Feds bust Bahamas-to-Keys immigrant smuggling network

A Border Protection pilot monitors the Florida coast for undocumented immigrants.
A Border Protection pilot monitors the Florida coast for undocumented immigrants.

Federal agents have dismantled a South Florida immigrant smuggling network that brought undocumented foreign nationals from the Bahamas in boats to the Florida Keys so they could live and work in the United States illegally, according to federal court records.

Federal immigration agencies discovered the migrant smuggling ring after a joint covert operation based on a confidential tip, according to court records.

South Florida immigration authorities say fishing and pleasure boat owners often become enticed by the money to be made in migrant smuggling. In the latest case, for example, migrant traffickers charged $8,000 per person to transport people from the Bahamas to South Florida.

The case began Nov. 23 when special agents assigned to the Miami Alien Smuggling Group, part of Homeland Security Investigations, received information about a migrant smuggling venture from Bimini, in the Bahamas, around Nov. 25.

Investigators located family members of at least two undocumented immigrants from Brazil who were going to be transported by boat to Key Largo from Bimini, according to a criminal complaint filed by an HSI special agent.

“Family member one,” the complaint said, “was...told that he would have to deliver the smuggling fee of $16,000, $8,000 per person.”

Family members awaited word of their relatives’ arrival at Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo, according to the criminal complaint.

HSI and other immigration agencies organized the surveillance operation to stop the illegal smuggling, according to the criminal complaint.

“On Nov. 26, 2016, at approximately 1:15 a.m., a United States Coast Guard air asset observed a 25-30 foot center console vessel with several persons on board, approximately 20 nautical miles east of Miami,” the complaint said.

The plane crew witnessed how at one point near the coast, the vessel stopped and transferred passengers to a small boat.

In all, 14 people were transferred from one boat to the other.

About four hours later, HSI agents in Key Largo saw a white pickup truck deliver several people to a residence in Key Largo where they were picked up by family members. Several of the migrants were undocumented Brazilians, according to the complaint.

After the transfer, Coast Guard personnel intercepted the larger vessel and arrested one of the suspected smugglers.

An HSI spokesman said he could not comment because the case was ongoing; lawyers for the defendants also declined to comment.