Florida Keys

Feds rescue a Cuban fishing boat drifting for days at sea and ask: ‘Where are you going?’

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations boat accompanied a Carnival Cruise Line ship carrying 23 Cuban citizens to the Port of Mobile in Alabama Monday, April 15, 2019. The Cubans were on a fishing boat found drifting in the Gulf of Mexico near the Yucatan Peninsula earlier in the day.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations boat accompanied a Carnival Cruise Line ship carrying 23 Cuban citizens to the Port of Mobile in Alabama Monday, April 15, 2019. The Cubans were on a fishing boat found drifting in the Gulf of Mexico near the Yucatan Peninsula earlier in the day.

They may have just been out for a day of fishing that went wrong, or they may have been part of a recent boost in Cubans trying to make their way to the United States through the Florida Straits.

But, a group of 23 people from Cuba ended up drifting all the way across the Gulf of Mexico before their disabled vessel was located by the U.S. Coast Guard Monday — three days after they boarded the sports fishing boat, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The incident involved two boats crewed by Cuban citizens, according to a Customs official speaking on background. The first boat broke down somewhere off Cuba. Then, the captain of another boat came to that vessel’s aid, but that vessel also broke down.

“And they were all drifting in the Gulf for about three days before they were located by the Coast Guard,” the official said, adding, “No information yet as to what they were doing on the boat to begin with.”

The Coast Guard found them about 100 miles north of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, according to a Customs press release. They were taken aboard the Carnival Cruise Line ship Fantasy, which took them to the Port of Mobile in Alabama Monday morning where federal agents interviewed them, according to the release.

“The interview determined the castaways to be Cuban nationals, but there was no evidence of human smuggling, so they were processed for expedited removal and are being held in the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, pending removal,” the Customs press release states. “The incident remains under investigation.”

A Customs Air and Marine Operations boat accompanied the cruise ship to the port.

Since the end of the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy in late 2017, which allowed Cubans who arrived on U.S. shores to stay, but mandated those stopped at sea be sent home, maritime migration from Cuba has slowed considerably. But April has proved the exception.

Since the beginning of the month, the Coast Guard has stopped 40 Cubans who were either en route to South Florida or found hiding on the uninhabited Bahamian island of Cay Sal, which is between Key West and Cuba.

Cuban migrants are greeted by witnesses as they arrive in the Florida Keys after a journey at sea on a makeshift boat.

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