HAVANA — On a calm weather day, with blue skies and a flat sea, a Cuban Border Guard patrol boat made its way along the coastline near the capitol city.
Increasingly, the mission for the officers and crew aboard this vessel is to try to stop the hundreds of smugglers who come here illegally from Florida each year to pick up thousands of Cuban passengers and sneak them into the United States, often through Mexico.
Catching the smugglers is very difficult, because they typically arrive clandestinely in the middle of the night at remote beaches. They board their passengers and then speed away on their high-powered boats in just a few minutes.
A new form of aggression?
On the patrol boat, Colonel Jorge Samper used a nautical chart to point out many of the hidden coves and islands along Cuba's vast coastline where American smugglers have come and gone in the last few years.
Samper is second in command of the Cuban Border Guard, and has been in its service for more than 30 years. He believes the increasing activities of smugglers— most of them either Cuban-Americans from South Florida, or Mexicans working for the Cuban-American traffickers— are a safety hazard and a threat to Cuba's national security.
"Our country is subjected to a new type of aggression," he said. "Hundreds of boats a year flying a U.S. flag, registered in Florida, that illegally enter our territorial waters and violate our national borders."
To prove his point, Samper showed a reporter three speedboats with Florida registrations that he said were seized in Cuban waters with smugglers aboard. Two of the vessels were picked up during the same week after they broke down at sea, he said. On board each of the boats was an array of sophisticated navigation and communications equipment.
"Smuggling is a high-risk crime, because it endangers the lives of many people including children, women, the elderly— people of all ages who are caught up in this criminal activity," he said.
The smugglers from the three Florida boats were being held in a Cuban prison, Samper added. One of the vessels has been converted into a Border Guard patrol boat and flies a Cuban flag now.
A dangerous but lucrative business
While the organized efforts to smuggle Cubans to the United States or Mexico aboard speedboats is quite treacherous, it is also extremely lucrative for the leaders of the crime groups.
On average now, a smuggling trip costs the passengers $10,000 each, although recently some passengers told NBC News they were forced to pay $12,000. The smugglers, they said, informed them the price had gone up, because of the increased risk caused by stepped-up efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies.
Very few Cubans on the island actually have that kind of money, so their fees are usually paid by family members in the United States. Occasionally, the arrangement is for the passengers to pay as much as $2,000 up front in Cuba, and the families to pay the rest after their relatives either arrive in Florida, or in Mexico from where they then head to the U.S. border.
Assisting the smugglers within Cuba are local arrangers and transporters who contact the potential passengers, gather them together, then drive them to remote coastal areas to await the arrival of the speedboat.
To avoid the Cuban authorities, the local organizers are very cautious, and sometimes go to unusual lengths to make sure the passengers they pick up are actually headed for the smuggling boats, and aren't state security agents.
One man who boarded a smuggler's boat, but was caught at sea and repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard, told NBC News that he was instructed to await the transporters at a particular location.
"That day I was to be at a specific traffic circle wearing a red T-shirt and white trousers and holding a big bottle of water in my hands," he said. "There, a guy was going to approach me and ask, 'Are you going to the party?' and I was to answer, 'Yes,' and it happened just like that."
With his intent and identity verified, the man then boarded a truck that made numerous other stops to collect a total of 58 people. Eventually, the ride ended and the passengers were then told to walk to a beach area.
"We had to walk 12 kilometers to get to the water and wait there for the speed boat to arrive," he said. "There was one guy who communicated with the speed boat." When the vessel arrived, everyone climbed aboard and then headed north toward Florida.
About four miles from the United States, however, the engine failed, and the illegal travelers were all picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and were returned to Cuba, he said, as is the case with most Cubans intercepted in the water by American authorities.
The experience at sea, the man insisted, was terrifying. "It's terrible. There's nothing around you, just water and nothing else. One moment the sea is completely flat, but in 15 minutes you see waves taller than buildings."
A second Cuban told another harrowing story about a smuggling boat that he had taken to Mexico. Halfway there, the engines failed in bad weather and "horrible" waves. For two days he and ten others drifted at seas until the currents returned them to the western shores of Cuban's Pinar Del Rio province.
"The speedboat crashed there against the rocks," he said. "We jumped overboard, but I was the only one who managed to make it over the rocks. Everyone else stayed in the water." Before being rescued, he said, two of his friends died.
