Migrant smuggling on high seas bring new players into an old game

After spotting a disabled pleasure boat with five people aboard drifting 21 miles east of Miami, a Good Samaritan contacted the U. S. Coast Guard.

The five men aboard did have mechanical trouble that mid-April morning, but they did not want any assistance from the Coast Guard.

Turns out, they were not legally supposed to be headed toward U. S. shores. One, the captain, was an alleged Cuban American smuggler and the other four were undocumented migrants from Jamaica and Haiti. Two of the four previously had been deported and were trying to re-enter the United States illegally.

Though Coast Guard interdictions of traffickers are common on the high seas, the case of the drifting boat provides new details of a operation where suspected Cuban boat smugglers now are bringing non-Cuban migrants to South Florida.

Until recently, Cuban smugglers generally focused on bringing passengers from Cuba, but that practice appears to have stopped after the U.S. Coast Guard stepped up patrolling the Florida Straits.

The case also suggests that the Bahamas has become a major staging area for illegal boat trips to South Florida and a significant number of the undocumented immigrants boarding those boats previously have been deported.

Over the last two years, an increasing number of boats have been interdicted or spotted in waters between the Bahamas and South Florida bringing undocumented immigrants of various nationalities, including Brazilians, Dominicans, Ecuadorans, Haitians and Jamaicans.

Despite having been deported previously, many return because they have families, businesses or properties in the United States, especially South Florida.

Details of the recent case were unveiled in a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court by a special agent of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Coast Guard personnel detained the five men and brought them to their Miami Beach base. Three - Orestes Nuñez, Ronald Young and Sabouy Williamson - face federal charges: Nuñez with bringing and harboring aliens; while Young and Williamson were accused of illegal re-entry after deportation. They plead not guilty. Trial is tentatively scheduled for June.

Young and Williamson, both Jamaicans, were ordered detained pending trial, while Nuñez, a Cuban-American, was released on bond. Two Haitians, Daniel Guerrier and Petit Fahadae, were not charged. It was not known whether they will serve as government witnesses or whether they will be deported.

After Coast Guard personnel boarded the drifting vessel, Nuñez identified himself as the captain and claimed the boat had left Bimini – 58 miles east of Miami – 10 days earlier en route to Cat Cay and Freeport for a day of fishing. The boat broke down four miles out of Bimini and began to drift, he said.

But Coast Guard personnel quickly dismissed the captain’s claims, given the vessel’s location and the absence of fishing gear.

The criminal complaint also noted that Nuñez had on him $1,800, a handheld GPS device and three grams of marijuana. Young also carried $5,680, plus several cell phones.

When Coast Guard personnel ran the names through federal databases, they discovered that Young and Williamson previously had been deported - Williamson on Feb, 8, 2013 for having a felony conviction for marijuana possession. Young was expelled Jan. 31, 2013 for having a felony conviction for a prior illegal reentry into the country, the criminal complaint said.

Investigators learned that Guerrier had agreed to pay Nuñez $4,500 for the boat ride.

Williamson told interrogators a friend in the Bahamas paid $9,000 to a person named Sonya for his smuggling trip.

An associate, the complaint said, instructed Williamson to show up at a specific location in Bimini where he met Nuñez. There, Williamson boarded Nuñez’s boat and met Young. Williamson then overheard Nuñez saying that he intended to travel to Key Largo where his home is located.

When the group saw the Coast Guard approach their disabled boat, Nuñez instructed everyone not to say anything about the smuggling fees.

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