Miami-Dade County

Migrant smuggling on boats is on the rise

The number of boats bringing undocumented migrants from various countries other than Cuba is on the increase, according to federal authorities, who say smugglers have turned to other nationalities as the smuggling of Cubans has dried up.

One Oct. 16, a boat carrying migrants from Haiti capsized east of Miami Beach. Just two weeks before, on Oct. 3, federal authorities spotted a boat leaving Bimini, in the Bahamas, and traveling west toward U.S. shores without navigation lights.

On Aug. 28, smugglers dumped a group of Haitian migrants near Palm Beach and ordered them to swim ashore. A 14-year-old girl was later found dead on the beach.

And between 2009 and 2010, boats traveling between the Bahamas and South Florida smuggled dozens of Brazilians who first traveled to Europe and then flew to the Bahamas to board the smuggling boats to South Florida.

Federal officials say there’s an increase in migrant boat traffic toward South Florida involving the smuggling of undocumented foreign nationals of various nationalities. The boat traffic appears to have drawn smugglers who once primarily transported Cuban migrants across the Florida Straits and who now are focusing on nationals from other countries because the Cuban migrant smuggling organization have largely been dismantled, the officials said.

“Smugglers look for business anywhere,” said a federal official familiar with the issue.

The dismantling of the Cuban migrant smuggling networks along with improved Coast Guard patrolling and interdiction tactics are credited with a dramatic decrease in the number of Cuban migrants arriving by sea.

As a result, the majority of undocumented Cuban migrants are now arriving through the Mexican border. They come not only by boat from the island to the Yucatán peninsula but also overland from South and Central America.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is the lead agency investigating boat migrant-smuggling networks.

Over the last two or thee years, investigators have noticed an increase in the number of boats operated by smugglers and transporting undocumented migrants of various nationalities.

The federal official familiar with the issue said that while several smuggling organizations were involved, they seemed to share similar traits. A significant number of them, the official added, operated boats that began voyages toward South Florida in the Bahamas – but carried migrants who came from as far away as Brazil, Ecuador or Colombia. Some of the migrants also started out in Haiti or the Dominican Republic but then made their way to the Bahamas to board smuggling boats for the final leg to South Florida.

In some cases, small boats overloaded with migrants begin their trips in Haiti.

That was the case in the ill-fated voyage of the 25-foot fishing boat that flipped over five miles east of Miami Beach, killing four female Haitian migrants Oct. 16. It carried 15 migrants, some of whom started the voyage in the northwestern Haitian coastal city of Port-de-Paix, according to Louisias Pierre, one of the survivors interviewed recently by the Miami Herald.

An affidavit in Miami federal court from an HSI special agent quoted one of the witnesses in the tragedy as saying that people boarded the boat in the Bahamas,

Pierre told the Miami Herald that the smugglers promised to transfer the migrants to a larger boat in the Bahamas, but that never happened. The boat did stop in the Bahamas, but only to pick up more migrants.

In the Oct. 3 voyage, the 24-foot boat began its trip in Bimini, according to an affidavit from another HSI special agent.

When a Customs and Border Protection vessel intercepted the suspect boat it disobeyed orders to stop.

“The operator of the suspect vessel then proceeded to increase his speed and performed evasive maneuvers, such as aggressively making left and right turns in an S-pattern, in an attempt to avoid interdiction,” the HIS affidavit said. “Due to the failure of the suspect vessel to stop, CBP fired two warning shots forward of the bow.”

The affidavit said the boat finally stopped about 10 miles east of Elliott Key, just south of Key Biscayne.

When CBP officers approached, they saw five men on the boat. One told officers that he was testing the boat, possibly to purchase it. A second man claimed he was brokering the sale. The three other men, they claimed, were migrants they had rescued from a makeshift boat adrift in the sea.

But once everyone was brought ashore, federal agents learned that two of the men were migrant smugglers and the other three were Cuban migrants without visas.

The federal official familiar with the issue said migrants pay a wide range of prices to be smuggled in — from as little as $1,000 or $2,000 per person to cross from the Bahamas to South Florida to as much as $15,000 for a comprehensive travel package from Brazil that includes flights to Europe and the Bahamas and then the boat ride to South Florida.

It’s unclear whether most boats are interdicted or get through to South Florida.

“We don’t catch them all,” the official said. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game.”