It was early afternoon on May 5, when the captain of the motor vessel Bayou Bull spotted unusual movement on one of the two barges he was towing.
He saw a person on the barge, which was supposed to be empty, and immediately called the Coast Guard, which responded by sending a boarding party to the barge.
There they found two stowaways, both undocumented immigrants who had secretly boarded the barge as the Bayou Bull departed from the Dominican Republic en route to Tampa.
Now, the two men — Reynaldo Sarita-Alvarado and Roberto Cuevas Garo — are facing criminal prosecution in Miami federal court. Both men were arrested, have been indicted and pleaded not guilty, though Sarita-Alvarado has since decided to change his plea. Court documents show he plans to plead guilty in July.
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“The Coast Guard is always concerned about illegal and unsafe maritime migration to the United States,” the Coast Guard said in a statement. “There are safe, orderly and legal methods of entry into the U.S.”
The case began at 1:31 p.m. May 5 when the Coast Guard station in Key West received a phone call from the captain of the Bayou Bull, who reported that he had observed a person on one of the two barges he was towing to Tampa from the Dominican Republic.
It wasn’t until he reached the so-called northwest channel in Key West that he spotted the person in the barge.
“During the transit through the Northwest Channel, the Master [of the Bayou Bull] reported that he had observed one person on one of the barges wave at him and had called the Coast Guard,” according to a Coast Guard criminal complaint.
Coast Guard personnel boarded the barge and discovered Sarita-Alvarado and Cuevas Garo, both of whom acknowledged that they did not have visas to enter the United States.
When Coast Guard officials checked the stowaways’ fingerprints against immigration databases, they learned that Sarita-Alvarado had been previously deported from the United States. It is a felony for a previously deported foreign national to return to the United States without permission. Had he not decided to plead guilty, Sarita-Alvarado could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison, five years for the stowaway charge and two additional years for illegal reentry, according to the indictment in the case. He is likely to get a lesser sentence if he pleads guilty.
The two men apparently swam out to the barges while they were still in port in the Dominican Republic as the Bayou Bull was about to begin its voyage.
The case is somewhat similar to one that unfolded last September at Port Everglades in Broward County.
In that case, port stevedores called the Broward Sheriff’s Office after they spotted four men leaving a cargo vessel that had arrived from the port of La Guaira on the northern coast of Venezuela near the Caracas International Airport.
When Broward deputies arrived, the four men took off running — but eventually they were rounded up. Federal immigration officers eventually established that the men were stowaways who had boarded the cargo vessel at La Guaira.
Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter @AlfonsoChardy