Eight helmeted, SWAT-equipped federal agents broke down the front door of the Miami home of Elian Gonzalez's relatives before dawn yesterday and removed the boy, avoiding serious incident but sparking a day of sporadic violence and demonstrations in Little Havana. Four hours later, Elian's Cuban father walked alone onto a government jet at Andrews Air Force Base and emerged cradling his 6-year-old son.
Miami's Cuban American community erupted in outrage in the wake of the surprise raid by more than 130 Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, who arrived in a convoy of white vans about 5:10 a.m., fanned out around the house and used pepper spray to push back demonstrators gathered outside.
The agents corralled the frightened family inside at gunpoint. Elian was found in a bedroom, halfway inside a small closet, in the arms of one of the Florida fishermen who had rescued him from the Atlantic Ocean on Thanksgiving Day.
A female agent bundled the boy into a blanket and rushed him out the door and into a van that quickly backed away from the home.
Those up early enough to witness parts of the three-minute operation on live television soon saw Attorney General Janet Reno emerge from her Justice Department office, with INS Commissioner Doris M. Meissner at her side. "The most important thing," Reno said, "is that Elian is safe and that no one was seriously hurt."
The raid came after hours of last-minute efforts to get the two sides of the family together failed. Long past midnight, the last proposal had Reno, herself, determining the conditions under which the two sides of Elian's family would live together in a transition period.
President Clinton said the relatives' intransigence had left Reno no alternative but to "enforce the decision of the INS and the federal court" that Elian must be returned to his father. Reno, he said in a brief morning statement outside the White House, had done "the right thing, and I'm very pleased with the way she handled it."
But others, including the boy's Miami relatives and others who want Elian to remain in the United States, thought the government action was too strong-armed.
"They took this kid like a hostage in the nighttime," said Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who was holding Elian when federal agents cornered him.
Elian was already in the air before the stunned, pepper-sprayed crowd around the relatives' home seemed to know what had hit it. Marisleysis Gonzalez, Lazaro Gonzalez's 21-year-old daughter, ran outside and fell to the ground in tears. Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the exile Democracy Movement, who for weeks had organized the demonstrators in a round-the-clock vigil, seemed initially in a daze that he said resulted from a blow delivered by the butt of an INS agent's rifle.
Later, Marisleysis Gonzalez erupted in anger as thousands awoke to the news and began to fill the Little Havana streets that were already manned with police outfitted in riot gear.
"She's lying," she said of Reno's insistence that the agents had used minimal force. "They acted like dogs. . . . They could have done this in good faith. I told her personally . . . I didn't want violence."
Although Elian was clearly seen crying out in fear as he was carried into the van, agents reported that he was calm as the vehicle raced to a U.S. Marshals Service helicopter at a nearby staging point.
After the helicopter delivered them to Homestead Air Force Base, Elian was examined by a U.S. Public Health Service physician, pronounced fit and put aboard a Marshals Service jet along with the doctor, a psychologist and the female agent who had carried him out of his great-uncle's house. After one refueling stop, they landed at Andrews at 9:20 a.m., where he was reunited with his father, his stepmother and his 6-month-old half-brother.
The family was taken to a small house on the base where they are expected to stay for several days before moving to Wye Plantation, a secluded conference center on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Elian got down on the carpeted floor and began playing with his baby half-brother.
The passionate divide over who should raise Elian seemed to follow the child to Washington. Demonstrators turned out by early morning at Andrews Air Force Base to protest the government's intervention. Later in the day, anti-Castro activists picketed outside the Justice Department and at Reagan National Airport.
The Miami relatives flew to Washington in the afternoon and went to Capitol Hill to meet with Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.). As they did, other leading Republicans condemned the federal use of force, comparing the predawn raid to the tactics of Cuban President Fidel Castro. "The chilling picture of a little boy being removed from his home at gunpoint defies the values of America and is not an image a freedom-loving nation wants to show the world," said Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.
Political reaction, however, seemed to fall along the same lines as long-standing opinion about whether Elian was better off with relatives in Miami or his father in Cuba. Reno and the father, said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), had "mustered extraordinary patience in waiting this long . . . INS officers acted professionally. It is unfortunate that the Miami relatives made it necessary to send federal agents to remove Elian."
But family representatives insisted that the raid occurred at the very moment the relatives were talking on the phone with mediators in Washington, trying to negotiate a solution. Just before the agents blasted through the door, however, Reno told them that time had run out.
Midnight: LAST OFFER
At midnight Friday, three groups of people were gathered around telephones and fax machines, trying to arrange a last-minute deal that would avoid what all felt would be an unfortunate--and some feared would be a violent--end to the standoff over Elian.
In Washington, at least seven senior officials were gathered in Reno's fifth-floor office in the Justice Department's gray headquarters at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, including Reno, Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and INS Commissioner Meissner.
The officials had divided themselves into two teams--one to talk to the father, one to the Miami relatives. Holder was the main conduit to Gregory B. Craig, the attorney for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Craig and Gonzalez sat in Craig's office at 12th and G streets NW. One of Craig's colleagues at the law firm Williams & Connolly, Oliver Garcia, was there to serve as interpreter for Gonzalez.
