Video: Cuban smuggling a high stakes, high priced industry

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/15/2006 7:43:33 PM ET 2006-09-15T23:43:33

KEY WEST, Fla. — On a choppy sea 65 miles south of Key West, a 28-foot motorboat grossly overloaded with Cuban migrants was in serious trouble.

Suspected of being a smuggler's vessel with 37 people crammed aboard, it was spotted by the U.S. Coast Guard, which reported that the boat was stopped, and the passengers were bailing water.

After passing out life vests to all aboard, the Coast Guard crew removed 15 of the migrants and ferried them aboard a rescue boat to the cutter Metompkin.

But, as they returned, the suspected smuggling vessel suddenly capsized, throwing 22 people into the water. 

The Coast Guard rescued 20 of them, but the Cuban passengers reported that two women were missing. When the boat was righted, their bodies were found trapped beneath. The women drowned still wearing their life vests.

Frequent deaths and injuries
Officials says deaths and injuries are all too common occurrences in the lucrative but dangerous business of smuggling Cubans to the United States.

"Unfortunately, we've had some tragedies at sea this year related to migrant smuggling," says Capt. Scott Buschman, the commander of the Coast Guard sector in Key West. "We've had several people that have been killed, both from drowning and from trauma."

John Woods, an Assistant Special Agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says the smugglers often treat their illegal passengers badly, with little regard for their safety.

"The passengers aren't human beings, they're contraband. That's how they are treated," he says. "It could be a bale of marijuana, a kilo of cocaine, or a human being."

Organized crime rings
Although it still occurs, fewer Cubans leave the communist island on rafts and homemade boats than they did years ago during major migration crises.

Now, sophisticated organized crime rings based in South Florida use high-powered speedboats to sneak into Cuba under cover of darkness, and then ferry their human cargo back to the U.S.

They often drop off the passengers on islands or desolate beaches in the Florida Keys. Recently, because of increased law enforcement pressure, smugglers began branching out to Southwest Florida.

Under the U.S. immigration policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," a Cuban migrant who arrives on American soil is allowed to stay in the U.S., despite the fact he was smuggled in. 

The illicit ventures are usually paid for by Cuban-exile families living in South Florida, desperate to be reunited with relatives still in Cuba. Sometimes the migrants pay back the smugglers by working as crew members on other boat trips to Cuba.

"It's something like indentured servitude," says Robert Harley, a group supervisor for ICE. "Once they arrive here, they have a debt to work off for the organization."

Officials say the price for smuggling a Cuban to the U.S. is between $8,000-10,000. One small speedboat with 25 migrants crammed aboard can earn the smuggling organizations up to $250,000.

Law enforcement officials say the smuggling groups consist of travel arrangers, financiers, boat drivers, and straw purchasers who are used to obscure the ownership of the speedboats.

"It's a criminal enterprise. It's organized crime," says ICE's Woods.

Maximize profits: cut safety corners
Very few of the smuggling boats have adequate safety equipment on board, and are usually dangerously overloaded. Boats officially rated to carry only eight people aboard are often used to carry loads of more than 35 Cuban passengers, putting them in grave peril should they encounter rough seas or bad weather.

"They may be bouncing around. There's no way for the people to restrain themselves, and there are any number of ways to get hurt," says Coast Guard Capt. Buschman.  

In one tragic incident last July, a Cuban woman aboard a smuggling boat hit her head and later died. The boat drivers had raced at high speed trying to outmaneuver pursuing Coast Guard vessels. They were forced to stop when a Coast Guard crewman fired two shots, disabling the boat engines.

On another ill-fated trip, a six-year-old Cuban boy died when the smuggler's boat he was on capsized.

And several Cubans suffered broken bones after they jumped off a still-moving boat while the smugglers evaded law enforcement boats and tried to get their passengers close to a small island in the Florida Keys.

"The smugglers don't get paid unless they land the migrant," says Harley, the ICE agent. "The incentive for the smuggler is not to stop when an attempted interdiction is underway. They need to get to land to get a payday."

Alex Rodriguez, a senior agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, has been chasing Cuban smugglers in the Florida Keys for the last six years. He says the more organized and sophisticated the criminal groups are, the fewer concerns they show for their passengers.

"We had a smuggler here a couple of years ago being chased by us, by law enforcement out on the water, [who] decided to lighten up his load and started throwing people overboard," he says.

Rodriguez, a Cuban-American, dismisses arguments from some in the Cuban-immigrant community that a smuggler is a noble liberator, concerned about helping Cuban families reunify with their loved ones.

"If they're alive, if they're unconscious, if they're breathing, if they're cut, he doesn't care," Rodriguez said. "His No. 1 goal is to get here, and drop them off." 

Increased prosecutions
Some law enforcement officials complain that the prison sentences given to convicted immigrant smugglers usually are far lighter than those served by drug smugglers — in some instances not even a year of incarceration.

They say the relatively minimal sentences do little to convince smugglers to cooperate with investigators by naming other criminals involved in the illegal enterprises.

Alex Acosta, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, says federal prosecutors are now addressing this issue by bringing stiffer charges that they hope will lead them higher into the smugglers' organization.

"It's not enough to just charge the boat drivers," Acosta says. "We have to move up the organizational chain to the individuals that are really funding these smuggling ventures."

In the cases where Cuban passengers have died, and suspected smugglers have been arrested, prosecutors leveled charges that can lead to substantial jail time when there is a conviction.

"These are very serious crimes. We have been charging them as manslaughter, because there are lives at risk," says Acosta.

National security concerns
Sprinkled among the Cuban migrants being smuggled into the U.S. recently were some Chinese and Indian passengers, according to law enforcement officials.

This is raising national security and terrorism concerns about exactly who else is crossing the Florida Straits to enter the U.S.

"It appears that Cuba may be becoming a transit point," says ICE agent Harley. "The smuggling organizations do not differentiate between whom they're smuggling. It is imperative that we know who is transiting that water and making their way into South Florida."

It is one more level at which the business of smuggling Cubans is a major concern. But with so much money involved, and a steady demand for this illicit service, the dangerous trips on treacherous waters continue, despite warnings from officials.

"This is not about family reunification," says attorney Acosta. "This is about smugglers making money, not caring if migrants die in the process."

Mark Potter is an NBC News Correspondent based in Miami.


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