Shortly before sailing from Cuba, 26 Cubans who were about to board a raft were set upon by a group of criminals who opened fire with a gun and wounded seven, including a pregnant woman, all in a failed attempt to steal their makeshift boat, two of the wounded migrants said upon arriving in Miami Sunday afternoon.
“We really don’t know who shot us, but we think it was criminals who wanted to steal the raft,” said Yaser Cabrera Romero, one of the migrants interviewed after arriving at the Doral office of Church World Service, an agency that helps refugees and immigrants resettle in the United States. “We were just arriving in a vehicle that took us to the raft, and while we were still on shore, four people showed up and yelled: ‘Stay where you are. The boat is ours!’ ”
Rather than surrendering, the 26 migrants confronted the criminals, one of whom then pulled out a gun — but the alleged thugs ultimately fled after wounding seven rafters. Though wounded, the rafters decided to continue with their plan. They say they boarded the raft in the area of Matanzas, east of Havana, and sailed at 3 a.m. Saturday. They traveled for nine hours to the outskirts of Key West, where they were intercepted by the Coast Guard from United States.
“We sailed for nine hours, injured and bleeding,” Cabrera Romero said.
The dramatic story told by Cabrera Romero and another rafter, Jorge Luis Escalona, who were transported to Miami from Key West after being released by the hospital, marked the first time that participants in the incident provided a detailed explanation of the initial mystery that surrounded the case.
Six of the rafters whose injuries were considered serious were taken to a hospital near Key West. The wounded seventh rafter was transferred with the other remaining 19 migrants to a Coast Guard cutter likely to be returned to Cuba, unless one or more claim fear of persecution if returned, in which case they would be taken to the naval base at Guantánamo to be processed for resettlement in a third country.
The case sparked widespread interest because seven of the migrants were wounded by gunfire, an unusual occurrence, and because U.S. authorities did not explain the circumstances surrounding the incident. The case raised suspicions about how the seven rafters came to be shot. Among the theories was that the migrants may have wounded themselves to force the Coast Guard to bring them ashore.
When the Coast Guard finds sick rafters, they are brought ashore to receive medical care. This allows the migrants transported ashore to stay in the U.S and apply for permanent residence after more than a year under the Cuban Adjustment Act. Generally, Cuban migrants who are intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba under the wet-foot/dry-foot policy.
But Cabrera Romero and Escalona, the other rafter interviewed in Doral, said the incident was an attempted robbery.
“We confronted them and one drew a gun,” Escalona said. “It was very dark, and we think they were criminals who wanted to steal our raft.”
Escalona, a nephew of his who was not interviewed and Cabrera Romero showed their wounds to journalists.
Escalona had a wound on his side, his nephew on the shoulder and Cabrera Romero in the abdomen. The three said the pregnant woman had been shot in the back and that the injured rafter who was not brought ashore had a bullet in the foot. It is not known where the remaining two rafters were injured. The woman and another rafter were still hospitalized, Cabrera Romero and Escalona said.
Cabrera Romero said doctors told him that his wound was not life-threatening but that the bullet was still inside his body.
“They gave me morphine, but I have still have the bullet inside and it hurts a lot,” Cabrera Romero said. “I’ve had that bullet in me for more than 24 hours.”
The Coast Guard issued a statement on Sunday morning: “The U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 26 Cuban migrants aboard a make-shift raft south of Key West, Florida, Saturday afternoon. Seven of the 26 migrants had gunshot wounds sustained prior to the interdiction. The most critical, six, were medevaced to a local area hospital. The remaining 20 migrants will likely be returned to their country of origin. The U.S. Coast Guard works hard to ensure the safety of migrants on our cutters after an interdiction and strongly discourages attempts to illegally enter the country by taking to the sea. These trips are extremely dangerous and could lead to loss of life.”
According to KeysInfoNet, the six wounded rafters brought ashore were taken to the Lower Keys Medical Center on Stock Island. Coast Guard spokesmen said the Border Patrol was in charge of the six Cubans who were taken to the hospital.
Frank Miller, a Border Patrol spokesman, said four were released to the agency that generally handles their paperwork. He had no information on the other two.
Miller declined to provide more details because the case is part of an “ongoing investigation.”
Normally, Cuban rafters who reach shore and have not been wounded by gunfire are retained by the Border Patrol for a few hours, or at most a day, for background checks and to process their parole documents to remain in the country.
The Coast Guard reported last week that nine Cubans had died at sea during a voyage to South Florida, according to Cuban migrants who were rescued by a cruise ship near Marco Island, off the west coast of Florida. The 18 survivors, who were taken to Cozumel, Mexico, said they had tossed the bodies into the sea, according to the Coast Guard.
Also, in separate incidents last week, 58 Cuban migrants intercepted at sea on several vessels were repatriated.
According to Coast Guard figures, so far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2,562 Cubans have been intercepted, sighted or have landed in Florida.
In fiscal year 2015, about 4,476 Cuban migrants were intercepted, spotted or arrived by sea, the largest number in more than seven years.
According to the Coast Guard, uncertainty about a possible change in U.S. immigration policy with Cuba has led to a larger number of Cuban immigrants since President Barack Obama in December 2014 ordered the restoration of relations with the island.