Living in America is still considered something worth dying for.
The bodies surfaced 20 miles out from a popular South Florida beach: Four men, still youthful. Their remains were badly deteriorated, bitten by sharks, their faces unrecognizable.
One had a horseshoe-shaped scar on his head. Two bore tattoos: One of a spider, the other of a tiger with a flower. The fourth wore a pair of orange briefs and a gold-colored watch.
The Coast Guard delivered them to the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, where they remained for days, four more among the thousands who have died trying to cross the turbulent Florida Straits.
The remains of rafters that surface near the U.S. are often in such poor condition they cannot be visually identified. Politics makes the process even more difficult with Cuban migrants: Because of the five-decade diplomatic stalemate between the U.S. and Cuba, pathologists can’t get matching dental records and DNA from relatives on the island.
“The standard means of identification aren’t going to work,” said Larry Cameron, operations director for the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department.
Many rafters who flee Cuba simply disappear, but when bodies are found, they often have no documents, leaving a puzzle of scars, tattoos, surgeries and clothing.
Sometimes, relatives in the U.S. emerge and can provide a DNA match. Others remain unidentified, and since Florida law forbids their cremation, the bones are stored in morgues for years. The Broward morgue has bodies dating back to the 1970s. Many others are buried in paupers’ cemeteries after DNA is extracted, labeled only by a number, “and we never know that those rafters didn’t get lost at sea,” said Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Democracy Movement exile group.
Identifying these bodies has become a priority again for Florida’s medical examiners amid a 75-percent increase this year in the number of Cubans trying to cross by sea. At least 3,722 Cubans have been intercepted or made it to U.S. shores in the last fiscal year.
The U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 72,771 Cubans at sea in the last three decades. Thousands of others made it to U.S. shores or were prevented by Cuban authorities from leaving. Scholars estimate at least 1 in 4 Cuban rafters don’t survive, which could mean 18,000 have died.
In August, 32 migrants left Manzanillo, on Cuba’s southern shore, and were stranded at sea for nearly a month. When Mexican fishermen found them in early September, only 15 were still alive. The others tried to swim to shore, or their bodies were dropped into the water.
The four bodies found off the Florida coast Aug. 24 received less attention. There were no survivors to tell their story. But then Sanchez began receiving calls from Cuba: A group of nine rafters had pushed off near Havana five days earlier. No one had heard from them since.
Sanchez gathered their U.S. relatives — some distant cousins — and went to the Broward morgue, where investigators asked for any physical details they could recall.
Aliandi Garcia remembered that his uncle Jose Ramon Acosta, 35, had a scar after brain surgery for epileptic seizures. Then investigators showed him Acosta’s shirt — it was gray, with a red Puma logo — the very same shirt Garcia had given his uncle when he left Cuba a year before.
Two others — Alberto Gonzales Mesa, 25, and Guillermo Enrique Buitrago Milanes, 45 — were identified by their tattoos.
The fourth wore that gold-colored Orient brand watch, now clouded by seawater. The family of Junier Fernandez Hernandez, 32, immediately recognized it as a present given to the dead man’s father.
Andres Diaz was never able to meet his cousin in life, but he has a small headshot image of Hernandez, dressed sharply in a suit and tie, taken for a passport the Cuban government denied.
“He died trying to come to this country,” Diaz said. “We’re going to bury him here.”