the talks. Reno was at her office early this morning engaged in an extraordinary, long-distance negotiation that began Friday afternoon.

The settlement was first proposed by civic leaders in Miami serving as intermediaries. Proposals and counterproposals flew through the night by telephone and facsimile machine between the Miami house, the Justice Department and the Washington office of the father’s lawyer.

All of that ended early today.

Carlos Gonzalez said he and several others tried to form a human chain in front of the door but were forced back at gunpoint.

The government and the boy’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, insisted that any deal contain an immediate transfer of custody of Elian to him, but the Miami relatives have defied Reno’s order switching custody.

These relatives have cared for him since he was found clinging to an inner tube in the Atlantic after a boat carrying his mother and other Cubans capsized, killing her and 10 others. They and the Cuban exiles in the street do not want the boy returned to a Cuba ruled by Fidel Castro, whom they fled.

The deal under discussion called for Juan Miguel Gonzalez and Elian, Lazaro and his daughter, Marisleysis, to move to one of two foundation-owned conference centers near Washington - either Wye Plantation, a center on Maryland’s Eastern shore that has been used for Mideast peace conferences, or Airlie House near Warrenton, Va., according to a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The plan called for formal custody to transfer immediately from the Miami relatives to the boy’s Cuban father, but it was not clear that the relatives had accepted that, the official said.

Another sticking point was the length of the joint occupation of the compound. The intermediaries proposed that all family members stay until a court appeal is completed, in late May at the earliest. But Juan Miguel Gonzalez faxed a counterproposal back in late evening that called for a much shorter joint stay, the official said.

Reno, Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner and other officials waited in Reno’s Justice Department office past midnight for the relatives’ reply to the counterproposal.

The Miami relatives lost a U.S. District Court battle to get a political asylum hearing for Elian. An appeals court has ordered Elian to stay in this country until it hears that case, but did not bar Reno from switching custody.

Reno met for 15 minutes Friday at the Justice Department with Juan Miguel Gonzalez. During the emotional session, the father said he had a very good 25-minute telephone conversation with his son on Thursday, the government official said. He also asked Reno to give him a date certain when he would get his son back.

But afterward, Reno said she told him “that I could not commit to a particular course of action or timetable.”

Herald Wire Services contributed to this report.