After dramatic journey, 3 migrants arrive in Key Largo
VICTORY DANCE: A Cuban migrant reaches land Tuesday near the Ocean Reef Club on North Key Largo. He and two others waded to shore after jumping from their rickety wooden boat about two miles offshore. WFOR-CBS4
Nearly three hours after throwing themselves from their rickety boat to stave off the Coast Guard, three Cuban migrants slogged through thigh-high water and into the mangroves off Key Largo on Tuesday.
The men had been pepper-sprayed after reportedly brandishing oars and weapons—including a machete—at approaching Coast Guard officers about two miles offshore.
A fourth migrant, too tired to stay afloat, allowed himself to be taken aboard a Coast Guard vessel after jumping overboard.
With rescue boats following and officers watching, his companions kept swimming, hoping to make it two miles to freedom.
Barefoot and wearing nothing but brief trunks, the trio gingerly picked their way across a bed of coral to the mangrove swamp ringing the affluent enclave of The Ocean Reef Club shortly before 6:30 p.m.
As the ocean gave way to shallow puddles, one of the men lifted his arms to the sky, pumping his fists with joy.
Under the wet foot/dry foot policy, Cuban migrants who reach shore are generally allowed to stay, while those interdicted at sea are typically sent back.
‘‘All we could do was pray,’’ said Juan Bomachea, granduncle of two of the men who made it to shore: brothers Alfredo and Javier Morales, fishermen from the coastal town of Caibarien in Cuba’s Villa Clara province. Bomachea and his family recognized the men on television as all of South Florida’s stations broadcast the frantic end of the journey.
The three spent about 30 minutes picking their way through the mangroves before reappearing on a main road inside the Ocean Reef development—where they were promptly met by the Border Patrol.
‘‘They gave themselves up as soon as they got out,’’ said Border Patrol resident agent Cameron Hintzen.
The men, who were in good health, will spend the night at the agency’s marathon station before heading to the Krome detention center in West Miami-Dade. Typically, Cuban migrants are released after a few days at Krome.
But before retiring for the night, the three were to be interviewed by agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on possible assault charges against Coast Guard personnel, Hintzen said.
SPOTTED AT 2 P.M.
The men, spotted by a Coast Guard aircraft around 2 p.m., were approached about an hour later by a boat from the agency’s Islamorada station, said Petty Officer Ryan Doss.
‘‘When they arrived, the migrants waved oars and a machete and knives at the crew,’’ said Doss. “Pepper spray was administered and they immediately dropped their weapons.’‘
The men then jumped in the ocean.
‘‘Once we have people in the water, we treat it as a rescue operation,’’ Doss said. “The last thing we want is to run the risk of someone drowning.’‘
The Coast Guard threw the men life jackets. The men tossed back the jackets, but later accepted them.
Hintzen said the fourth man gave himself up after growing too tired to keep swimming.
While his companions bobbed in the water for more than hour—two of them sharing one pair of swim fins and all three refusing assistance from Coast Guard officers—the fourth migrant sat with his hands bound behind him.
He was identified by Miami relatives as Jorge Parrado Martinez, who recently finished serving a 12-year prison sentence in Cuba after a failed attempt to flee.
Parrado, who is in his 40s, was still aboard a Coast Guard vessel late Tuesday, said Ana Santiago, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Panama’s Consul General Manuel Cohen said that his president, Ernesto Perez Balladares, granted him the authority to offer asylum to all four men. He met with Parrado’s relatives at his Coral Gables office late Tuesday.
Asylum would be conditional on Parrado having a clean record in Cuba, he said.
In Marathon, clustered around the TV, Bomachea and his clan shouted with relief.
The emotion was so great Bomachea’s daughter, Sandra Rodriguez, felt her defibrillator—which monitors erratic heartbeats—give her a warning jolt. ‘‘Everyone is screaming and happy, even though now they’re taking me to the hospital,’’ she said.
Bomachea said the men had twice before tried—and failed—to flee the island in hopes of joining their father, Alfredo Morales Sr., who arrived during the Mariel boatlift and now lives in Homestead.
The Morales brothers, both in their late 20s, had told family members they were frustrated with their living conditions in Cuba.
‘‘They were being thrown in jail for any little thing,’’ Bomachea said. “If they got caught fishing for crab or lobsters, they were arrested.’‘
Herald staff writers Charles Rabin, Adriana Cordovi and Jennifer Maloney contributed to this report, supplemented with Herald wire services.