Coast Guard: South Florida relatives fueling Haitian migrant smuggling

Family members in South Florida are possibly behind a dangerous new trend in the Caribbean: the smuggling of undocumented Haitian immigrants from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, a senior Coast Guard official said Wednesday.

“The new thing that’s happening is in the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and it’s being fueled, we think, by money from relatives probably, almost assuredly up here in South Florida,” said Rear Adm. William D. Baumgartner, commander of the Seventh U.S. Coast Guard District in Miami.

“In February they started smuggling Haitians and the [migrant smugglers] are charging $1,500 to $2,000 a person, again probably being paid for by relatives up here.”

The trend was first mentioned by Coast Guard officials earlier this year, but Baumgartner’s statements Wednesday were the first to directly link the smuggling to possible payments to Dominican migrant smugglers by Haitian family members in South Florida.

Baumgartner spoke during an hour-long presentation at The Miami Herald editorial board. He also spoke about Cuban migrants, noting the Coast Guard has seen no evidence of an exodus by sea, and about his imminent retirement after 33 years in the service. His first Coast Guard patrol was in the Florida Straits as an ensign on the cutter Dependable in 1980 when he was 21. Baumgartner, now 54, retires next Wednesday.

Baumgartner’s goal was to publicize the dangers of the new Haitian migrant route and by doing so trying to deter family members here to stop paying smugglers to get their loved ones to the United States.

“The [migrants] are going in homemade open boats that can have anywhere from 30 to 100 migrants stuffed in them and they’re highly unstable and they capsize easily,” he said. “We are worried that it’s only a matter of time before we lose dozens of lives. The seas are fairly rough in the Mona Passage. When these boats slow down to approach the shoreline they tend to lose control.”

Baumgartner said Coast Guard officials have seen between 900 and 1,000 Haitian migrants attempting to cross the Mona Passage since Feb. 1. That’s a dramatic increase in such crossings; in the prior eight years, the Coast Guard detected only 188 Haitians in the passage.

Baumgartner said smugglers involved in the criminal enterprise are ruthless.

“They have no concern about the people that they’re smuggling,” said Baumgartner. “And we’ve already see them force people into the water and tell them to swim to shore and many of them don’t swim. If they think they’re going to get caught they’ll throw migrants into the water.”

Haitians began using the Mona Passage route after they realized that getting to South Florida on a boat from Haiti is now extremely difficult because of improved Coast Guard patrolling.

Reinforced patrolling also has cut down on the number of undocumented Cuban migrants trying to reach South Florida directly from Cuba via the Florida Straits, he said.

Coast Guard figures show 705 Cuban migrants interdicted in the Florida Straits since Oct. 1, compared to 937 for the same period last year.

The bulk of undocumented Cuban migrants is coming across the Mexican border.

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