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Ricardo Ramirez doesn't seem like he would scare easily. A burly Mexican American with a barrel chest, forearms thick with ropelike muscle, and a full beard flecked with gray, he carries a .45-caliber semiautomatic Beretta pistol and speaks in quiet, measured tones. The 41-year-old Southwest Broward resident is a special agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Servicewho regularly collars rapists, murderers, and sexual predators.
Yet last month he moved to a gated community, worried that his wife and three children, who range in age from two to seven years old, were in danger. He carries the reason for his anxiety in his briefcase, a sketchy photograph of his 1996 Crown Victoria, which bears these words scrawled on a dusty window: "We know it's you. Watch out traitor." He says the threat appeared in January while the car sat in a locked garage at the Miami INS headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street. He believes the author is one of his brothers in arms, one of the INS's "good old boys."
"I feel fear -- fear for my family, fear for my life," he says. "In my line of work, if you are in a dangerous situation, you need backup. And I just can't be sure anymore the old boys will cover me. I am always looking over my shoulder."
Ramirez was on the scene at Lazaro Gonzalez's Little Havana house a year ago this week when INS agents snatched Elian Gonzalez and initiated the boy's odyssey home to Cuba. Ramirez's tale -- which he told as a private citizen and union shop steward, not as a government employee or representative -- has been hinted at by his Coral Springs lawyer, Don Appignani, on national television and in newspapers from Salt Lake City to New York City. But the INS agent has never before spoken about it publicly.
He describes an unabashedly anti-Cuban atmosphere in the Miami INS office, which is among the nation's busiest and has a sordid history of deceit and immigrant mistreatment. And he intimates the existence of a coverup that reflects badly on district director Robert Wallis, who was promoted last month to a top INS position in Dallas.
Although Ramirez has tried to contact U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroftand U.S. Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, who chairs an oversight committee, the agent's entreaties thus far have been ignored. Apparent conflicts of interest have been glossed over, and an attitude more viciously anti-Cuban than compassionately conservative has been allowed to fester.
Ricardo Ramirez was born in Texas and grew up in Gary, Indiana. He played football, baseball, and lifted weights for fun. When he was 25 years old, he took a job with the U.S. Border Patrol and attended five months of instruction at the federal law-enforcement training center in Glynco, Georgia. The center, which requires participants to pass a course similar to military basic training, teaches shooting, self-defense, Spanish language, and the law.
During the early years of his career, Ramirez moved from office to office in South Texas, at least fifteen in all. He still wears the native attire of the Rio Grande: snug jeans, cowboy boots, and a pocket T-shirt. A touch of Tejano lingers in his voice. Yet this child of Mexican immigrants showed no compunction about arresting illegal aliens who shared his parents' heritage. "I try to stay out of personal opinion," he declares. "I am a professional, trained to act and work like a professional." After more than thirteen years in the Border Patrol in Texas, Ramirez was promoted to special agent with the INS. (The Border Patrol is an enforcement arm of the INS.) In January 1999 he transferred to South Florida; by the following July he was working in the criminal-alien program, a job that required him to pick up immigrants who had been convicted of felonies. (A 1996 federal law targets these individuals for deportation.)
Though Ramirez didn't get along well with his supervisor and filed a formal complaint against her a year ago, his performance apparently was above average. In October 1999 his bosses nominated him for a so-called Hero Award from the service for rounding up 50 aggravated felons, many off the street, in three operations.
Like the rest of the INS, which employs more Hispanics than any other branch of the federal government, Ramirez's unit was diverse. Among the fifteen agents, Ramirez says, seven or eight were of Puerto Rican, Cuban, or other Hispanic heritage.
In March of last year, when higher-ups chose an Elian strike force, half of his group was invited to participate. Yet only one Latino, a Puerto Rican man whom Ramirez declines to name but who "got along well with good old boys," was invited. Non-Hispanics with far less training and experience were named, apparently because of their national origin, he contends.
"I couldn't figure it out, because we were the people with the most experience in those kind of operations," he comments. "Hispanics weren't put on there; especially if they were Cuban, they weren't put on there at all. And there are four or five Cubans in my unit."
Perhaps reflecting public paranoia about Miami Cuban-exile empathy for the Gonzalez family, INS officials required Elian task-force members to sign a nondisclosure agreement, Ramirez says.