How a 5-year-old Cuban boy set off an international custody battle and media spectacle.
Twenty years ago next month, a Cuban woman, Elizabeth Brotons, her boyfriend, and her 5-year-old son, Elián Gonzalez, joined a handful of other Cubans as they embarked on a makeshift raft seeking political refuge 90 miles across the Florida Straits. The current was strong, the swells were high, and at some point in the days-long voyage, the boy was separated from his mother who, with a dozen others accompanying them, drowned during the trip.
Elián was found adrift three miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in the tall waves. It was Thanksgiving weekend in 1999 and his safe rescue by a pair of men fishing was considered nothing short of a miracle among South Florida’s anti-communist Cuban community. It inspired many to fight for his stay in America with his paternal family in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. It was, they claimed, his mother’s dying wish. Yet Elián’s father wanted his son back in Cuba. Fidel Castro, the communist leader of Cuba at the time, did, too.
Though Elián was caught in a custody battle between two nations that were political adversaries, international law was on the Cubans’ side: The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had the authority to determine that Elián’s father in Cuba was his legal guardian, overruling a Florida family court that had awarded custody to Elián’s great uncle in Miami.
Every day for four months, crowds gathered at the Gonzalezes’ Little Havana home in support of Elián’s stay in Miami. (Cubans also held demonstrations for his return.) After weeks of discussions and legal actions, the United States government gave up on negotiations with the family. During Easter weekend, on April 20, 2000, the family negotiated on the phone with Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder into the wee hours. The next day, with government officials still on the line, the family was taken by surprise with a raid in the dead of night.
Armed agents with tear gas and guns swarmed the Gonzalez family, who were unarmed, turning the raid into a media sensation. A photograph of American officers pointing a gun at a terrified and crying boy appeared on news channels and newspapers across the world, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize.
The Justice Department eventually reported that Elián was taken safely, and photographs showing Elián smiling with his father and stepmother as they were reunited at the Andrews Air Base in Washington, DC, made the news.
It was an election year, and this tense encounter is often credited with turning thousands of Cuban American voters away from not just then-President Bill Clinton but the entire Democratic Party and its presidential nominee, Al Gore. The November 2000 election was wildly close, and it all came down to Florida. During the recount, it was decided that George W. Bush won by 537 votes out of the 6 million cast.
Twenty years later and that shocking image of the militarized police raiding the Gonzalez home has become normalized in raids by border police across the nation. In Cuba, Elián Gonzalez remains a poster child. Fidel Castro and, after his health started deteriorating, his brother, Raul, attended many of the boy’s birthday parties. Now in his 20s, Elián is one of the most recognizable supporters of the Cuban Revolution on the island after graduating from a military academy in 2016 with a degree in industrial engineering.
But stateside, the story of his seizure and return to Cuba lives on as a tale of governmental missteps and excessive force. Here’s what happened on the infamous night of April 20, 2000, told through testimonies, interviews, documentaries, and press conferences:
James Goldman,former INS agent and supervisor (from the documentary film Elián):For the last couple of days, we weren’t 100 percent sure that Elián was even inside the home. He was not being brought out by family members, not being brought into the crowds. The less we saw of him, the more concerned we were for his welfare.
Tony Zumbado,then-NBC cameraman:I had rented that parking space right next to the fence to the left of the house from the [Elián’s] cousin who lived in the [adjacent] duplex. I was there just about every single night for months and I had my wife at that time bring me food and I would shower inside the duplex. They would let me use the shower and I just work all day.
[Elián’s great uncle and owner of the house] Lazaro [Gonzalez] was accused of having weapons inside the house, according to [Attorney General] Janet Reno who had intel that he had guns inside the house, so Customs and Border Patrol was not going to go in there empty-handed. So when we heard this rumor and that they were setting up a raid, I had made an arrangement with Lazaro to videotape how [the family] was going to act and how everything was going to go down.
Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who found Gonzalez and a family friend:The house was full with family members. Elián was sleeping in the [living room] with a couple of his small little cousins; he was sleeping no more than 10 feet away from me. It was dark in there.
I don’t think that [the family] was expecting a raid at all. Because if you really look at it, they were out there negotiating, and basically it was a setup. … They had all the legal people on the phone when I arrived at the house and while they’re talking and negotiating, that’s when they moved in. I fell asleep on the sofa in the living room, and never in my little pea brain thinking I would hear the rustling of soldier footsteps outside and the tear gas and the people screaming.
Armando Gutierrez, family spokesperson (from Elián documentary):I had two [phone] lines one to the house and one to Janet Reno. It never occurred to me there was a raid planned. I go to the attorney general, what’s the big rush about?
