MIAMI – Following dozens of known drowning deaths at sea this year, the U.S. Coast Guard and Haitian-American community activists unveiled a public service campaign Thursday urging Haitians to avoid immigrant smugglers. They’re also asking Haitian family members in the United States to refrain from financing the smuggling operations, because they are so dangerous.
“Do not go to the sea. Do not put yours lives in the hands of these ruthless smugglers,” said Captain Mark Fedor, Chief of Law Enforcement for the Seventh Coast Guard District in Miami.
“They don’t care about your dreams, they don’t care about your children, they don’t care about your personal safety. All they care about is your money, and they’re willing to do anything to get it,” he said.
In the last year, U.S. officials have seen a dramatic rise in the number of Haitians being smuggled in small, often-overcrowded boats across the 80-mile-wide Mona Passage to Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth.
So far this year, the Coast Guard and other law enforcement officials have apprehended 2,265 Haitians crossing the Mona Passage. That compares to just 188 Haitians caught there in the previous eight years.
Authorities say an illegal trip to Puerto Rico can cost as much as $2,000 per person and is especially dangerous, because of the rough waters and the rugged coastlines on the barren islands where many of the smugglers drop their passengers.
“They (smugglers) will stop 20 to 30 yards out, they’ll force everyone off the boat and make them swim for it,” said Fedor. “The surf conditions can be very dangerous. I compare it to a washing machine.”
Francois Guillaume, the Haitian Consul General in Miami, says the campaign is designed to save lives.
“We hear of the ones that don’t make it or that perish at sea,” he said. “But who knows how many other voyages have embarked from my homeland, Haiti, and we never heard of them because they just disappeared.”