Raid and Reunion

Están aquí!" "They're here! They're here!" someone cried out. It was just after dawn on Saturday. The Miami relatives of Elián González and various of their advisers and hangers-on were awake, or half awake, in the cluttered living room of the small bungalow in Little Havana. Some were sitting around a speakerphone, in negotiations with the Justice Department. Or so they thought, before two federal agents in black body armor jumped the back fence, and eight more burst through the front, firing stinging pepper spray and shouting, "Get down! Get down! Give us the boy!" Elián himself was lying awake on the couch with his great-uncle Lázaro. Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who first plucked the Miracle Boy out of an inner tube off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day, swept Elián into his arms and ran into a bedroom, where he stood in a closet as the boy cowered. An AP photographer snapped the photo of a black-helmeted, begoggled federale menacing the fisherman and his terrified charge with an automatic weapon.

Attorney General Janet Reno later pointed out that the agent's finger was off the trigger and the gun was pointed away, but it didn't matter. Nor did it matter that the Feds would have been foolhardy to go into the house unarmed, considering all the red-hot rhetoric of the past weeks and months (including some very real-sounding threats of violence). The photograph was destined to become a martyr's icon in Little Havana and a talking point for politicians who want to take potshots at the Clinton administration. It was, in any case, probably the inevitable outcome of Reno's emotional, well-intentioned but sometimes uncertain handling of an impossible situation.

For Elián, it was yet another in a series of traumas that will mark his life. Yet there he was a few hours later, smiling broadly in his "Papa's" arms and playing happily with his little half brother in a different set of memorable photos, this time taken by Juan Miguel González's lawyer, Gregory Craig. "There was instant delight on Elián's face when he saw his father," Craig told NEWSWEEK. "He was totally relaxed, totally comfortable." Elián playfully stole his half brother Hianny's Gap cap and put it on his own head. Well aware that images can count for more than words, Craig had brought along a disposable camera to record the reunion of father and son at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. The two sets of pictures stand in stark contrast. They will be used to score all sorts of debating points and perhaps prompt even more lawsuits, but they prove only that 6-year-old boys can be remarkably resilient under the most trying circumstances.

For a moment on Good Friday, it appeared that the impasse between Elián's Miami relatives and the federal government might be peacefully resolved. But last-minute talks collapsed, done in by the same mistrust and anger that undermined almost five months of dickering between the two sides. By the time the raid took place, much of the country was tired of the melodrama that seemed overwrought and unnecessary, a weird throwback to cold-war tensions and a reminder that the American melting pot sometimes boils over.

The story of the failed endgame begins with the sinking feeling that gnawed at Janet Reno even as she made one last attempt at cutting a deal. By last week, a source close to Reno told NEWSWEEK, the attorney general had come to believe that Elián's Miami relatives--his great-uncles Lázaro and Delfín and his cousin Marisleysis--were unstable and not dealing in good faith, nor were they likely to. Still, Reno's hopes were raised a bit when she got a phone call last Wednesday from Edward (Tad) Foote, president of the University of Miami. A tall, distinguished-looking man who has been a friend of Reno's for almost two decades, dating back to her days as the Dade County state attorney, Foote had a common-sense idea. Why not put Elián's two families at some safe, neutral place, together with a team of professional facilitators, and let them try to work out a peaceful transition? Foote had been talking for a couple of weeks with University of Miami trustees and businessmen Carlos de la Cruz and Carlos Saladrigas. They were eager to try to sell other community leaders on the idea and then bring Elián's Miami family into the fold.

Reno was willing to give it a try. She was running out of other choices. A federal court of appeals that same day had chastised the Justice Department for dismissing the claim of Elián's family that the boy should be able to ask for political asylum in the United States. It was unlikely that, in the end, the courts would grant Elián asylum over his father's objections. But the appeals were likely to drag on for months. Elián's father was gloomily and impatiently waiting in Washington for his son to be handed over. President Clinton, meanwhile, was publicly nudging Reno to take action. During a 45-minute conversation with the president on Air Force One on Wednesday evening, Reno walked through the various options for a raid, which ranged from sending in the National Guard to more limited shows of force. She wanted to try to continue negotiating with the family, she said. "You must do that," said Clinton, never one to foreclose an option. "We have to do everything we can."

By Thursday, the Justice Department had picked two possible times for a raid: the early hours of Saturday morning or Monday morning. Good Friday and Easter were deemed the wrong days to invade deeply religious Little Havana. Reno worried about the PR implications of seizing the child from his bed in the dead of night, but law-enforcement officials wanted to move when the crowds outside the bungalow were small. Reno's team also wanted surprise: at Waco, the Branch Davidians had known the Feds were coming. In Miami, the Justice Department also feared a violent reception. The fiery Marisleysis, who had been hospitalized at least eight times for stress, had told some community-relations workers that if the Feds came into the house, they could be "hurt." Rumors swirled about snipers in the neighborhood and old Navy SEALs from the Cuban-American community threatening to play commando.

