The federal trial over the raid to seize Elian Gonzalez started with testimony of Little Havana residents who claimed they were tear-gassed for no reason.
BY JAY WEAVER | Miami Herald
A Miami moment—the U.S. seizure of Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez from his relatives’ home—replayed Monday as several people testified in their federal trial against the government that they were unnecessarily tear-gassed by agents during the 2000 raid.
Eduardo Rodriguez and his ex-wife Maria Riera, the first of 13 people expected to take the witness stand this week, said federal agents assaulted them with tear gas as they carried out the April 22, 2000, raid on the Little Havana home.
They are each seeking up to $250,000 in damages on claims that Immigration and Naturalization Service agents used excessive force, causing them injuries and trauma. The judge must decide whether the government’s use of force was reasonable.
‘‘I was stopped by a gentleman on my left approaching me with a shotgun,’’ said Riera, who lived across the street from the targeted home at 2319 NW Second St. Eli�n lived there with his great-uncle Laz�ro Gonz�lez after he was rescued off the Fort Lauderdale coast on Thanksgiving Day 1999.
Riera said a black-garbed agent wearing a mask ordered her to ‘‘stand back’’ or he would shoot, adding a word of profanity. She said a second agent approached with a gas gun as she stood in her driveway, showering her with tear gas.
Rodriguez, a watchmaker, said he was standing with a video camera in his driveway when a masked agent carrying ‘‘something like a shotgun’’ told him: ``Get out of here. Get out of here.’‘
‘‘It was very sudden,’’ Rodriguez testified. ``He sprayed me with gas. It was a cloud. Once it hits you, you don’t see anything else.’‘
Rodriguez said he felt burning and dryness in his eyes, and recently underwent a cataract operation. ‘‘I’m still suffering from it,’’ he testified.
The nonjury trial is being heard by U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, who, the month before the raid, upheld the immigration service’s stand that it had the authority to reunite the 6-year-old with his Cuban father, who wanted to bring the child home to Cuba. Elian, who had survived a shipwreck that killed his mother and others fleeing Cuba, had sought asylum through his Miami relatives.
Initially, in the raid case, more than 100 people—mostly protesters holding a vigil at the Little Havana home in support of his staying in the United States—sued the government.
But Moore reduced the total number, represented by the conservative Washington, D.C., watchdog group Judicial Watch, to 13 people. The suit was limited to include just those who were not on the Gonzalez property or inside the house but were behind police barricades or on their own property. They were allowed to pursue their injury claims because they showed they were ‘‘gassed at close range’’ by immigration agents.
The immigration service, with the go-ahead from then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, staged the raid on the day before Easter after Elian’s great uncle defied the agency’s order to turn the boy over to authorities.