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"His relatives probably weren't even coming from Cuba when he found them," continues Ibarra, who occasionally answers immigration questions on the Telemundo television network program Occurio Asi. "They were probably in the Bahamas somewhere. What probably happened was they called up and said, 'We got somebody who's going to take us this far.' Then they give him directions where to pick them up."
The INS trial attorney argued just that at Juan's August 21 hearing at the Krome detention center before immigration judge Kenneth Hurewitz. Juan had found his relatives near the island of Cay Sal in the Bahamas, about 120 miles south of Miami, and he had preprogrammed Cay Sal coordinates into the global positioning system (an electronic navigation guide) on the boat he had taken. "It has been related to me by other agents that it's common for boats leaving Cuba to come to Cay Sal and the people picked up by boats from the United States," INS agent Kenneth Coleman told Judge Hurewitz. "A staging area, if you will."
Juan, a sturdily built man of 32 with close-cut hair, wore a gold chain at the V-neck of his neon-orange prison uniform as he testified, and held a box of Kleenex on his lap. He had headed to Cay Sal, he told the judge, simply because anyone traveling from Cuba to Florida by boat couldn't avoid passing it. The desolate island lies in an expanse of shallow water called Cay Sal Bank. A giant sandbar and rocky outcroppings make passage treacherous. "If I were going to smuggle, I'd use a well-equipped, fast boat," Juan said. "Not the one I had."
When his grandmother called Friday morning, June 26, to inform him of the departure from Cuba of the nineteen people and begged him to "do something" to keep them from death at sea, Juan explained, she hadn't said exactly who was on the boat. But he was sure his daughter (one of two children from a relationship in Cuba), mother, and sister were among the passengers. "I didn't stop to think," he said through a court interpreter. "I had to rescue them from this craziness. A ten-year-old girl and a baby were out there." His eyes filled with tears, and the interpreter brought him water in a paper cup.
Two nights before his grandmother called, Juan added, he had spread out a map on the dining-room table and looked for routes between Cuba and Florida. "Lately when I talked to them on the phone," he explained, "they complained a lot, and they would ask me how things are in America, and they would be going to the beach all the time to fish, which was unusual."
On that Friday afternoon, he rushed to a nearby Publix to stock up on $130 worth of groceries (including a side of ham), most of which went into a 178-quart Igloo cooler. The boat was carrying about 160 gallons of fuel. Maria insisted he take her handgun just in case he needed protection. Juan is not an experienced seaman, but he says he learned basic navigation in school in Cuba and in Florida has been out several times fishing with friends, in the process learning how to pilot a boat. He is also, from all accounts, an excellent mechanic. Still, the journey to Cay Sal is extremely risky for a novice, especially one in a Bayliner, which isn't the most durable of motorboats and is better suited for short pleasure outings, like fishing in Biscayne Bay. Juan says he was not thinking of how dangerous the expedition would be, because he felt he had no alternative but to go in search of his family.
That evening, without telling his customer, Juan drove with Maria down the Keys highway, boat in tow. They picked what looked like a good launching spot, and he set off. He recounted in his testimony that late that night, after wandering through a slalom of small islands, he dropped anchor and slept for a few hours on the boat. By 10:00 the next morning he was about to give up and turn back to Miami, when he saw the sun glinting off something in the distance. He headed toward the bright object and came upon the Cuban boat, some 67 miles southeast of Islamorada. The Why Not Too got to about 20 miles from shore before running out of gas. Juan told the judge he made several desperate calls to the Coast Guard on a cell phone but that none went through. He then tried to reach Maria, to ask her to call for help. Again the phone didn't work.
According to the Coast Guard report, the passengers hailed a passing boat and asked it to radio for a commercial tow. That boat instead called the Florida Marine Patrol, which in turn called the Coast Guard. Juan and his relatives were taken aboard a Coast Guard cutter, and the Bayliner was impounded by the INS. The INS has not returned the boat to its owner and declines to say when or if that will happen.
During the time Juan and his relatives were aboard the coast guard cutter, asylum specialists from the INS interviewed each of them. When the agents concluded none of the arriving Cubans had valid asylum claims, Maria Elena and Daniela were taken to the hospital while the remaining seventeen boarded another coast guard cutter that would carry them to Havana. Before they left, border patrol agents came onboard to question some of the party, briefing the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami as their investigation proceeded. This customary consultation alerts federal prosecutors to possible smuggling cases. This time the U.S. Attorney's Office departed from its usual practice and decided not to get involved. That left the INS to pursue less serious administrative charges against Juan.