Squashed into their two-bedroom Little Havana home more than a thousand miles away were Lazaro Gonzalez, his wife Angela and daughter Marisleysis, and several other relatives. Also there were Dalrymple, several of the relatives' attorneys and a group of Miami civic leaders who had arrived Friday afternoon and volunteered to help mediate a solution to the fast-deteriorating situation. Elian and a five-year-old relative were sleeping, on and off.
By early that evening, the mediators had sent Reno a proposal--not yet completely cleared with the relatives--offering a reunion in which both sides of the family would participate, held at a neutral site. The meeting of Elian and his father would be followed by an unlimited period in which they all would live together until Elian was comfortable transferring his primary affections back from the Miami relatives to his father, who along with Elian's mother had cared for him during the first six years of his life. Mental health experts would be in close attendance.
The proposal did not provide for the immediate transfer of custody that the father had demanded. Just after 11 p.m., Craig sent Reno a counteroffer to the relatives, insisting on an immediate custody transfer and limiting the amount of "transition" time for them all to be together to one week.
At around 12:30 a.m., Craig sent Juan Miguel Gonzalez home, to the Bethesda residence of a Cuban diplomat where he had been staying since arriving from Havana two weeks earlier. "He was getting so depressed and so angry that it was distracting," Craig recalled yesterday.
At least two more versions of the proposal went back and forth from Miami to Reno to Craig and back again. By 2 a.m., Craig had wearily agreed to what he said were conditions practically imposed on him by the attorney general's office. They stipulated that once the custody transfer took place, Reno herself would determine the conditions under which the family would stay together, how much visitation time the Miami relatives would have, what mental health experts would be involved and how much weight would be given to their views.
Reno sent the terms to Miami: The reunion would take place at Airlie House, a conference center near Warrenton, Va. The transfer of custody would be immediate and unconditional. The transition period would be open-ended. If they agreed, the relatives were to bring Elian to the federal courthouse in Miami at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.
"The attorney general was trying to push both sides into something that neither side was very happy with," Meissner readily agreed yesterday afternoon. "If there was going to be agreement, it was going to be with each side giving on something they were dug in on for the sake of preventing enforcement action that we did not want to ultimately have to do."
If Juan Miguel Gonzalez had repeatedly balked at any custody transfer that was not immediate and unconditional, the Miami relatives felt the same about meeting with him anywhere but on their home turf. As Craig cooled his heels and the clock inched toward the 3:30 turnover time, the officials in Reno's office told the relatives that the Airlie House venue was non-negotiable.
Meanwhile, "we heard nothing" from the Justice Department, Craig said. "About 3:45, I called Eric and said 'Come on, man, I'm going home.' We'd had complete silence for an hour and 45 minutes. . . . He said, 'Look, hang around for just an hour more. We may be able to make some serious progress.' "
2 a.m.: FINAL HOURS
What only Justice knew at that point was that a deadline already had come and gone. Earlier last week, federal law enforcement officials had told Reno that the optimum time for a raid would be Saturday at 4 a.m.
Reno and Meissner, already dreading the possibility they would have to take Elian by force, had resisted a nighttime raid on grounds that the "optics"--what the television cameras trained on the house 24 hours a day would see--were already likely to be bad enough. But law enforcement personnel had told them that was the time when the crowds were lightest and least alert, and when the traffic conditions were optimum for fast entry and exit from the neighborhood.
Traffic signals in the area around the house were set to blink yellow and red during the early morning hours until 6 o'clock, they said.
By early yesterday morning, the raid awaited only Reno's go-ahead. There had been major concerns about security, with numerous different agencies involved, but there were no leaks.
The U.S. attorney's office in Miami had obtained a search warrant allowing federal agents to enter the house. Senior officials in local police agencies had been told, although police on the ground near the house were not informed.
As the faxes and phone calls went back and forth between Justice and Miami, Meissner said, "we had operationally until 3 a.m." to make the decision. "They needed between an hour and an hour and a half" once the operation was set in motion. But at 3 a.m., she said, "negotiations were proceeding in a way that the attorney general felt maybe with a little more time, it might come to a successful outcome."
Reno put law enforcement on hold. "We knew we had a little leeway on the ground, and we asked [law enforcement] how much more time they could squeeze out" before they would have to cancel the operation, Meissner said. The attorney general was told it was too risky if it came after 5 a.m.; if she didn't give the order by 4, they would have to stand down.
The sticking point with the Miami relatives, all sides agreed, was the question of where the meeting would take place. They still insisted that they could not come to Washington. The phones fell silent.
At 4 a.m., Reno gave the order to move. Clinton was notified through his chief of staff, John D. Podesta.
At around 4:45, when the operation was well underway, "another call came from Miami," Meissner said. "We actually held the operation for five minutes to see whether there was perhaps a final last-ditch possibility of agreeing, but it just was not there. By about 10 to 5, when the final team," the eight agents who would actually enter the house, was ready to leave the operational staging area, "it just was not there," Meissner said.
Reno, Meissner said, told the mediators "this cannot succeed." She did not tell them the raid was underway.
