Illegal Cuban migrants slip from Turks into Miami

Sixteen illegal Cuban migrants have slipped out of the Turks and Caicos Islands as mysteriously as they arrived, and at least a dozen have been delivered to Miami by what authorities suspect is a people-smuggling ring.

The Miami arrivals include the mother and other relatives of Oakland Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who told ESPN last week that he was ecstatic after having just seen her for the first time since he defected in 2011.

Clara Gardiner, in charge of the Turks and Caicos’ Ministry of Immigration and Border Control, said Thursday that authorities are investigating the Cubans’ escape but that she did not know when the inquiry would be completed.

The Cubans’ disappearance points to the existence of a ring suspected of smuggling Cubans and Haitians westward through the Bahamas and to Florida, according to officials in the Turks and Caicos, a British-run territory about 250 miles northeast of Cuba.

The case started when a Turks and Caicos coastal radar detected a speed boat coming out of Cuba in October, according to two detailed reports on the Cubans by the territory’s Sun newspaper. Authorities followed it to a waterfront mansion in the Discovery Bay area of Providenciales, the third largest island in the territory.

Police detained a total of 25 illegal Cuban migrants in the rented mansion and other parts of the island chain, the Sun reported, including Cespedes’ mother, Estela Milanes Salazar, three children, a seven-month-old baby and her 17-year-old mother.

Some of the Cubans had fake Turks and Caicos stamps on their passports. One told authorities that she had arrived more than three months earlier, according to the newspaper. Most appeared to have arrived by speed boat.

The four children and their two mothers stayed with a Cuban doctor legally in the Turks and Caicos, and the rest were taken to the Five Cays Detention Centre, where Milanes and nine others asked for political asylum. It’s not clear what happened to the others.

A judge ordered the 10 Cubans freed in January, after their attorney complained that conditions at the detention center were terrible and that one of the women had suffered a miscarriage for lack of medical attention. They had to post a $20,000 guarantee and report to police once a week.

Prosecutors opposed the request, arguing that the Cubans had requested asylum only after they were found by police, that not all asylum applicants were legitimate and that the Cubans would be free to slip out of the Turks and Caicos illegally.

Authorities believe that smugglers spirited the 16 Cubans out of the Turks and Caicos aboard speed boats. “Based on what we’ve seen so far, this is an extremely well-organized operation,” the Sun quoted one law enforcement source as saying.

The ESPN report on March 12 noted that Cespedes had just returned to Oakland As’ spring training camp in Phoenix after seeing his mother and 11 other family members in Miami for the first time since he defected in 2011.

ESPN reported that Cespedes, speaking through an interpreter, Oakland coach Ariel Prieto, said his 12 family members had left Cuba illegally more than one year ago for the United States but was “vague” on details.

He mentioned a stop in the Dominican Republic — southeast of the British islands — and claimed they had been “released” from the Turks and Caicos, according to the ESPN report.

Cespedes said his mother, now 44, was a pitcher on the Cuban Olympic softball team and could throw an 80 mph fastball.

Four Cuban women detained in the Bahamas as illegal migrants said, meanwhile, that they have declared a hunger strike to block plans to send them back to the communist-run island, according to the blog Diario de Cuba.

The women are among the 33 Cubans who arrived illegally in the Bahamas in different groups in recent months and are being held in the Nassau Detention Center. Bahamas authorities usually repatriate almost all Cuban migrants detained there.

Read more Cuba stories from the Miami Herald

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