2003: Three ferry hijackers

On this date in 2003, three men who commandeered a Havana harbor ferry and made a bid for American waters were shot as Cuba cracked down hard on a wave of hijackings.

Things moved extremely quickly for Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, Barbaro Leodan Sevilla Garcia and Jorge Luis Martinez Isaac, described as “the three principal, most active and brutal leaders” of a gang of about 10.* It had been less than two weeks before that they seized the Baragua and ordered it to head for Florida.

The ship ran out of fuel, and the Cuban Coast Guard towed it back to Mariel. There were no injuries reported among the 50 passengers.

In the context of a then three-year-old moratorium on executions on the island, this probably would not have been enough to cost the ringleaders their lives, save that Fidel Castro perceived the need for a salutary example.

Despite the Yankee’s post-9/11 reprobation of “terrorism,” its definition of the phenomenon retained the familiar geopolitical biases — who is and is not a terrorist when it comes to Cuba is driven by anti-Castro Cuban exiles’ outsized political weight in Florida.

So Havana had some alarm to observe a spate of hijackings: two passenger planes had been redirected to Key West in the previous two weeks, and the passengers therefore offered American residency.

Accusing the U.S. of abetting terrorism — Washington blamed Cuba’s airport security — the government sent its own message when the Baragua desperadoes made it three hijackings in a fortnight.**

The Cuban Council of State, including Castro himself, reviewed the charges directly and gave the go-ahead to the shootings.

Hijackings did indeed stop.

Still, such a severe reprisal so swiftly enacted drew sharp rebukes from human rights advocates and even Cuban allies abroad.

Whether chastened by the reaction or just because it was indeed an exceptional circumstance, Cuba subsequently reverted to its de facto moratorium, and has not executed anybody else since this date six years ago. In 2008, Raul Castro commuted most of the extant death sentences in Cuba, leaving only three people — condemned on terrorism charges — still potentially in danger of execution.

* Others drew prison sentences ranging from a few years to life.

** The Cuban government claimed to have prevented yet another attempted skyjacking the night before the execution.

On this day..