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Perhaps reflecting public paranoia about Cuban-American empathy for the González family, INS officials required Elián task force members to sign a nondisclosure agreement, Ramirez says.
Mike Magee, a Homestead native and president of the union that represents 15,000 INS workers, including Ramirez, sat in during my four-hour interview with Ramirez. Magee says secrecy measures such as the nondisclosure agreement are rare and could reinforce Ramirez's contention that anti-Cuban prejudice tainted handling of the Elián raid. "I have never heard of it happening before," he reports. "The service has ways to deal with this; documents can be classified, and people can get security clearance. What happened is they didn't follow the rules, and they chose people who were pliable."
In the days leading up to the action, the atmosphere became progressively more hostile to Hispanics in general, Elián and Cuban agents in particular. Among colleagues the talk was often offensive, Ramirez says: One non-Hispanic agent who was a member of the Elián team urged his non-Cuban coworkers not to speak with their Cuban colleagues because "they are spies." The same guy, Ramirez recalls, wryly questioned, "Who's going to be the first one up in a tree to shoot Elián?"
Even Hispanic supervisors took part in the verbal bashing of the then six-year-old boy. The point is clearly made in an e-mail that Miguel Domingo, a supervising special agent in the fraud unit, sent to seven special agents March 2, 2000. It referred to a number of issues, including how agents should dress, then mentioned the González situation. "Elian (Little Creep) Gonzalez case: Federal Court case has been set for next week, Plan [sic] have been drawn for possible enforcement action...." (Ramirez says Domingo is Puerto Rican.)
Top management set the tone, Ramirez claims. He has a picture of a flag he contends hung in the office of assistant district director George Waldroup long before -- and after -- the González raid. Above it a bumper sticker reads, "American by birth, Texan by the grace of God." The green-and-yellow flag sports a version of the Miami city seal and six bananas. "Banana Republic," it reads. Many of South Florida's Hispanics consider that term to be a blatant anti-Cuban slur.
The comments, e-mails, and wall hangings, particularly those by or belonging to managers, were "inappropriate," Magee states. "They foster contempt for the people you are dealing with." Indeed the supervisors' actions sent a clear message to subordinates that base ethnic stereotyping was not only permitted but encouraged.
At 3 p.m. the day before the raid, Ramirez's supervisor asked him to participate in the operation. He was to be stationed in a nearby back yard, which intelligence had reported contained a cache of weapons. "It's the first time in 15 years I had been contacted at the last minute," he says. "I guess they didn't trust me or any of my Hispanic coworkers."
"That's completely unsafe," Magee comments. "When you go out on a dangerous mission, the only protection you have is advance notice. You prepare yourself. They put agents in harm's way. Secrecy is one thing, but this was bad judgment."
Nevertheless the mission went off without a hitch. Ramirez wasn't hurt, nor was any of his colleagues. Elián was held for a few months in Washington, D.C., then returned to Havana June 29. But within the walls of the INS office on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, things got curiouser and curiouser.
INS agents took enormous criticism during the spring. Some had a hard time accepting it. In late May or June (Ramirez doesn't remember the date), district director Wallis attempted to raise the spirits of about 50 special agents. He called a meeting at American Legion Post 29, off Biscayne Boulevard just blocks from the Florida INS headquarters. "He said the proudest moment in his life was when one of his supervisors pointed a shotgun at the head of [González family bodyguard] Mario Miranda," Ramirez reports. "His reason was that this person had refused to shake [Wallis'] hand the night before." The comment offended, among others, Ramirez and several Cuban agents. It showed profoundly bad judgment.
Assistant district director John Bulger (who presently serves as acting district director) then addressed the crowd. He made a joke referring to the famed news photo that showed a uniformed agent cradling an automatic rifle and opening a closet where Elián was hiding in the arms of one of his rescuers, Broward County housecleaner Donato Dalrymple. Many Cuban Americans thought the picture displayed the governmental overkill of the raid. Ramirez remembers Bulger saying, ""And now a special guest.' Then he goes over to a closet and opens the door. "Come out, Mr. Dalrymple.' I thought that was in bad taste. I thought it was very unprofessional."
Even more offensive was an insulated cup holder that agents distributed as a memento of the raid. It included the date (April 22), the number of seconds elapsed during the raid (154), and on the back, a picture of the Cuban flag in a red circle with a line through it (the international "prohibited" symbol). Merely allowing distribution of this required stupendously bad taste. Worse, senior managers apparently used the anti-Cuban paraphernalia. Ramirez snapped a picture of it on Waldroup's desk next to the assistant district director's nameplate. (Ramirez carries this photo with the shot of his car.)