Florida Keys

Smugglers looking to unload in the Keys must contend with elite team of federal agents

Three interdiction agents with U.S. Customs Air and Marine Operations cruise in their 40-foot Midnight Express center console looking for signs of maritime smuggling.
Three interdiction agents with U.S. Customs Air and Marine Operations cruise in their 40-foot Midnight Express center console looking for signs of maritime smuggling. KeysInfoNet

An elite team of federal agents in a high-speed Midnight Express-brand center console boat took off after a similarly built go-fast boat off Key Largo.

Saltwater sprayed in the faces of the men inside both boats as their respective vessels came side-to-side, at times, just inches apart from one another.

Just when it seemed the captain of the federal agents’ vessel gained the upper hand, the pursued boat picked up even more speed and made a sharp portside turn to evade capture.

The three men in the Midnight Express are part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO).

During the final stage of the chase, they came up fast behind the other vessel, sometimes traveling at speeds as high as 60 knots, until the console of the pursuing 40-foot boat was parallel to the right of the fleeing boat’s four 300-horsepower Mercury engines.

With their boat’s blue lights flashing and sirens on, this is the time when the AMO interdiction agents would fire a device that lets out a bright flash and a loud bang to get the suspect boat driver’s attention. If that didn’t work, the AMO agents would “disable” the vessel’s engines.

“If everything else is not working, we disable the engine, and that’s it,” said an interdiction agent who asked only to be identified for this story as Mike, due to the sensitive nature of the AMO’s work.

But last week’s chase was a drill. The boat being pursued was crewed by another group of AMO interdiction agents who also patrol the waters off the Upper Keys for smugglers of drugs, migrants, illicit cash and any other assortment of contraband that violate United States customs laws.

Unlike a deputy or highway patrol trooper who needs probable cause to stop a vehicle, AMO agents are permitted, and often do, stop, vessels at random to check for identification, registration and proper documentation – and most importantly, to ask questions.

“The majority of our time is spent talking to the general public,” Mike said. “We speak to people throughout the day to see what they see.”

Face time with civilian boaters is an essential part of the agents’ job because smuggling vessels don’t often stand out.

Other ways the AMO agents catch smugglers is by intelligence from undercover agents and from the agency’s air assets patrolling the skies above. Those aircraft notify boat crews of suspicious vessels, and the marine units are able to quickly respond.

“It does become very challenging at times,” said Interdiction Agent Alex Rodriguez.

AMO agents are quick to point that they are not Border Patrol, which is a separate agency under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella, but which operates in between ports of entry.

While both agencies protect the U.S. border, AMO agents protect a “soft border” on the water where wrongdoers many times blend in with everyday boaters, and where people can easily sail back and forth to other countries not too far from Florida.

“We have such a soft border that you can go to the Bahamas and back in one day, and people do this daily,” Rodriguez said.

This is why the agents check everything out on the water. Stopping a boat for even the most seemingly minor violation can lead to an arrest.

On Wednesday, the agents passed a large center consol leaving Blackpoint Marina in south Miami-Dade County when one agent noticed the boat wasn’t displaying its Florida registration on the hull. That was enough to convince the AMO agents to turn around and stop the boat.

Two AMO agents boarded the boat. The vessel’s driver explained that his boat was new and he was waiting for much of his documentation to arrive in the mail. The agents radioed in the captain’s information and confirmed he was the vessel’s legitimate owner. They told him he needed to display his Florida registration number or risk a fine from state law enforcement.

The situation began and ended peacefully. The boat captain and his passenger were cooperative and respectful. But the captain did have a legal firearm onboard, which one agent had to secure while his colleague ran the registration check and questioned the captain. The presence of the weapon was a reminder of how quickly any law enforcement officer’s day can go from mundane to dangerous.

“We train for a lot of scenarios,” Rodriguez said. “But we can’t train for everything, because it’s endless.”

AMO agents are some of the most well-prepared and seasoned law enforcement officers in the nation, or as Rodriguez said, they “are not entry-level.”

Almost all of the roughly 1,000 agents crewing boats, airplanes and helicopters nationally in the AMO already had extensive resumes in law enforcement, the military or both. The average age of a AMO interdiction agent falls in between 30 and 55 years-old. They also have to have significant boating experience. All AMO agents must possess U.S. Coast Guard captain’s licenses.

With all the training needed to join the AMO, it’s unlikely someone fresh out of college or the military can get in.

“The amount of experience we demand doesn’t give a young guy the proper amount of time to achieve those goals,” Rodriguez said.

And even when someone becomes an AMO agent, he or she still has a steep learning curve, especially in the Keys, which present unique boating challenges for even the most experienced captains.

“When they come here, it’s like resetting the clock,” Rodriguez said.