Cuban migrants claim mistreatment in message in a bottle

- A Tampa man fishing off the shores of Key West said he made a surprising discovery this week when he noticed an inflated rubber surgical glove bobbing in the water. The glove was tied to a bottle, and inside Jason Harrelson said he found an S.O.S. message.

"It said, 'S.O.S. Please help me,'" he recalled.

The letter, however, is believed to have been tossed in the water by a group of people who were already rescued. The S.O.S., written almost entirely in Spanish, contained the names of 24 men and women. They're the same 24 Cuban migrants attorneys believe were detained and held - for the past 40 days - on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

Though the migrants are presumably safe from the seas aboard the ship, the letter seems to be a cry for help, alleging mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Harrelson said he couldn't read the entire letter when he cut it out of the bottle, but understood someone was in danger. He contacted the Coast Guard immediately, and that's when things took an unexpected turn.

"They asked me if I could email them the letter, so I did," Harrelson recalled, adding it wasn't long before his phone rang. "The Coast Guard immediately wanted to send somebody out to us to retrieve this letter."

As Harrelson made his way back to shore, he said he sent a picture of the letter to his wife, hoping she could help translate the message. 

"The way we were able to translate it is that they were being treated like dogs," Harrelson explained.

The letter claims the migrants have been mistreated, "to the point of violence." It claims at least one woman is very sick, that the migrants are forced to sleep on the floor, "the food is for dogs" and that some of the migrants are "going crazy."

"This is hell," the letter says. It ends with a plea for someone to contact the migrants' Miami-based lawyers for help.

In a statement, the the U.S. Coast Guard said it's looking into the accusations.  

"While this was a challenging situation for everyone involved given the extenuating circumstances, we take any report of improper treatment of migrants very seriously. This matter is currently being investigated.

"The U.S. Coast Guard is a humanitarian service with a proud history of saving lives at sea. Our men and women have demonstrated tremendous professionalism, genuine empathy, and concern for the safety and welfare of all migrants interdicted. With respect to the 24 Cuban migrants recovered on American Shoal Lighthouse, they were treated with care, compassion and respect during the past five weeks.  This was a very challenging situation for both the migrants and our Coast Guard crews as their case was adjudicated.  The migrants were afforded the most comfortable conditions possible given the extenuating circumstances.  All migrants receive food, water, clothing, and medical care while onboard our cutters. Safety of life at sea, regardless of nationality, is the Coast Guard's primary concern. The dangerous waters of the Florida Straits can be unforgiving for the unprepared on ill-advised and illegal voyages. Immigration policies have not changed and we continue to urge people not to take to the ocean in unseaworthy vessels."

On May 20, the Coast Guard removed the group of migrants from a decommissioned lighthouse located about 6.5 miles from the Keys. Since then, the men and women have had to wait as the legal system sorts out whether they can stay, or will have to return to Cuba.

On Tuesday, a judge ruled the migrants had not technically made it to U.S. soil and would have to be repatriated.

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