The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal agents seized 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez at gunpoint. A custody battle raged for months.

Fisherman Donato Dalrymple, right, holds 6-year-old Elián González in a closet on April 22, 2000, as federal agents seize Elián in his relatives’ Miami home. (Alan Diaz/AP)

The federal agent pointed his automatic weapon at 6-year-old Elián González, who was cowering in a closet. The child’s face contorted in a wail. The man holding him raised a protective arm across the boy’s body.

Before dawn that day, eight SWAT team members broke down the front door of the Miami home where Elián was staying with his father’s relatives. With their weapons pointed at the family, the agents demanded custody of the Cuban child, whose discovery in the Atlantic Ocean five months earlier had triggered an international custody battle between geopolitical adversaries.

“They took this kid like a hostage in the nighttime,” Donato Dalrymple, the man holding Elián in the now-famous photo, said of that morning in April 2000. Several months earlier, on Thanksgiving Day in 1999, Elián was found clinging to an inner tube in the Atlantic Ocean three miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale.

Now, the 25-year-old Elián holds an industrial engineering degree from a Cuban military academy and is a prominent supporter of the late Fidel Castro, the former Cuban president. The standoff over where Elián would grow up symbolized the tension between the administrations of Castro and President Bill Clinton, and separated most of the Cuban American community from the rest of the United States.

Elián was traveling to Florida in a small motorboat with his mother, his stepfather and 10 other Cuban refugees when the boat capsized, according to news reports at the time. Two adults survived, while Elián’s relatives and others drowned. Dalrymple and another fisherman found the boy in the ocean after he had drifted, alone, for two days.

U.S. immigration policy dictated that Elián should be returned to Cuba because he had not reached the U.S. shore, but the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service granted him parole to stay in the country and pursue permanent residency.

Elian Gonzalez says he wants to visit the U.S. ‘to give my love to American people’

Elián’s biological father in Cuba, Juan Miguel González, and the Cuban government claimed that the boy’s mother had removed him from the country illegally and that he must be returned. The boy’s relatives in Miami, however, resisted the demands and suggested that the Castro regime was influencing the father’s position.

Five hours before the raid, senior U.S. officials were still trying to broker a deal between González and his relatives in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, where Elián was living. Around 2 a.m., González’s attorney agreed to a new proposal, devised by Attorney General Janet Reno: The relatives would bring Elián to the federal courthouse in Miami at 3:30 a.m. and they would all reunite with González at a conference center in Virginia. Custody of the boy would immediately transfer to his father, and everyone would live together for an open-ended transition period.

Elián’s relatives would not budge. If they were going to meet González, they insisted that it had to be in Miami. The 3:30 a.m. meetup time came and went.

Law enforcement, meanwhile, was prepared to take Elián by force. The U.S. attorney’s office in Miami had gotten a search warrant to enter the family’s house, and traffic lights in the area were programmed to blink yellow and red until 6 a.m.

With no deal reached between González and his relatives by 4 a.m., Reno ordered federal agents to put their plan into motion. They reached the family’s home about an hour later and, immigration officials said afterward, identified themselves three times and said they were there to collect Elián.

When the agents pushed in the front door with a battering ram, they saw Dalrymple holding the boy. They grabbed Elián and wrapped him in a blanket in case he thrashed around out of fear. Inside one of the agents’ ID card holder were five sentences that government psychologists wrote for her to say to Elián: “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.”

‘Fidel was a friend’: Elián González remembers Castro as a father figure

Marisleysis González, Elián’s cousin, later said she stood in front of the rest of her family when the SWAT team burst into the home.

“I begged them: ‘Please don’t let the boy see the guns. I’ll give him to you,’ ” she said. “ … They said, ‘We’ll shoot you, we’ll shoot you.’ And then they ran into the bedroom, they broke the doors.”

Juan Miguel González, who was in Bethesda, and his attorney Gregory B. Craig in Washington watched on separate televisions as Elián emerged from the Miami home. An agent carried him onto a helicopter, where he colored and played with Play-Doh on the way to Washington.

González, his wife and their baby rode with U.S. Marshals to Andrews Air Force Base, where González had requested a private reunion with his son. He climbed into the jet and walked back out three or four minutes later with Elián, the boy’s head on his shoulder and arms around his neck.

“He was subdued, but you could get a smile out of him without too much trouble,” Craig said of Elián at the time. “When I introduced myself, he looked up and stuck out his hand.”

At the small house across the base where the father and son were to stay, Elián got a new toy: a stuffed gorilla that jumped around and played “The Macarena.” He played with his nearly 7-month-old half brother, whom he had not seen in five months.

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