The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether seven Cuban migrants intercepted at sea purposely shot themselves so they could be guaranteed a passageway into the U.S.
The Coast Guard told Fox News Latino that they are looking into the claims by rafters found 50 miles south of the Florida Keys who said they came under gunfire when attempting to flee Cuba on a 23-foot-long raft.
The rafters, who mainly came from the neighborhood of Marianao in Havana, said that they were ready to set sail when they were suddenly ambushed by a group of gunmen. A fight broke out between the rafters and the gunmen and several were injured.
But some have questioned whether the Cubans were actually attacked or made up the story so they could stay in the U.S.
“Yes, that is definitely part of our investigation,” Mark Barney, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard told FNL.
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Some of the rafters said they heard three or four shots while others claim they heard nine shots. They said they don’t believe the gunmen were working for the Cuban regime since government officials would have just chased down the raft.
The wounded rafters were then taken aboard and staunched their wounds with rags as they took off toward Florida. They were then intercepted by the Coast Guard.
“Seven of the 26 migrants had gunshot wounds sustained prior to the interdiction,” said a statement from the Coast Guard that was sent to Fox News Latino. “The most critical, six, were (taken) to a local area hospital. The remaining 20 migrants will likely be returned to their country of origin.”
At least five of the six rafters have denied having shot one another in an attempt to be brought to the U.S. mainland. The bullet wounds on the migrants were on parts of the body – torso, abdomen, hips and shoulder – that if treated prove non-lethal.
“That [to intentionally shoot yourself] would have been something very hard,” Yarelys Ríos, who was one of the six migrants brought to the U.S. for treatment, told the Miami Herald. “I am pregnant and I’m not going to risk my baby to come to a country that, yes, where I want to be, but not that way.”
The seventh shooting victim was shot in the foot and was quickly transferred to a Coast Guard vessel with the other 19 to await their return to Cuba.
Coast Guard protocol in situations where they encounter wounded rafters is to take them to shore for medical attention. Once on U.S. soil, the Cubans can stay in the country and apply for permanent residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
After the U.S. and Cuban renewed diplomatic relations in 2014, the number of rafters has drastically increased amid fears that lawmakers in Washington will do away with the Cuban Adjustment Act. Since Oct. 1, 2015, more than 2,500 Cubans have attempted to enter the U.S. by crossing the Florida Straits.
Early last month, nine migrants died on the voyage before 18 others were rescued by Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas cruise ship.
"Our deepest condolences to the families of the nine people who recently did lose their lives," Captain Mark Gordon, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard's 7th District, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, tragedy is all too common when taking to the sea in homemade vessels with no safety or navigation equipment. The dangerous waters of the Florida Straits can be unforgiving for the unprepared on ill-advised and illegal voyages."
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