Thirteen Cubans who left the island aboard a stolen fishing vessel were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and turned over to Bahamas authorities for likely deportation to Cuba, according to Coast Guard and other reports.
Coast Guard spokesperson Marilyn Fajardo said the cutter Richard Etheridge intercepted the 48-foot vessel, known as a “ferrocemento” because of its steel and concrete hull, Friday in Bahamian territorial waters.
The Royal Bahamian Defense Force confirmed 13 Cuban migrants were being held in New Providence Island but gave no further details, according to the Nassau Guardian newspaper.
The boat left at dawn Friday from Puerto Padre on Cuba’s northeastern coast, after two of its regular crewmen tied up guards at the local fishing cooperative, according to a local independent journalist, Alberto Méndez Castelló.
State Security officials told cooperative members after the ship’s seizure that Cuban authorities had reported the theft to the U.S. Coast Guard, which then intercepted the ship on Saturday, Méndez reported to the Miami-based Radio/TV Martí.
Cooperative members were also told that the Cuban migrants would be returned to the island, and that a crew would be sent soon to the Bahamas to return the vessel to Puerto Padre, Méndez told the U.S. government broadcaster.
The 13 could face charges of stealing the vessel as well as intimidating, disarming, and tying up the guards, according to the journalist. He said those charges bring prison terms of three to eight years.
Police have taken control of the cooperative. The guards, the rest of the ship’s crew, and the directors of the cooperative have been fired, Méndez reported. The dismissals hint at possible collusion in the theft of the vessel in the municipality of 94,000 people.
The journalist told the Miami-based U.S. government broadcaster that the passengers apparently included people from Puerto Padre, 440 miles southeast of Havana, as well as other parts of the island.
Fajardo said the U.S. Coast Guard has an agreement with the Bahamas that allows Nassau to make the decision on what to do with vessels intercepted in territorial waters. Nassau in turn has an agreement with Havana to return intercepted Cuban migrants who are not granted refugee status.
Bahamian officials have been investigating reports of severe guard abuses of Cuban, Haitian, and other undocumented migrants at the Carmichael Road migrant detention center in Nassau.
The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 1,357 Cuban migrants at sea in the one-year period that ended Sept. 30, a slight rise from the 1,275 intercepted in the previous 12-month period, according to official figures.
The vast majority of those intercepted at sea were returned to Havana under Washington’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy. Another 359 reached U.S. shores in the latest one-year period and were allowed to stay.
There have been sporadic reports of increased corruption among government officials in charge of stopping illegal departures, such as port officials and Frontier Guards, equivalent to the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 1999, a rowdy crowd of about 1,000 Puerto Padre residents gathered at the harbor to witness a standoff between security forces and a dozen men and women who tried to escape but anchored in the bay to try to fix the motor of their 21-foot boat.
Some of the onlookers chanted “Freedom” and others used small boats to deliver food and water to the occupants of the stranded vessel, according to Miami Herald reports at the time. The occupants were eventually detained.
Méndez reported that the ship, which was stolen Friday, was the last remaining vessel operated by the Puerto Padre cooperative, which supplies the local market, and already had been provisioned for a fishing trip. The vessel usually goes out about twice per month.
He added that several residents of Puerto Padre commented over the weekend that the theft might leave the town with fewer fish than before but wished a safe arrival to the 13.