By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Mike Magee, a Homestead native and president of the union that represents 15,000 INS workers, including Ramirez, sat in during New Times's four-hour interview with Ramirez. Magee says secrecy measures such as the nondisclosure agreement are rare and could reinforce Ramirez's contention that anti-Cuban prejudice tainted handling of the Elian raid. "I have never heard of it happening before," he reports. "The service has ways to deal with this; documents can be classified, and people can get security clearance. What happened is they didn't follow the rules, and they chose people who were pliable."
In the days leading up to the action, the atmosphere became progressively more hostile to Hispanics in general, Elian and Cuban agents in particular. Among colleagues the talk often was offensive, Ramirez says: One non-Hispanic agent who was a member of the Elian team urged his non-Cuban co-workers not to speak with their Cuban colleagues because "they are spies." The same guy, Ramirez recalls, wryly questioned, "Who's going to be the first one up in a tree to shoot Elian?"
Even Hispanic supervisors took part in the verbal bashing of the then-six-year-old boy. The point is clearly made in an e-mail that Miguel Domingo, a supervising special agent in the fraud unit, sent to seven special agents on March 2, 2000. It referred to a number of issues, including how agents should dress, then mentioned the Gonzalez situation: "Elian (Little Creep) Gonzalez case: Federal Court case has been set for next week, Plan [sic] have been drawn for possible enforcement action...." (Ramirez says Domingo is Puerto Rican.)
Top management set the tone, Ramirez claims. He has a picture of a flag he says hung in the office of assistant district director George Waldroup long before -- and after -- the Gonzalez raid. Above it a bumper sticker reads, "American by birth, Texan by the grace of God." The green-and-yellow flag sports a version of the Miami city seal and six bananas. "Banana Republic," it reads. Many of South Florida's Hispanics consider that term to be a blatant anti-Cuban slur.
The comments, e-mails, and wall hangings, particularly those by or belonging to managers, were "inappropriate," Magee maintains. "They foster contempt for the people you are dealing with." Indeed the supervisors' actions sent an unambiguous message to subordinates that base ethnic stereotyping was not only permitted but encouraged.
At 3:00 p.m. the day before the raid, Ramirez's supervisor asked him to participate in the operation. He was to be stationed in a nearby back yard, which intelligence had reported contained a cache of weapons. "It's the first time in fifteen years I had been contacted at the last minute," he says. "I guess they didn't trust me or any of my Hispanic co-workers."
"That's completely unsafe," Magee argues. "When you go out on a dangerous mission, the only protection you have is advance notice. You prepare yourself. They put agents in harm's way. Secrecy is one thing, but this was bad judgment."
Nevertheless the mission went off without a hitch. Ramirez wasn't hurt, nor were any of his colleagues. Elian was held for a few months in Washington, D.C., then returned to Havana on June 29. But within the walls of Miami's INS office, things got curiouser and curiouser.
INS agents took enormous criticism during the spring. Some had a hard time accepting it. In late May or June (Ramirez doesn't remember the date), district director Robert Wallis attempted to raise the spirits of about 50 special agents. He called a meeting at American Legion Post 29, off Biscayne Boulevard just blocks from the Miami immigration headquarters. "He said the proudest moment in his life was when one of his supervisors pointed a shotgun at the head of [Gonzalez family bodyguard] Mario Miranda," Ramirez reports. "His reason was that this person had refused to shake [Wallis's] hand the night before." The comment offended, among others, Ramirez and several Cuban agents.
Assistant district director John Bulger (who presently serves as acting district director) then addressed the crowd. He made a joke referring to the famed news photo that showed a uniformed agent cradling an automatic rifle and opening a closet where Elian was hiding in the arms of one of his rescuers, Broward County housecleaner Donato Dalrymple. Many Cuban Americans thought the picture displayed an unnecessary use of force during the raid. Ramirez remembers Bulger saying, "“And now a special guest.' Then he goes over to a closet and opens the door. “Come out, Mr. Dalrymple.' I thought that was in bad taste. I thought it was very unprofessional."
Even more offensive was an insulated cup holder agents distributed as a memento of the raid. It included the date (April 22), the number of seconds elapsed during the raid (154), and on the back, a picture of the Cuban flag in a red circle with a line through it (the international "prohibited" symbol). Ramirez snapped a picture of it on George Waldroup's desk next to the assistant district director's nameplate. (Ramirez carries around this photo along with the picture of his car.)
Finally Ramirez recalls a box on the floor outside section chief John Woods's office. A picture of Elian was adhered to its side, and "KICK ME" was handwritten below it. "I took offense," Ramirez says. "There were so many things like this that shouldn't happen in a professional atmosphere."