Tony Zumbado:The [family] was gathered around the phone in the listening room in the living room. Janet Reno heard the raid for sure. She tricked them. She lied to them. They were going to come get them, not as a raid. Never knew it was going to be a raid. She was trying to tell them that they’ll pick him up in the morning, it’s going to be early because we don’t want the media. As they’re talking about it, at 5 am, they bust through the back and the raid went down.
Manny Diaz,Gonzalez family attorney (from Elián documentary):I woke everyone up. While we’re having the conversation with [Deputy Attorney General] Eric Holder, there’s a bunch of yelling and screaming. I go, “Eric, the Feds are here.”
Dalrymple v. United States complaint:At the time of the raid, approximately 50 supporters ... had assembled peacefully behind the barricade, in nearby yards, and elsewhere in the neighborhood, including in front of the house at 2322 SW 3rd Street, directly behind the Gonzalez family’s home to demonstrate their support for Elián and the Gonzalez family. Some supporters were talking; others were praying. Approximately eight women sitting in lawn chairs were representatives of an organization known as “Mothers Against Repression,” were saying the Rosary in the Gonzalez’s family’s front yard.
Tony Zumbado: It was 4:30 am/5 am and we heard this thunder in the back of the house, like a train. It was agents coming in through the back door, knocking down fences to get through the back door. We saw one of Elián’s attorneys run out the door, screaming, “They are here! They are here! The Yankees are here!” [AP photographer Alan Diaz and I] jumped out of our van, jumped over the fence, and ran into the house as the agents were coming in the front of the house. They pulled up in two minivans.
James Goldman (from Elián documentary):Hordes of people were doing everything in their power to keep us from reaching the front door. They chanted, they screamed, lights went on, they formed human chains, we virtually had to push our way to the front door. Behind us, there was a riot going on. It was clearly organized resistance. We were federal agents executing a search warrant. We said “Open the door! Open the door!” Finally I had to give the order to breach the door.
Dalrymple v. United States complaint:When the convoy of vehicles pulled up to the Gonzalez family’s home, federal agents immediately began indiscriminately spraying gas to immobilize, restrain and suppress persons who had assembled peacefully behind the barricade, as well as neighbors, passers-by, and even members of the news media. Gas wafted into the Gonzalez family’s home and was used inside the home itself.
Tony Zumbado:There was probably a total of 15 [agents], five or six that came through the front and through the back another six. [The agents] came out and started tear-gassing the front of the house, tear-gassing us, the house already was tear-gassed from the back. So when we walked in, we were choking from the tear gas, and everyone inside was choking.
Donato Dalrymple: I suddenly wake up on the living room sofa, and it’s 5 o’clock in the morning, and I’m hearing: “Get down or we’ll shoot.” I jumped up and everybody just ran. Elián was standing by himself and he was crying. I picked him up, and the first thing I’m thinking to myself is, I’ve got to protect him, not break the law.
I looked for a place to hide him away and I’m hearing, “Get down or we’ll shoot.” So I knocked on the one bedroom door, and it just opened by itself. There’s another door maybe two or three feet away, and I knock on that door, it’s locked, and I heard somebody say something. I say, “It’s Donato.” They opened up the door. Now at this point I have Elián in my arms, and I run into that room and I’m standing next to a closet with Lazaro, his wife Angela and Elián’s 5-year-old cousin.
Tony Zumbado: One of the bodyguards hired by the family closed the door behind me so the agents couldn’t get in, but the agents knocked the door down and the door basically fell on my back and they stepped over me. Alan [Diaz] was able to jump in front of me and go hide in a room not knowing where Elián was. Faith had it that he went to the right room.
Donato Dalrymple: Then Alan Diaz [the AP photographer] shows up [in the room where Elián and Donato were hiding]. I said Alan, “Where can we go? They’re going to shoot.” [After gauging the distance between the agents and the door] he says that it’ll probably be only 30 seconds until they’re [inside the room].
Alan Diaz,photographer (from Elián documentary):I see out of the closet Elián and Donato. “What’s happening? What’s happening?” Elián asks. I tell him, “It’s okay, baby, everything is going to be alright.”
Tony Zumbado: The [agents] were cursing at me because I was in their way, and they were cursing at everyone they saw. The F word … “Lay down, shut the hell up … get the fuck out of the way … where is the baby? … where is the kid?” They weren’t too happy about that I got in there before them and didn’t want [the raid] videotaped. I got pushed down by one of the officers, and he put his boot in my back, and I was gasping for air because of the tear gas in there and couldn’t breathe and I was vomiting.
Dalrymple v. United States complaint: In the living room, one federal agent pointed a machine gun at Marisleysis Gonzalez’s [Elián’s cousin and caretaker] chest. Another federal agent aimed his gun at Lazaro Gonzalez’s head. Other agents aimed guns at attorneys Kendall Coffey and Manny Diaz, who stood frozen in the dining room. “Don’t do this!” Marisleysis reportedly screamed, her arms outstretched. “Don’t let him see this! I’ll give you the boy! Please put the guns down! I’ll get the boy up!”