No wonder, then, that Reno gave the green light to Foote and his friends to try to make a deal. Foote brought in a respected Miami lawyer (and another old Reno friend), Aaron Podhurst, to try to broker a plan. It was important to get the community on board, so the two Cuban-American businessmen on Foote's team--de la Cruz and Saladrigas--spent much of Thursday into the wee hours of Friday morning consulting with Cuban-American and religious leaders. They imagined Elián's father and the Miami family living together for several weeks at a "safe house" somewhere in the Miami area. Juan Miguel would have custody of Elián, but a team of psychologists--chosen by a panel approved by Reno and the Miami relatives--would mediate between the fractious family members. No U.S. or Cuban government officials would be present. On Friday morning they told Reno that the community was on board for this plan. "Go sell it to the family," Reno replied. She told Saladrigas, "Don't embarrass me."

Meeting that afternoon at a local lawyer's office, the family signed on. At about 5, they sent Reno a letter that stated, in part, "We understand that you have transferred temporary custody of Elián to his father. Elián and all members of the González family would remain in residence at the Site [the safe house] until the resolution of all pending legal proceedings." To Tad Foote, the recognition that Elián's father now had custody of the boy was "a major concession" by the family. Foote was overjoyed. Sure that the standoff would end peacefully, he went home to enjoy Easter weekend with his kids. In the streets around the bungalow, rumors of a deal buzzed through the crowd, which had been growing, in size and passion, all that Good Friday.

The optimism was premature. In the early evening, Reno faxed over a copy of the deal to the law offices of Greg Craig, Juan Miguel's lawyer. Craig summoned Juan Miguel from a dinner party in the suburbs, and the two men scrutinized the proposal. To Craig, there were too many sticking points. The agreement to turn over custody of Elián to Juan Miguel was not unconditional. As Craig read the plan, the psychologists picked by the agreed-upon panel had the power to give Elián back to Lázaro and Marisleysis if they saw fit. Craig also balked at the time frame for the joint living arrangement, which could be as long as two months. One week was acceptable to Juan Miguel. No more. Juan Miguel also objected to the location. The father wanted the boy to come to Washington. He did not want to go to the chaos of Miami.

At about midnight, Craig sent Juan Miguel to the house where he stays to rest. "He was very depressed and angry," Craig said. "He thought [the deal] was a ploy that would result in delay and lost time. Lázaro would pull the plug and the boy wouldn't arrive." On the way home, Juan Miguel stopped by the dinner he had left earlier in the evening. According to CNN's "Crossfire" host Bill Press, who was at the dinner, Juan Miguel's second wife, Nercy Carmenate, was contemptuous of the idea of living together with the Miami relatives. "Who would want to live with them?" she spat out.

At about 2 a.m., Craig sent Reno his objections to the deal. Unsure whether Lázaro could be counted on to carry out his end of the bargain, Reno wanted some immediate sign of good faith. She asked that the Miami relatives deliver Elián to the U.S. courthouse in downtown Miami that night. Under the protection of U.S. marshals, the boy would sleep at a hotel, and Reno herself would fly down in the morning to work out the rest of the deal. But the family was hesitant. They wanted assurances that Elián would be transported to a safe house in Miami the next day. The hotheads around Lázaro had long warned that if Elián went to Washington, he risked getting hijacked by Cuban diplomats. "They would put Elián in the trunk of a car with diplomatic plates, and the next thing we know he'd be back in Cuba. Taking him to see his father is like taking him to Fidel Castro," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, a militant who led chants and organized human chains outside the bungalow.

Reno sensed that the negotiations were falling apart. President Clinton was on the fence. Awakened at 2:15 and told that there was still hope for a deal, Clinton responded that Reno should take more time if she needed it. "Make sure she knows that," Clinton told his chief of staff, John Podesta, who was acting as a go-between. Then he went back to sleep. Reno was tired and running out of patience. "I've been at this for months," she told Aaron Podhurst in one of their endless phone calls. Podhurst, who was home juggling calls between Reno in Washington and Lázaro's lawyers at the bungalow, responded, "I've been at this for two days; we're going to work this out, General."

But they didn't. Reno gave Podhurst until 4 a.m. to get the family to agree to send Elián to Washington. Podhurst couldn't quite see what the rush was. The family's lawyers were reluctant to awaken Lázaro, who had finally fallen asleep. But Reno's patience had run out, or very nearly. At about 4 a.m., she ordered the federal agents to begin quietly positioning themselves for a 5 a.m. raid. In the streets of Little Havana, almost calm at dawn, about 125 INS and Border Patrol agents got ready to move in. In order to maintain the element of surprise, Reno did not tell Podhurst.

