Miami is vastly different than it was two decades ago. That is nearly how long it's been since a little boy named Elian Gonzalez was found in the ocean three miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. But no matter how much time has passed and how much the city's demographics and political leanings have changed, no one who lived in the Magic City at the time can forget the story of the child at the center of one of the largest sagas Miami has seen.
Elian's mother and 11 others drowned during the voyage from Cuba to the United States that November in 1999. Extended family in Little Havana took the child in. His cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, became his guardian and advocated for Elian to permanently stay in the country his mother lost her life coming to. But his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, wanted the boy sent back to the communist country to live with him.
A contentious political and family custody battle began -- one that shook the city, bitterly divided friends, families and even newsrooms in their opinions about the matter. The issue caused protests and riots in the city -- home to the largest amount of Cuban exiles in the world.
The federal government weighed in and decided on the side of the father: Elian would be sent back to Cuba. But the child's Miami family would not turn him over so easily. So then-Attorney General Janet Reno called on special agents to devise and execute a plan to forcibly remove the 6-year-old boy from the Little Havana home. The man who was in charge of that team is James Goldman. Almost 20 years later, the former federal agent sat down to share behind-the-scenes details about the operation, his reflections and his opinion.
It was the fastest federal search warrant to be executed in U.S. history, Goldman, who at the time was the director of investigations for the INS' Miami district, said.
The operational plan took about a month to develop and involved about 250 agents.
When I held up a tablet displaying the famous picture that circled the world --that showed an armed federal agent at the moment he discovered the boy hiding in the closet with his uncle -- he said, "The picture that captured the hearts and minds of the American population, is that of a true professional, that did an outstanding job. He did what he was assigned to do."
But he adds, "This is a photo that should never have happened. I would recommend that no civilian -- particularly a photographer, holding a metallic object -- jump up in front of a team of law enforcement officers while they're executing a search warrant for the sole purpose of getting a picture. That could have been a tipping point."
After the most challenging part of the operation ended without anyone firing a weapon, Elian was wrapped in a blanket and swiftly carried out by a female agent to one of three vans -- the other two served as decoys.
"She was instructed to speak to him in a very calm manner in his native language, Spanish, and to ensure him that we were there to help him," said the now-retired federal agent.
The boy, who had garnered national attention, was taken on a helicopter ride to Watson Island. There, he was transferred to a jet headed to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., where his father was waiting for the boy in a secure hangar.
"The father and son embraced for a significant amount of time. Both of them were crying. Both of them were clearly excited to see one another," Goldman said. "I don't think anything should ever stand between a father and a son under any circumstance, under any political theory or condition."
After Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba, he went on to become a prominent figure for the Cuban regime. His cousin Marisleysis declined our request to participate in this interview.
Goldman has since retired from law enforcement and opened a private detective agency. He said he would like to see Elian again.
"What would you tell Elian Gonzalez if he were in front of you right now?" I asked.
"I would like to congratulate him, for his maturity that he demonstrated the night of the rescue and recovery operation," Goldman said. "And I would like to know him better as a now 26-year-old young man. I think we would have a lot to talk about."