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Ramirez saw Elin from the inside
Ramirez saw Elin from the inside
Joshua Prezant

Elián Plus One

Ricardo Ramirez doesn't seem like he would scare easily. A burly Mexican American with a barrel chest, forearms thick with ropelike muscle, and a full beard flecked with gray, he carries a .45-caliber semiautomatic Beretta pistol and speaks in quiet, measured tones. The 41-year-old Southwest Broward resident is a special agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service who regularly collars rapists, murderers, and sexual predators.

Yet in March he moved to a gated community, worried that his wife and three children, who range in age from two to seven years old, were in danger. He carries the reason for his anxiety in his briefcase, a sketchy photograph of his 1996 Crown Victoria, which bears the warning, "We know it's you. Watch out traitor," scrawled on a dusty window. He says the threat appeared in January while the car sat in a locked garage at the Florida INS headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street in Miami. He believes the author is one of his brothers in arms, one of the INS' "good old boys."

"I feel fear -- fear for my family, fear for my life," he tells me. "In my line of work, if you are in a dangerous situation, you need backup. And I just can't be sure anymore the old boys will cover me. I am always looking over my shoulder."

Ramirez was on the scene at Lazaro González's Little Havana house a year ago this week when INS agents snatched Elián González and initiated the boy's odyssey home to Cuba. Ramirez's tale -- which he told as a private citizen and union shop steward, not as a government employee or representative -- has been hinted at by his Coral Springs lawyer, Don Appignani on national television and in newspapers from Salt Lake City to New York City. But the INS agent has never before spoken about it publicly.

He describes an unabashedly anti-Cuban atmosphere in the Florida INS office, which is among the nation's busiest and has a sordid history of deceit and immigrant mistreatment. And he intimates the existence of a cover-up that reflects badly on district director Robert Wallis, who was promoted last month to a top INS position in Dallas.

Though Ramirez has tried to contact U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and U.S. Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, who chairs an oversight committee, the agent's entreaties have been ignored. Apparent conflicts of interest have been glossed over, and an attitude more viciously anti-Cuban than compassionately conservative has been allowed to fester. Would that the legacy of little Elián were a wholesale cleanup of our subtropical immigration cesspool.

Ricardo Ramirez was born in Texas and grew up in Gary, Indiana. He played football, baseball, and lifted weights for fun. When he was 25 years old, he took a job with the U.S. Border Patrol and attended five months of training at the federal law-enforcement training center in Glynco, Georgia. The center, which requires participants to pass a course similar to military basic training, teaches shooting, self-defense, Spanish language, and the law.

During the early years of his career, Ramirez moved from office to office in South Texas, at least 15 in all. He still wears the native attire of the Rio Grande: snug jeans, cowboy boots, and a pocketed T-shirt. A touch of Tejano still lingers in his voice. Yet this child of Mexican immigrants showed no compunction about arresting illegal aliens who shared his parents' heritage. "I try to stay out of personal opinion," he declares. "I am a professional, trained to act and work like a professional." After more than 13 years in the Border Patrol in Texas, Ramirez was promoted to special agent with the INS. In January 1999 he transferred to South Florida; by the following July, he was working in the criminal-alien program, a job that required him to pick up immigrants who had been convicted of felonies. (A 1996 federal law targets these individuals for deportation.)

Though Ramirez didn't get along well with his supervisor and filed a formal complaint against her a year ago, his performance apparently was above average. In October 1999 his bosses nominated him for a so-called Hero Award from the service for rounding up 50 aggravated felons, many off the street, in three operations.

Like the rest of the INS, which employs more Hispanics than any other branch of the federal government, Ramirez's unit was diverse. Among the fifteen agents, Ramirez says, seven or eight were of Puerto Rican, Cuban, or other Hispanic heritage.

In March of last year, when higher-ups chose an Elián strike force, half of his group was invited to participate. Yet only one Latino, a Puerto Rican man whom Ramirez declines to name but who "got along well with good old boys," was invited. Non-Hispanics with far less training and experience were named, apparently because of their national origin, he contends.

"I couldn't figure it out, because we were the people with the most experience in those kind of operations," he comments. "Hispanics weren't put on there; especially if they were Cuban, they weren't put on there at all. And there are four or five Cubans in my unit."

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.)

Finally Ramirez recalls a box on the floor outside section chief John Woods' office. A picture of Elián was adhered to its side, and "KICK ME" was handwritten below it. "I took offense," Ramirez says. "There were so many things like this that shouldn't happen in a professional atmosphere."

Even if we forgive INS supervisors for their cavalier behavior, it is harder to forget several other incidents that seem to show that officials tried to cover their tracks.

Cuban Americans heaped criticism on U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno after the raid. They also scolded the immigration service for participating. Florida INS officials, several of whom had been appointed to clean house after a 1996 scandal called Kromegate, apparently took a lesson from the past. That incident, which involved officials' attempts to hide unacceptable conditions at Miami-Dade County's Krome Avenue Detention Center from congressional investigators, was uncovered after inspectors found backups of incriminating e-mails that had been erased.