Later, when the sun came up and it was all over, the mediators, the Miami relatives and their attorneys would insist there had been a possibility of agreement, and that Reno had given the order too soon.
5:10 a.m.: THE RAID
While the mediators in Miami were trying to figure out whether a compromise was possible, Craig and interpreter Oliver Garcia were looking for something to eat, waiting, as Holder had asked them, for another hour. They had Tex-Mex, delivered by an Adams-Morgan restaurant.
As the Miami mediators made their final call, and were put on hold by the attorney general's office, there was a knock on the door. INS officials later said they had identified themselves, three times--"We are United States federal agents. We are here to collect Elian and bring him to his father."
But on television, it did not appear the family inside had much time to respond. Using a battering ram--a long, solid metal tube they had brought with them--the agents pushed in the door.
"When they came in," Marisleysis Gonzalez later said, "I stood in front of everybody, all the family behind me. I begged them, 'Please don't let the boy see the guns. I'll give him to you.' . . . They said, 'We'll shoot you, we'll shoot you.' And then they ran into the bedroom, they broke the doors."
They found Elian in Dalrymple's arms, grabbed him and handed him to the female agent. She wrapped him in a blanket--standard procedure, officials said later, for quickly carrying away someone who might be thrashing around and frightened.
Inside the plastic covering the I.D. card she had around her neck, she had written the words that government psycholgists had composed for her to say to Elian. It said, recalled Meissner, "You may feel very scared right now. Don't be scared. We're here to bring you to your Papa. You can trust us. People love you."
In Washington, Craig had tuned in CNN's 5 a.m. newscast. Within minutes, he said yesterday, "I yelled at Oliver, 'It's happening. It's happening.' We watched the thing real time." He grabbed the phone and rang Bethesda, where, he said, "We got a very sleepy Cuban Spanish voice."
As Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his lawyer stared at their separate television sets, "we saw Elian come out. And boy, . . ." Craig let the sentence hang.
Within minutes, U.S. marshals had telephoned Gonzalez to say they would pick him up, along with his wife and child, in half an hour. They asked him to get in the car inside the garage, with the door closed, and not to come out where the ubiquitous television cameras could see him.
9:20 a.m.: THE REUNION
Meissner said the Miami-based female agent carried Elian from the van to the helicopter, stayed with him through the quick physical exam and boarded the airplane with him. He didn't say much, she reported, but responded easily to questions. He cried once during the flight to Washington, but she opened the shade and got him to look at the sunrise. He colored, and he played with the Play-Doh they had provided for him. He ate something. At one point, he fell asleep on her lap.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez, his wife Nercy and baby Hianny rode alone in the car with the marshals to Andrews. When the jet was pulled into a hangar, about a half dozen cars were already inside, including one carrying Meissner. The hangar door was closed, and everyone got out of the plane except Elian, the female agent and her boss--the INS field official who had directed the operation on the ground.
"The father had made it very clear he wanted a private reunion with his son," Meissner said. "He did not want press, photos, anyone else around."
Gonzalez got out of the car alone and, as the others watched, climbed up the stairs into the jet. The two agents inside left the plane. After three or four minutes, Meissner said, they came down together, father holding son, son with his head on his father's shoulder, arms in a bear hug around his neck. They got into the van and drove in a convoy across the base to the small house that had been set aside for them.
Juan Miguel carried Elian inside, the little boy's arms still draped around his father's neck. A crib and children's bed had been set up in the living room, with a double bed in the bedroom. U.S. marshals had moved in next door. Several Cuban officials were present, along with a few beefy INS officers who had been with the case from the start and had tears in their eyes.
"He seemed fine to me," Craig said of Elian. "He was subdued, but you could get a smile out of him without too much trouble. When I introduced myself, he looked up and stuck out his hand. Oliver got down, sat on the carpet and asked him about the helicopter ride and that perked him up. I could see he wasn't being your usual effervescent 6-year-old."
Then, a Game Boy in his hand, Elian started to play with the now nearly 7-month-old half-brother he had last seen five months ago. Somebody put down a toy--one of those black, stuffed gorillas that jumps around as it plays "The Macarena."
Later, in an interview with CNN, Craig said Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family will stay in the United States until the end of the legal proceedings that still surround the case.
"He is totally in the hands and custody of the U.S. marshals" and "free to make any decision he wants to make. . . . I think he should have the right to choose where he wants to live. If he wants to live in the United States, I would work very hard to make that possible for him. If he wants to go home and live in Cardenas," Craig said, that is fine, too.
Was he suggesting that now that he has his son, Gonzalez is considering staying in this country? "No, I'm not saying that. I see no evidence of that," Craig said. "He seems comfortable with his decision to return to the town he grew up in, to return to his home."
Staff writers Amy Argetsinger, Charles Babington, Patrice Gaines, Jay Mathews, Sylvia Moreno, Manuel Perez-Rivas, Katherine Shaver, Steve Vogel, Emily Wax and Josh White in Washington, staff writers Serge F. Kovaleski and Scott Wilson in Miami, and special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to reports on the following pages.