For desperate Cubans, a more treacherous route
For many Cubans desperate to leave the island, but unable to secure a travel visa from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, or to pay an expensive smuggler, there is the most dangerous alternative of all: home-made boats that are constructed quietly in shuttered buildings under cover of night.
After sundown, and with most residents in a quiet Cuban neighborhood nestled in their homes to watch soap operas on television, three men removed a large piece of stone that covered a hole on the back side of a garage.
After making sure no one was watching, the men crawled through the hole and began working on a boat they were building inside, using old rebar for the frame. Their plan was to sail north toward the United States, as soon as they could find an engine to power the craft.
The men said they knew what they were doing was extremely dangerous. It's also illegal under Cuban law. When asked why he would take such a risk at sea, one man said, "Because of the economic and political situation, because here there is no future for my kids." He added, "I'm desperate, I don't have another choice."
The long argument over who is to blame
Over the years, three basic arguments have emerged to try to explain why thousands of Cubans a year risk their lives on the unforgiving sea to reach the United States: The U.S. government blames what it describes as the abject failure of Cuba's political system and its economic and social policies.
The Cuban government blames the U.S. trade embargo, the tightening of travel privileges for Cuban-Americans wanting to visit family members on the island and United States immigration laws which virtually guarantee political asylum to any Cuban who sets foot on American soil.
Even if they are smuggled, a Cuban stepping on U.S. soil is usually allowed to remain in the country under the "wet foot/dry foot" policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act passed by Congress in 1966.
The third argument comes from the Cuban passengers, themselves, who give a variety of reasons for boarding the sleek smuggling boats, or making the more grueling journey on rickety home-made vessels. The most common theme appears to be a desire to improve their lives economically, to secure a better future and to reunite with family. While many will also say they are fleeing political oppression, most observers agree that basic economic needs are the inspiration for most who leave Cuba now.
Recently, NBC News asked 28 Cuban immigrants who had just arrived in Miami to describe why they left. Twelve said they left because of economic hardships, five said they were fleeing political persecution, nine said a combination of economic and political factors convinced them to leave Cuba, and two said they wanted to reunite the family members in Florida.
One of the immigrants, a former political prisoner said, "Cuba is a country that has been totally destroyed. The market doesn't exist. What's happening in Cuba isn't just a political problem, it's a problem of a non-existent freedom and future. Cuba's youth are very sad."
Cuba's foreign ministry response
Josefina Vidal, the Director of the North American Division for the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued that Cubans are lured into taking dangerous trips to the United States by the promise of easy entry into the country and the special immigration privileges that stem from the Cold War.
"The law that grants Cubans preferential treatment regardless of the means and ways they use to reach the United States territory has to be repealed," Vidal said. "And the so-called wet foot/dry foot policy has to be rebuked."
"We are willing to cooperate with the U.S. in every possible way in order to stop this problem," said Vidal. She complained about the refusal of the United States government to resume bi-annual talks on immigration issue, and to fulfill its promise this year to grant 20-thousand visas to Cubans trying to leave the country. U.S. officials say they fell short by the about 5-thousand visas this year, because of a shortage of Cuban workers needed to process the paperwork.
Vidal insisted that Cuban migrants are no different that people from Mexico and other Central American countries who try to enter the United States for economic reasons. "Cuba is very much part of this phenomenon, of this trend of people from less developed countries trying to emigrate to more developed countries," she said.
Vidal claimed that by tightening its entry laws, the U.S. could attack the "source of the problem" and stop the Cuban immigrant smugglers. "They are dangerous for the United States, they are dangerous for Cuba, and they are dangerous for the Cuban people and the people the try to take illegally into the United States," she said.
Sadly caught in the middle
While the Cuban and U.S. governments fight their decades-long war of words, the immigrant flow increases, and the smuggling businesses continue to flourish, sometimes with disastrous results.
Maria Villalba, a middle-aged Cuban nurse, is visibly broken. As she clutched a photograph of her only son, her daughter-in-law and her nephew, she described in a quavering voice how all three of these young Cubans died last year while heading by boat for Honduras, hoping to later cross into Mexico to then head for the U.S. border.
Survivors of the ill-fated trip said the three had been swept away by huge waves and were never seen again.
Villalba shares her fate with many mothers in Cuba, Mexico and United States who have lost loved ones in accidents at sea. "Hay muchas," she said. There are many.
She also cautioned Cubans not to take the dangerous voyages. "It's a crazy, crazy idea," she said. "It wrecks your life. It wrecked mine. It destroyed my life."
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