Riding the Tiger

Marisleysis claims she didn't know who was outside her house. That is a lie. Not only did some occupants of the house see the team of federal agents coming down the street, they had the presence of mind to make sure Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz made it in the front door before they locked it.

Furthermore, knowing full well that federal officials were about to enter the house, the family attempted to hide Elian. Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who needs to go back out to sea, admits he picked up Elian, ran to a rear bedroom along with several family members and the photographer, and locked the bedroom door.

For those of you who have never seen an episode of Cops, let me tell you what happens to locked doors when a SWAT team arrives. Those doors get kicked in. And after 30 seconds, that is exactly what happened. Marisleysis would later tearfully complain that she begged them not to bring guns into the house. Too late. How many times have supporters of the family declared they would die before letting the federal government take Elian? Up until a few days before the raid, there had been signs behind the house describing it as the "Cuban Alamo."

There was no way to predict what those federal agents would encounter when they entered the house. To ask them to proceed unarmed or without the equipment they're trained to use would have been wrong. If you still have doubts about the need for weapons, ask yourself this question: If a member of your own family had been part of that federal SWAT team, would you have wanted him to go in unarmed?

Once the agents moved past Marisleysis and down the hallway, they tore through each of the rooms trying to find where Elian had been hidden. Finally they came to the back bedroom. Planners of this operation hoped it would be the female INS agent who could first approach Elian and take him from the house. This agent, Betty Mills, was willing to place herself at greater risk than the other SWAT team members. She didn't don a helmet or other protective gear like her colleagues, and she kept her weapon holstered -- all in hopes of not unduly frightening the boy.

But when the agents came to that bedroom door in the rear of the house, they found it locked. Any law-enforcement officer will tell you that, in this type of situation, one of the scariest things in the world is a locked door, because they have no idea what is waiting on the other side. So not only does the door come down quickly and violently, but the agents who enter the room do so prepared for the worst. The resulting photo -- agents in the room, weapons raised, Elian screaming in terror in Dalrymple's arms -- is horrific. That agent, though, had no idea what Dalrymple's intentions were or who else might be hiding in the closet. For Alex Penelas, Joe Carollo, and especially Kendall Coffey, who once served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, to attack and vilify those agents truly is unconscionable.

"No one could have imagined this happening, this level of violence," Penelas said over and over in the hours following the raid. The only reason it might have seemed unimaginable to certain segments of this community is because politicians like Penelas failed to prepare them for this inevitable outcome. Instead of trolling for votes, and in the process emboldening the Miami relatives to defy the law, he should have pressured the family and their attorneys to resolve this crisis weeks ago.

Penelas's failure as a community leader during this fiasco has been monumental, and it shows him to be unfit to be mayor of Miami-Dade County. Fortunately an election will take place in a few months.

Currently two major candidates are in the race for county mayor: Penelas and county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. That is likely to change.

In the weeks following Penelas's March 29 press conference, during which he attacked Janet Reno and President Clinton, a number of private discussions have taken place among county business and civic leaders regarding the mayor's race. A recognition is emerging that Penelas must go. At the same time, there is growing concern that Diaz de la Portilla will be unable to beat him.

Diaz de la Portilla's greatest strength is that he is both honest and ethical. He has been a vociferous critic of the cadre of lobbyists who helped propel Penelas into office and have reaped the financial benefits ever since.

Diaz de la Portilla's candidacy, however, is not without its problems. First, he is far more politically conservative than Penelas. At times he comes across as strident and childishly immature. And he appears unwilling to compromise on issues, not so much out of principle but rather stubbornness. He also seems ill prepared to take advantage of the Elian backlash against Penelas within the Anglo and black communities.

Although for years he has had plans to run for mayor, Diaz de la Portilla has made few inroads with these two segments of the electorate. For instance he has virtually no organization in northeast Miami-Dade, the so-called condo canyons, where the old-line Jewish bloc now resides and still manages to vote in significant numbers. He also has made little effort to introduce himself to the predominantly black residents in Overtown, Liberty City, and Carol City.

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