FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — One of 11 Cubans who landed on a Broward County beach in a chaotic arrival that included the firing of Tasers and pepper balls has been charged with assault after allegedly swinging a machete at a federal officer who tried to stop him at sea.
Lazaro Mora Gutierrez is scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday.
According to a complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Gutierrez was aboard a small wooden boat that came ashore in Hollywood just after 6 p.m. Saturday, touching off a melee in the sand after the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection tried to stop the vessel off shore.
But the 10 men and one woman aboard the boat ignored Coast Guard orders to stop while some brandished knives and threatened to harm themselves if officials approached.
Some of those aboard the small wooden vessel, "armed with knives, machetes and other weapons, became agitated and began making threatening gestures with the weapons at the responding law enforcement personnel. This continued to such a level that one of the subjects stabbed himself with a knife," said the complaint filed Monday.
Border Protection officers, "armed with a pepper ball gun, took cover positions and commanded the subjects to drop their weapons, turn off the motor and put their hands in the air. These commands were ignored," the complaint said. "One migrant located near the stern of the vessel threw a machete at (two agents). The machete flew through the air at a low level and hit the port bow of the (boat)."
Then a second man, identified as Gutierrez, "holding a machete, took multiple swings with the weapon at (an officer) with intent to make damaging contact."
The agent was able to move away, and Gutierrez dropped the machete, "but immediately picked up another knife and again tried to stab himself."
This incident is the most dramatic example yet of Cubans' increasing desperation to make it to the U.S. Under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" U.S. immigration policy those who reach land are permitted to stay, while those caught at sea are returned to the island.
With few exceptions, once a Cuban is in the country, he or she cannot be sent back, said Miami immigration attorney Ira Kurzban.
"If the Coast Guard brings them to U.S. for treatment, then they have paroled them into the country," he said. "The options then are the Cuban Adjustment Act (a path to residency), or get deported. But they can't be deported because Cuba won't accept them."
"We've had migrants on cutters use a nail, anything sharp, to gouge themselves. We've been dealing with this for some time."
When the 10 men and one woman did make it to shore in the 6000 block of North Ocean Drive, they were met by law officers who scrambled to corral them and rousing cheers from scores of onlookers who gathered to witness the rustic boat wash in.
On the sand, chaos erupted when some of those aboard the boat heeded the cries of spectators to run for dry ground. Hollywood police triggered a Taser at one man who "fled straight off the boat, and pretty much into a large crowd," said Officer Meredith Elrich.
A Broward Sheriff's deputy used a shoulder-fired weapon called a Less Lethal Launcher, which uses compressed air to fire projectiles, in order to twice hit a balsero "who had a knife — before he could harm himself or someone else," according to spokeswoman Joy Oglesby.
She said the weapon uses 40 grams of pellets wrapped in cloth.
"Once he was apprehended, the individual informed our deputy that he had been struck earlier by 'Immigration' while in the water," Oglesby said in an email. "It's unknown what he was struck with by other officials."
Despite the violence surrounding Saturday's arrival, many of those in the boat said the commotion at sea and on land has not clouded their dreams of a better life in America.
"We had confidence in God, and He helped us and that's why we are here," said Luis Ariel Martinez, 44, who pulled off his shirt to reveal more than a dozen wounds he said he sustained when he and the others were met with nonlethal force offshore.
Martinez, speaking outside the Doral offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he held no hard feelings toward those law enforcement officers who fired at him and the others after their 12-day journey from Camaguey province.
"Now I want to go to work. Labor, plumbing, whatever I can get," he said.
Martinez said he and the others were hell-bent on reaching dry land, and deliberately disobeyed orders because they knew that under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" U.S. immigration policy they would be sent back to the island if they did not reach land.
The boat that arrived in Hollywood, along with a second boat, each with eight people aboard, had been sailing together after meeting by chance off the coast of Cuba. One group was from Camaguey, the other from Villa Clara.
During a storm, three people from the Villa Clara boat fell overboard, and were taken aboard the other larger vessel, Conrado Galindo Sariol, 49, said.
The boats soon became separated.
The one with five passengers arrived in Key Biscayne at about 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Yoel Diaz Hernandez, 28, said he had no idea if the other 11 people had lived or died until immigration officials told him the second boat arrived in Hollywood more than nine hours later.
"I was thinking the worst," he said.
The last four days of the journey, Galindo said, those aboard the larger boat were without food or water. He said the knives and machetes were survival tools. "They were for protection," he said. He denied the knives were used to threaten officials.
The number of Cubans trying to reach the U.S. by sea has increased steadily since the U.S. announced the establishment of relations with Cuba in December 2014, according to the Coast Guard. Some of the growing desperation stems from fear that Cubans could lose their special immigration status, many arrivals say.
In March, the Coast Guard stopped seven Cubans aboard a crude boat south of Key West.
Six of the seven were brought ashore for treatment of what they said were gunshot wounds inflicted by assailants as they left the beach in Matanzas. All the wounds seemed to be superficial.
Also on Saturday, the Coast Guard intercepted five Cubans on two Styrofoam rafts lashed together, Sadowicz said. But as the patrol boat approached, those on the raft "took the oars and tried to row away from us. They would take life jackets we gave them, put it on, and then take it off and throw it in water," she said.
Eventually, the five were taken aboard the cutter Dolphin and are now headed back to Cuba, said Sadowicz.
"Safety of life at sea continues to be the Coast Guard's primary concern," said Capt. Mark Gordon, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard 7th District. "The increase in extreme acts we have seen, such as self-inflicted gunshot wounds, increases the danger to both the migrants and our Coast Guard crews. Illegal migrants, aboard overloaded and unseaworthy vessels, are putting their lives at severe risk of injury and death. The Coast Guard along with our partner agencies will continue to patrol vigilantly in order to rescue and repatriate undocumented migrants who take to the sea."