Reno's Raiders

National | "Negotiating" on the one hand, ordering a predawn raid on the other, Janet Reno burns friends and colleagues but delivers Castro's prized possession, Elián Gonzalez. And what will the Republicans do about it now? Most likely, the same thing they've done for the past five months: Nothing.

Issue: "Supreme Court dividing line," May 6, 2000

Shortly after Friday midnight Francisco Santana decided things were well enough under control at the Gonzalez home that he could afford a few hours sleep. "We were talking all day yesterday, and when I left we had worked out a plan. We were also assured by Janet Reno that they were going to respect the Holy Week," the parish priest from Little Havana told WORLD. At 5:15 a.m. Saturday morning Father Santana was shaving, preparing to return to the Gonzalez home, when he got a phone call. "They have taken the child," a distraught Delfin Gonzalez told his priest.

The call from one of Elián Gonzalez's great-uncles, and the three minutes of terror that preceded it, shattered the fragile composure Cuban-American leaders like Father Santana had worked to secure in a seething community. Only a week before, when street protesters vetted predictions that armed government agents would show up in the middle of the night to seize the 6-year-old boy, reporters and other outsiders scoffed at their apocalyptic notions. But when it actually happened on April 22, no one was more surprised than the insiders.

"I cannot believe it. I cannot believe it," Father Santana repeated as he stood outside the Gonzalez home just hours after the raid, a din of sirens echoing the chaos that was filling the streets all around him. "Everyone is so hurt and so confused and so painful. We are in a state of shock." Friends, family members, and community leaders knew all along that Attorney General Janet Reno had the power to make good on a threat to forcibly remove Elián from the home. But few in Miami believed she would choose that option over negotiation, particularly when the negotiations were succeeding.

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After the raid, Justice Department officials at first denied that they were near a settlement to the standoff with Miami relatives of Elián that had been running for over a week. But as key mediators-and respected community leaders-came forward to denounce the attorney general's method in planning an assault on the Gonzalez home, her spokesmen conceded: The attorney general was on the phone pretending to negotiate even as federal agents packing submachine guns began beating down the door.

"Everything was negotiable by this family," an angry Tad Foote, president of the University of Miami, told reporters just after Elián was ferried away in a white minivan, "but Ms. Reno has the power of the government. The family was well represented by its lawyers. I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed that we find ourselves here."

Trying to avoid just that sort of scenario, Mr. Foote banded together with three other Miami notables-attorneys and businessmen Aaron Podhurst, Carlos De La Cruz, and Carlos Saladrigas-on April 20 to see if they could mediate efforts to give custody of Elián to his father. Contrary to media reports, Lazaro Gonzalez was not opposed to the reunion. He insisted that it take place in Miami. He repeatedly stated that he would not bar entry to his home by federal officers.

Even as INS spokeswoman Maria Cardonas said, "Lazaro Gonzalez has broken the law," legal experts from around the country disagreed. Mr. Gonzalez would only be breaking the law at the point he refused to allow federal agents into his home to take the boy. An April 19 ruling from the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reinforced that view when the panel refused a Justice Department request that it order Mr. Gonzalez to surrender Elián and instead ordered that the boy remain in the United States.

But Mr. Gonzalez never got the opportunity to obey because federal law enforcement never knocked.

Mr. Foote and his team believed the two sides were not as far apart as it appeared. They proposed reunification in a "safe house complex," with family members working with child psychologists and psychiatrists to resolve their custody dispute. By Friday afternoon attorneys for Lazaro had composed a written proposal along those lines, and forwarded it to the attorney general via the mediators.

Team members adopted clearly defined roles: Mr. Podhurst, a friend of Ms. Reno for more than 30 years, set up an open telephone line with her office in Washington to make the proposal work. Messrs. De La Cruz and Saladrigas, well-known civic leaders with Little Havana ties, were dispatched to cement support from Miami family members as well as the Cuban-American political leadership for "voluntary family reunification," according to Mr. Podhurst. By Friday evening, he said, their efforts had secured "a significant breakthrough" in the standoff between the Justice Department and the Miami relatives. Drafts of a final agreement were circulated among the Gonzalez lawyers in Miami and Ms. Reno and her staff in Washington in the early morning hours Saturday.


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