At 4:21, Podhurst called Reno, who had spent the night in her office at the Justice Department. "Give me a few minutes," he said. "Let them wake up Lázaro. Maybe they'll agree to go to Washington." Reno said, "You have five minutes." Podhurst thought she was jesting. "You mean I have until 4:26?" he said lightly. "Yes," she said, sternly. Now Podhurst pushed hard to rouse the family conked out around Lázaro's bungalow. Lázaro sleepily smoked a cigarette while the lawyers continued to dicker. Podhurst had Reno on hold and Manny Diaz, one of Lázaro's lawyers, on the other line, when he heard Diaz say, "Oh my God, the marshals."

The raid took only three minutes, but it was noisy and intimidating, as it was meant to be. The agents used tear gas and pepper spray and knocked down anyone who got in the way. Outside in the street, Ramon Sanchez was knocked cold by the butt end of a rifle as he tried to form a human chain. Marileysis later tearfully told reporters that the agents shouted, "Give me the boy or we're going to shoot." She claims she cried, "Don't let the boy see this! I'll give you the boy!" and that Elián was crying, "Don't take me!" What really happened in the confusion is hard to know. The AP's Alan Diaz, a veteran news photographer, was staking out the house when the Feds came. He leapt the chain-link fence and rushed in with the agents. He was in the bedroom when the agent burst in to find Donato Dalrymple hiding in the closet with Elián. He snapped several frames and heard Elián cry, "¿Qué está pasando?" ("What is happening?"). Alan Diaz was trying to comfort him, telling him not to worry. Elián was thrust into the arms of the female INS agent who had been assigned to carry him from the house. The hope was that having a woman carry the crying boy might not seem quite so brutal, but the TV images as the agents came crashing out of the house and into the van were rough enough.

The operation was actually well executed. The van bearing Elián backed down the street as the 40 or so protesters awake at 5 a.m. hurled rocks and garbage. Elián was whisked to a waiting helicopter, then to an eight-seat jet that the U.S. Marshals Service normally uses to transport criminals. (The marshals' air fleet is known as "Con Air.") In the van and in the aircraft, INS agents tried to allay the fears of the shocked child. He was told that he was safe, that he was not going back to Cuba but, rather, that he would see his father very soon. He was given chocolate milk (not drugs, the Justice Department hastened to point out) and Play-Doh. Supposedly, Play-Doh helps relieve stress for children by giving them something to squeeze. But Elián, sturdy as ever, did not cry or mope or act out. He was said to have been happily excited about the helicopter ride. He was reportedly joyful to see his father, hugging him close when the two were finally reunited at Andrews at about 9:30 a.m. Juan Miguel had seen the snatch operation live on TV. Craig, who was still in his office at dawn, had awakened him, excitedly yelling over the phone, "Turn on the TV! Turn on the TV! They're getting Elián!"

In Miami, the lamentations had begun. Marisleysis gave a camera crew a tour of the battered bungalow, pointing out where agents had broken doors and even, apparently, Elián's bed. Bursting into tears, she re-enacted the Feds' holding a gun on Elián. Dalrymple was equally emotional describing how Elián had been torn from his arms. Outside, crowds chanted and burned tires in the road. Riot police moved in, but cautiously, making sure that they did not become the story by inviting further clashes.

The street protests died down a bit when the main actors, Lázaro, Delfín and Marisleysis, accompanied by the ubiquitous fisherman Dalrymple, headed for the airport. They were flying to Washington, they said, demanding to see Elián. They enlisted a U.S. senator, Bob Smith of New Hampshire, as an escort, and drove to Andrews Air Force Base. They were turned away. Juan Miguel did not want to see them, not any time soon, said Craig. It is still possible that Elián's Miami relatives will visit the boy while he awaits the slow churning of the courts, probably at a retreat somewhere in the Maryland or Virginia countryside. But Lázaro and Marisleysis may not have helped their cause by holding press conferences to demand an audience with Elián. The Miami relatives clearly intend to press their case, in the courts and on the talk-show circuit. On Saturday night, they were claiming that the photos of Elián smiling with his father and Cuban family were either staged or fakes.

In Miami, the forgotten great-uncle--Manuel, 58, the third oldest of the González brothers and the one who, from the beginning, believed that Elián should be returned to his father--was quietly satisfied. "This should have been done some time ago," he told NEWSWEEK. "It pains me to see what happened to [his relatives Lázaro, Delfín and Marisleysis], but they brought it on themselves. This wasn't necessary. But," he went on, "the boy is happy." If he stays that way--and Elián surely faces some difficult times ahead--then the long and messy struggle to return him to his father was worth it.