Agents searched the house for Elián, flipping over tables, breaking more doors and religious artifacts. Elián was not in his room. “Give me the fucking boy or I’ll shoot,” Marisleysis quoted one agent as saying.
Janet Reno,then-attorney general of the United States (in a press conference): If you look at it carefully, it shows that the gun was pointed to the side and that the finger was not on the trigger. It is important in this situation to look carefully and to understand the facts, and to understand that we had received information that there were guns, perhaps in the crowd, perhaps in the house. It was unclear. But the safety of all who were involved was paramount. When law enforcement goes into a situation like that, it must go in prepared for the unexpected.
Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who found Gonzalez and a family friend: We’re in the closet there because in my mind’s eyes I figured there’s a lot of these little cubby holes that go up into the ceiling. I was going to try to push him up there. Before we blink our eyes there were these soldiers that were inside the house dressed in SWAT gear and gas masks.
I remember the guys standing there had the assault weapon on me, and said, “Give me the kid.” I just looked at him with a blank stare on my face because I was still in shock that this was all happening. And then he said, “Give me the blankety blank kid.”
I just looked at him. I said, “No, I said I’m not going to give him to you because you’re going to hurt him.”
He wanted [Alan’s] camera because he didn’t want the pictures taken so he points the gun at him. Then, boom, he puts it back on me, and then a woman shows up in the room, another agent with no weapons. And I said, “I’ll give Elián to her.”
Dalrymple v. United States complaint: INS Agent Betty A. Mills, reportedly packing a holstered pistol, entered the room with a blanket and grabbed Elián. The federal agents backed out of the room with Elián — their guns still trained on everyone, including 5-year-old Lazaro Martell.
Elián screamed for Marisleysis. “Prima Mari! Prima Mari!” Elián yelled. “Cousin Mari! Cousin Mari!”
Tony Zumbado: I was on the ground when the agents holding Elián walk right past me. Elián looked at me and I looked at him. I was on the floor with the boot on my back with an agent saying, “Lay down! Shut up!” It happened so fast, maybe 30 seconds.
Marisleysis Gonzalez,Elián’s cousin and caretaker (from Elián documentary):All I could hear was Elián screaming, “Prima prima prima!” Elián calling out, and I couldn’t do anything. Elián was just a kid, and they risked his life.
Donato Dalrymple: [The agent holding Elián] ran out of the house, and I ran out after them only because I wanted to get in that vehicle with them as a familiar face because Elián knows me. And he’s just wailing. He was afraid for his life.
We got out into the street. … They got him into the van. They close that door and they were gone. The whole raid was done under three minutes.
Tony Zumbado: The backend of my camera was busted so I had to go outside and pick up a spare part for that camera battery mount and start recording the madness going on. It was just chaotic. The pro-Cuban, anti-Castro people who had been there just started throwing rocks. It turned into a riot outside and people crying. Everyone was tear-gassed.
Dalrymple v. United States complaint: As the federal agents returned to their vans to depart the neighborhood, Plaintiff heard one federal agent ask their apparent leader, “What are we going to do with them?,” in reference to Plaintiff and two other peaceful bystanders. The federal agent in charge responded, “Fuck ’em!,” and the vans departed.
A federal agent screamed, “Go home bitch!” at Plaintiff Martha Lorenzo, then sprayed gas directly in Plaintiff’s face at point blank range. Plaintiff was blinded completely and had to be led to safety.
Tony Zumbado: The family is freaking out and crying and yelling and hysterical and fainting. It was a sad scene. It wasn’t something that you expect in an American neighborhood in an American house. The family was going: This is what Fidel would have done if we didn’t oblige to him in Cuba. That’s what you expect in Cuba, not in America.
Dalrymple v. United States complaint:At 5:30 a.m. Reno telephoned Podesta to tell him the raid had gone off “without a hitch.” Podesta rang his boss upstairs. “The president was pleased,” Lockhart said later. Reno also made clear that the raid was a carefully-choreographed, pre-planned event, the details of which she had fully approved.
Donato Dalrymple: If it wasn’t me or if a family member was holding Elián … because they were very, very passionate, these guys … there would have been a bloodbath like in Waco because [the family] were not going to let this kid go.
After seeing what took place then and what’s taking place now, it was actually the beginning of a political shift in this country. Everyone had a card to play — whether it’s the race card or the gender card. Back then, it was an election year, too.
[Elián] seemed like he was shy, but he was actually tough, a born leader. One day, he might a leader in Cuba, and he might be a leader who’s going to make peace with America.
Jess Swanson and Angel Garcia are Miami-based journalists. A graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, Jess is an award-winning writer and lecturer at the University of Miami. Angel is a Cuban American multi-disciplinary artist whose work explores the first-generation immigrant experience.