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Fed-up Cubans dock patrol boat in Key West

The men told authorities they were unhappy with conditions in Cuba and they wanted out.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2003

Key West has a reputation as a non-stop party town, but at 4 a.m. Friday the waterfront was fairly quiet.

At the luxurious Hyatt Marina Resort, the night desk clerk didn't see the boat that glided into the hotel's six-slip dock two blocks from Mallory Square, or the four men in fatigues and black boots who climbed out and ambled away.

A block or so away, not far from Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar, they flagged down a cop and surrendered. One even handed over a Chinese-made handgun.

They explained they were members of the Cuban Border Patrol. Their job: stop anyone from trying to flee to the United States. But while on patrol about 1 a.m., they decided conditions in Cuba had grown so intolerable that they wanted out.

"My impression is that it was a last-minute decision," said Officer Tara Koenig, the Spanish-speaking officer who helped Officer Matt Dorgan question the men who stopped him.

"They were patrolling, talking about living at the poverty line when they said, 'You know what, the United States is only 90 miles that way,' " she said. "So they set the heading on their boat, terminated communication with Cuba and headed straight here."

They told Koenig and Dorgan they were "tired of the impoverished conditions and frustrated with not being able to own their own homes."

Then they asked to call relatives in Miami.

Many first-time visitors to Key West start with a tour of the city aboard the Conch Train. The Cubans had to settle for a ride in the back of a patrol car to the Monroe County jail, where they were held until the U.S. Border Patrol took them into custody.

Police officers searched the speedboat and found two loaded AK-47 assault rifles along with ammunition. The boat, the guns and everything else that was on board are now in hands of the Border Patrol too.

Border Patrol spokesman Keith Roberts would not say where the men were being held late Friday while investigators questioned them. He said the federal immigration agency was not ready yet to declare them authentic military defectors.

"We don't take anything at face value," he said. "These individuals were and are military clad."

He described them as "four males, but we're not even sure they're all adults. One might be a little young."

Their spur-of-the-moment sprint for freedom apparently caught officials in both countries by surprise.

Cuban officials, who were not returning phone calls Friday, apparently did not pursue the defectors. Meanwhile the U.S. Coast Guard, which failed to intercept a military vessel flying the flag of a hostile government, referred all questions to the Border Patrol and the U.S. State Department.

Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz declined further comment because the agency is conducting an investigation. He would not say if the U.S. military had been tracking the Cuban boat.

Although the U.S. Homeland Security Department placed the country on "high risk orange" alert Friday, it's understandable that a few intruders sneak past, said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

"What it says is that the Coast Guard can't catch all of them," Nelson said.

To Karsten Murray, a bartender at the Havana Docks Lounge on Duval Street, the idea that four Cuban border patrolmen would dock at a hotel and surrender to the first police officer they found did not seem too outlandish -- at least, not for Key West.

"I don't think anybody who knows Key West was too surprised about it," he said.

-- Information from the Miami Herald and the Associated Press was used in this story.

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