Prosecutors target lucrative migrant smuggling operations
BY JAY WEAVER AND ANDRES VIGLUCCI
Posted on Sat, Apr. 12, 2008
Opening a window on a shadowy cottage industry that has been tolerated, however hesitantly, by local immigrant communities, federal prosecutors have begun cracking down on big-dollar smuggling operations that for years have hauled Cubans, Haitians and others into South Florida by boat.
Federal authorities, alarmed by a series of migrant deaths at sea and signs of increasing smuggling operations from Cuba over the past three years, have begun systematically cultivating informants to penetrate and shut down loosely organized rings that operate between South Florida and the Caribbean. They're also taking more suspects before grand juries and seeking tougher penalties.
The new emphasis by the U.S. attorney's office in Miami, with backing from agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Coast Guard, comes after years in which immigrant smuggling across the Florida Straits received at best sporadic attention, and then typically only in cases involving deaths.
In contrast, a 1-year-old federal task force has tackled a series of smuggling operations — including eight cases unveiled this month — that involved no calamities. Those recent indictments accuse 18 Cuban Americans of scheming to sneak more than 200 Cubans into South Florida by boat in separate operations since 2005.
Prosecutors say they are also on the verge of taking down a major Miami-based smuggling operation.
U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said his office sharpened its focus in the fall of 2005, after the deaths at sea of a young Cuban boy, two Cuban grandmothers and three Haitian and Jamaican women were blamed on smuggling operations gone awry.
''The death of the Cuban boy was the starting point,'' Acosta said. “You see a 6-year-old boy drown and you look and see what you can do to change your policies to prevent that from happening again.''
Smuggling is hugely lucrative and relatively sophisticated, agents say.
Each boat trip to Cuba, the most common smuggling operation, involves as many as 20 ring members, including recruiters who fan out from Hialeah to Havana in search of customers. The smugglers are equipped with GPS devices and satellite phones and support vessels for refueling at sea. Often, guides in Cuba take passengers to meet the smuggler's incoming boats on remote barrier islands.
The proliferation of such ventures, investigators and critics say, has been encouraged in part by the U.S. wet foot/dry foot policy, enacted by the Clinton administration under a migration pact with the Cuban government. Under the policy, Cubans intercepted at sea are usually turned back, while those who reach U.S. land are typically allowed to stay and establish legal U.S. residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.
The policy, started after the 1994 rafter crisis, has raised the premium in ensuring that Cuban migrants — who previously were brought to the United States when picked up at sea — touch American ground.
Cuban smugglers' fees of $7,000 to $10,000 a head are usually payable only upon successful delivery of a passenger in South Florida, agents say. Some would-be Cuban immigrants have been intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard two or three times as smugglers attempt repeatedly to make good on the guarantee of delivery. Typically, fees are covered by South Florida family members of those smuggled in.
''Cubans who are determined to leave Cuba have got the message that this works and that the rafts do not,'' said Phil Peters, a specialist in Cuban affairs at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank. “It doesn't matter that it's an illegal crossing and the captain of the vessel is committing a crime. If you reach U.S. shore, you're golden.''
The federal crackdown, which encompasses intensified patrols and surveillance of the Florida Straits by the Coast Guard and other agencies, also responds to post-9/11 concerns over uncontrolled, illegal immigration.
Those concerns have been heightened by uncertainty over Cuba's stability since an ailing Fidel Castro turned over power to his brother Ral in 2006 and, more recently, by food riots in Haiti last week. Previous economic and political troubles in both countries have presaged an exodus.
Authorities have already seen a sharp increase in the number of Cubans intercepted at sea. It's unclear whether that represents an actual rise in crossing attempts or better interdiction, but Coast Guard officials consider it a clear sign of more smuggling.
Coast Guard interdictions in the Straits totaled 3,197 last year — the highest number since the 1994 rafter crisis in which more than 37,000 attempted to cross, and 245 more than in 2005. This year, the Coast Guard has intercepted 685 Cubans and 490 Haitians.
The increase has been accompanied by a high number of deaths. In November, for instance, 40 Cubans were reported lost in the Florida Straits after a smuggler's 32-foot vessel apparently capsized. Officials suspect a smuggling operation, but the desperate families waiting in South Florida deny it.
More than 220 Cubans — including the 40 from November — are believed to have been lost or died at sea since January 2001, according to the Coast Guard.
The safety risks are usually great: Smugglers' vessels are jammed with passengers to maximize profit. They use speedboats — sometimes stolen from local marinas — ranging from 25 to 40 feet that are designed for 8 passengers, but usually carry far more.
Coast Guard Cpt. Scott Buschman, commander of the Key West sector, cited an intercepted 37-foot boat last year that was carrying 59 Cubans and 2 smugglers. “They operate recklessly — at high speeds with little regard for the people they're carrying and little regard for law enforcement safety.''
Acosta's task force of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have roughly doubled the pace of smuggling prosecutions — from 35 cases with 61 defendants in 2006 to 60 cases with 113 defendants in 2007. This year, prosecutors have made 16 migrant smuggling cases involving 30 defendants.
The smuggling trips, agents say, are organized by multiple cells in Miami, Hialeah and Tampa run usually by younger Cubans, many who arrived since the 1990s.
Often, smugglers and their customers know one another through ties locally or in Cuba. That close-knit nature — coupled by a reluctance by many in the Cuban exile community to openly oppose efforts by desperate countrymen to leave their oppressive homeland — have historically made it hard for investigators to pursue cases. In particular, family members of those brought illegally are usually unwilling to talk to investigators or testify in cases.
But agents have started flipping suspects and cultivating informants, as they do in drug-trafficking probes, to gather inside information about smuggling operations.
''There is a loyalty'' in the Cuban community, said Anthony Mangione, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami. “From an investigative standpoint, it's much more difficult to make a case against a Cuban smuggler who is smuggling Cubans than it is against someone in the Bahamas who is smuggling Chinese.''
Some Cuban exile leaders say whatever tolerance may have existed has been eroded by the growing number of deaths. ''We have had too many horrible stories, too many people who have died, because of the irresponsibility of these traffickers,'' said activist and radio talk-show host Ninoska Perez Castellon. “It's a racket.''
Still, some Cuba experts warn that, so long as Cuba's government maintains its repressive posture and the island's economy in ruins, Cuban citizens will continue to take to the seas.
''It's a matter of supply and demand: there is a demand and a supply of people willing to do it,'' said Damin Fernndez, vice provost at Florida International University and director of its Cuban Research Institute.
“There is also the politics of love involved here. People want to be close to their loved ones. It is illegal, and I don't think anyone really wants it, but this is a way of family reunification.''