MIAMI (AP) — The bodies surfaced 20 miles from a popular South Florida beach: Four men, still youthful. Their remains were badly deteriorated, bitten by sharks, the faces unrecognizable.
One had a horseshoe-shaped scar on his head. Two bore tattoos — one with a spider on his back, another with a tiger on his arm. The fourth wore orange briefs and a gold-colored watch.
The Coast Guard delivered them to the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office — four more among the thousands who have died trying to cross the turbulent Florida Straits.
These bodies are often too exposed to saltwater and sea life to provide visual clues. Politics has made identifying the remains of Cuban migrants even more difficult: Because of the five-decade diplomatic stalemate between the U.S. and Cuba, pathologists in Florida 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.
Instead, investigators must piece together a puzzle of scars, tattoos, surgeries and clothing. In a best-case scenario, U.S. family members can be found to give DNA samples and get some closure. Florida law prohibits cremating unidentified bodies, so some bones are stored 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 at sea or made it to shore in the last fiscal year.
Most travel on rafts of wood, metal and Styrofoam, powered by a makeshift motor. With little or no navigational tools, they can get lost at sea, succumbing to dehydration far from shore. Some vessels are so small that sharks can tip them over. The vast majority who die simply disappear.
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.
Holly Ackerman, a Duke University researcher who has extensively studied Cuban rafters, said the U.S. and Cuba could help identify the missing and dead by comparing the names of those who left the island and those entered the United States, but have never done so.
Sanchez, for his part, has written to federal officials asking that the U.S. and Cuba establish a process to cooperate and identify rafters who are found dead.
In one of the worst Cuban rafter tragedies in recent years, 32 migrants left this August from Manzanillo, on the island's southern shore, and were stranded at sea for nearly a month. Only 15 were still alive when Mexican fishermen found them in early September. Two of those later died. The others perished at sea, their bodies thrown overboard, or tried to swim ashore. Their remains have not been found.
The four bodies recovered off Florida on Aug. 24 received less attention. There were no survivors to tell how long they had been at sea or where they had come from.
Then Sanchez began receiving calls: A group of nine people, including one pregnant woman, had disappeared five days earlier. All were friends and neighbors from San Antonio de los Banos, a town of 46,000 some 20 miles southwest of Havana.
When a group of people suddenly disappears on the island, Cubans know it likely means they've fled on a raft.
School teacher Junier Hernandez, 32, left a letter saying he was leaving and that his father should care for his 8-year-old son. Lester Martinez, 27, told his family the day before that he would leave on a raft.
"Think about what you're doing, it's crazy," his relatives implored.
"Trust me," Martinez insisted, according to his cousin.
Thirty-five-year-old Jose Ramon Acosta told no one he was leaving, but he'd seen his nephew Aliandi Garcia, 24, leave a year before. Garcia made it to Miami, where he got a call from relatives back in Cuba: "Your uncle left for the U.S.," they said. "Watch the television for any news."
Days passed. Relatives called the Cuban coast guard, but they had no information. The U.S. Coast Guard had not picked up any rafters matching their description.
Finally, Sanchez learned the Coast Guard had recovered four bodies off Hollywood Beach.
He gathered the U.S. relatives together — some distant cousins who had never met the rafters before — and went to the Broward County morgue, where investigators shared the bad news: The bodies were no longer recognizable. Some had body parts missing with "distinct semi-circular teeth impressions" along the edges of the tissue.
Chief Medical Examiner Craig Mallak said he contacted the Coast Guard about obtaining dental records and DNA from their relatives, but was told: "Until we have diplomatic relations with Cuba, it's very difficult."
"If you have a complete dental match, it's as good as a fingerprint or DNA," Mallak said. "But we weren't going to get that in this case."
So investigators spent hours with the families, collecting potential clues: how tall the men were, their hair color, whether they had any markings on their skin.
They learned that Garcia's uncle had surgery for epileptic seizures matching the shape and spot of Acosta's scar. The next piece of information removed any doubt: Investigators showed Garcia a picture of a gray shirt with a red Puma logo on it. It was the same shirt Garcia had given his uncle before he'd left on a raft himself.
That night, he broke the news to their family in Cuba. His grandmother began to scream: "My son is dead! My son is dead!"
Two of the other rafters, Alberto Mesa, 25, and Enrique Milanes, 45, were identified by their tattoos. Mesa was the father of a 2-year-old who sold hot dogs and had attempted to leave the island by raft at least four or five times before, his aunt said.
One of the only things distinguishing the fourth body was the gold-colored Orient brand watch, clouded by seawater that seeped under the glass covering the hour and minute hands. Hernandez's Miami relatives immediately recognized it as a present given to Hernandez's father several years earlier.
"It was just horrible," said Hernandez's cousin, Andres Diaz. "With a normal death, it's over with immediately. But this is a long, painstaking process that seems to never end."
Martinez and four others who apparently left with them are still missing. And two of the recovered bodies remain in the county morgue.
Garcia, who rents a room in a trailer and struggles to get by on restaurant work after one year in Miami, said he can't afford to cremate or bury his uncle's remains. Mesa's family would like to bury him in Cuba, but that will cost thousands of dollars they do not have.
Diaz said his family plans to bury Hernandez's ashes in Miami.
He has a small headshot image of the cousin he never met, showing Hernandez dressed in a black suit and shiny gray tie, his short dark hair pushed back with gel. The photo was taken for a passport the Cuban government denied, Diaz said.
"He died trying to come to this country," Diaz said. "We're going to bury him here."
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario