By Chris Simmons
In the early years of the post-Cold War, 19-year old Cuban Coast Guardsman Leonel Macías González hijacked a boat and fled to Florida with 23 friends and family to escape an oppressive dictatorship. Or at least that’s the fairy tale we were told.
The refugees were rescued by the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Monhegan, who found the overloaded and leaking vessel 60 miles southwest of Key West. The cutter took the Cubans aboard and sank the boat as it had become a hazard to maritime traffic.
Questioned by U.S. officials, the refugees told authorities the exact same story – one provided to them by Macías, who had been a machinist on the commandeered vessel. Macías claimed the ship’s officer attempted to stop the hijacking and fired twice at him. He returned fire, but said he was uncertain if he had hit the navy lieutenant. Shooting back, Macías insisted, was self-defense. During the brief gunfight, the officer seemed to have lost his footing and fell overboard. At gunpoint, Macías then forced the remaining three crewmen to jump overboard before he piloted the small auxiliary vessel to shore, picked up his friends and fled north to Florida.
Unfortunately for Leonel Macías González, Cuban authorities had already notified the U.S. Coast Guard of the vessel’s hijacking and the murder of Cuban Navy Lieutenant Roberto Aguilar Reyes on August 8, 1994.
The innocent refugees were granted asylum by the United States on August 11. Macías, however, was held in detention and questioned at length about his alleged crimes. Havana demanded the gunman’s return and offered to turn over a copy of its investigation. The U.S. rebuffed the Cuban government and authorities debated whether a crime had even occurred. After a lengthy investigation that went nowhere, government bureaucrats freed the alleged murder and admitted military mutineer and boat pirate. Leonel Macías was granted political asylum on April 17th, 1995.
He should never have been allowed to stay in this country. Our government’s irrational and illegal decision to overlook compelling evidence and allow Leonel Macías Gonzalez to walk free cannot be justified as lingering post-Cold War politics. America is supposed to be an example to the world, especially with regard to respect for the law and human rights.
The Federal government should immediately ask Havana for a copy of its criminal investigation. While awaiting Cuba’s response, the FBI can begin building a criminal case against Macías, centered on the numerous statements he previously provided the government.
The lawyers can argue whether or not Lieutenant Aguilar Reyes was murdered. However, several facts are irrefutable. First of all, Macías’ claim of self-defense is completely false. Lieutenant Reyes was armed, a fact well known to Macías. The officer was in command of a small auxiliary vessel in the Cuban Navy. The notion that someone – especially a service member – may use a weapon to hijack a warship and not expect the crew to fight back is an idea that defies civil and military law worldwide. Self-defense? Never. Secondly, Macías freely admitted commandeering the naval ferry, which I suspect authorities would now agree constituted international piracy. The key point is that Macías has already confessed to these crimes.
After receipt of the evidence from Havana, we would need to return Macías to face justice in a Cuba court. While the lack of an extradition treaty may seem problematic, it really isn’t. For years, Havana and Washington have regularly returned criminals. Last December, U.S. Marshals flew to Havana to bring fugitive Shawn Wegman back to face firearms charges. In April of this year, 11 Cuban criminals were returned. Furthermore, Macías’ request for political asylum was fraudulent, which by itself is sufficient grounds for the revocation/ termination of his political asylum. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have fled their homeland without using their escape as a license to kill. Leonel Macías González has evaded justice – with U.S. assistance – far too long. Harboring this fugitive is unforgiveable. It needs to end – NOW.