A few days after the meeting at the American Legion Hall, Ramirez says, section chief Mario Cavallo stepped out of his office on the ninth floor and told a group of agents: "Listen up, I need you to delete everything possible from your computers, including e-mails, concerning the Elián González raid." Only about five people were present at the time, the agent recalls, and no one questioned Cavallo. But Ramirez says he and others understood the order to mean one thing: Dump any information that might reflect badly on the agency.

"I have never heard anything like that in all my 15 years in the service," Ramirez comments. "And Cavallo is the kind of guy, whenever he gets an order from a higher-up, he passes it on. He doesn't do anything unless he is told by a manager."

Ramirez says he had no incriminating e-mail in his computer because he had not been part of the Elián strike team until the day before the raid, so he didn't remove anything. He assumes that others, who had been in the loop, deleted e-mails that may have been public record. Such destruction, if consciously done to avoid scrutiny, could violate federal law. Moreover Ramirez says two special agents from units overseen by Cavallo were later transferred to the computer department. He posits they may have been assigned to get rid of backups.

That the brass issued such an order seems plausible to Magee, the union chief. After Kromegate, he says, "the senior managers deleted everything, then told the internal affairs investigators it didn't exist. But they forgot to... delete the e-mails from the system."

Ramirez believed things had gone too far. So he contacted attorney Appignani. He also spoke with Magee. Both advised him to contact the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General, which investigates complaints from employees and the public. Ramirez declined. "Nobody trusts OIG," he explains. "You can't talk to the people you're supposed to go to, because everybody's connected. If you report something, it comes back to haunt you. Everyone knows that."

"There's an incestuous relationship between OIG and the special agents," Magee contends. "It's getting better, but there's still a problem."

Pressure on the INS -- and Ramirez -- increased this past September, when Lazaro González and his family sued the federal government over the Elián seizure. The Department of Justice, which oversees the INS, assigned attorneys to represent many of the service's South Florida employees, including Ramirez. The development worried Ramirez. He didn't want to lose his job, but if called to testify, he believed he would have to discuss the jokes and overt anti-Cuban sentiment at headquarters. So he approached INS district counsel Daniel Vera. "I didn't want to lie," Ramirez remembers. "Dan told me, "Don't worry about it, if you have any kind of evidence that is detrimental toward the service, the DOJ attorney will make sure you don't take the stand.'" To Ramirez that comment implied a cover-up.

So Ramirez told Appignani the time had come to publicize his concerns. Still he didn't want his name in the press, because he feared he would be fired. So, with Ramirez's permission, Appignani contacted González family lawyer Ronald Guralnick and volunteered to provide a deposition describing conditions at INS headquarters that would buttress the plaintiffs' case. One condition: Appignani wouldn't disclose his clients' names. (Appignani now acknowledges that he misled Guralnick and others by implying there were multiple complainants. U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno later forced Appignani to release his client's name.)

In early January Appignani's charges of anti-Cuban sentiment hit the national news. Several networks and at least 14 U.S. newspapers picked up the charges. The labor lawyer even appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, a popular national Fox News show hosted by Bill O'Reilly, an unabashed shill for the far right.

Ramirez's name was not used by the media, but INS supervisors knew he was the source of the information. Through the March 2000 complaint about his supervisor, his name had been linked to Appignani. Soon after the newspaper and television reports came out, someone scrawled the threatening message on the rear passenger window of Ramirez's car while it was parked in the locked INS garage.

So this past March 15, Ramirez, in Appignani's company, took his complaints to the inspector general. He reported the threat to Al Hazen, special agent in charge of the OIG's Fort Lauderdale office, and said he feared for his family's safety. Hazen, both Ramirez and Appignani concur, acknowledged he was a close friend of James Goldman, an assistant district director in the Florida INS office whom the OIG might have to investigate regarding some of the offensive material. "He said that wouldn't influence his investigation," Ramirez recalls.

On March 19, the Monday following the Hazen meeting, Ramirez received a 90-day warning from his supervisor stating that his work wasn't up to snuff. Such notice is often a preliminary to firing. The timing, Ramirez and Appignani believe, was no coincidence. "I told Al Hazen that I was afraid, my wife was afraid," Ramirez comments. "They wanted to shut me up."

In the aftermath Appignani has contacted Ashcroft and U.S. representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen about the situation. He has requested an investigation and a transfer for Ramirez. So far he has received no response. The situation, says Appignani, has become akin to that of Frank Serpico, a New York City cop who disclosed corruption within his department. Retribution and violence are in the air.

Meanwhile tension is high at Ramirez's home. His wife, Patty, tearfully admits she is afraid to go the park with her kids. She believes someone from the INS will snatch them. She refuses even to go grocery shopping without her husband. "I can only plead," she says. "If anyone has the authority to transfer my husband out of the South Florida district, please do it. Now."

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