Surge in Cuban Migration Spurs Human Smuggling

Migration to the United States from Cuba is now at its highest rate since the 1960s. And increasingly, U.S. authorities say Cuban migrants are being brought here by smugglers using high-speed boats.

It's a weekly, sometimes daily, event. A group of Cubans lands under cover of darkness somewhere along Florida's 2,000-mile coastline.

At the Coast Guard Base in Key West, Commander Jim Olive says they still see Cubans arriving on rafts and homemade boats but in the last few years, the game has changed.

"We've seen an increase in the number of 'go-fast' vessels and it's become more of an organized crime element," Olive explains. "They're using 'go-fast' as their tool of the trade. And for quite a while, quite frankly, we weren't able to keep up with them. Our boats just weren't fast enough and they were walking away from us and scoffing as they did so."

In response, the Coast Guard acquired its own "go-fast" boats – 33-foot-long boats with triple 275-horsepower engines that have evened the odds in the daily cat-and-mouse battle with Cuban smugglers.

Olive says that when they identify a suspicious vessel in the straits of Florida, Coast Guard boats signal they want to stop and talk with the people aboard.

"If they're not interested in stopping and talking, then we take it to the next level which is to pursue them. The worst-case scenario is we will disable the vessel and force them to comply."

The Coast Guard has sometimes resorted to firing bullets into the engines of fleeing boats to stop them and their cargo of Cuban migrants.

Smuggling has long been a Florida cottage industry. But instead of patrolling for rum runners or drug traffickers, the Coast Guard now spends most of its time trying to stop people smugglers.

Under long-standing U.S. law, Cubans who arrive in the United States automatically receive refugee status. But since 1995, under the "wet-foot/dry-foot" policy, Cubans must actually make it to land — not be stopped while still at sea. That has helped create the people-smuggling industry.

Suddenly, it became important not just to leave Cuba but to reach American soil quickly and without being detected by U.S. officials.

Coast Guard Admiral David Kunkel says the boats are often stolen and the people operating them are themselves migrants who have recently arrived from Cuba. But, Kunkel says, it's profit, not politics that's the motivation. Smugglers charge Cubans up to $10,000 a head for the 90-mile trip to Florida. And Kunkel says safety is not a concern.

"So if they pick up 30 people or 40 people and jam them into a boat that has a capacity for only 18 or less...I mean do the math," Kunkel says. "The boat is overloaded. It is unsafe. And we've had some very unfortunate incidents lately. I mean, we had one boat disappear with 40 people on it."

It was a boat that left the port of Matanzas in Cuba on Nov. 23, headed to Florida. Among the people on board were Osmany Martinez's wife and infant daughter. Martinez himself came to Florida from Cuba by boat a year ago. More than two months since the boat disappeared, Martinez still holds out hope that they may be found.

"We have no rest," Martinez says. "One day after the other hoping to find out something or to receive a phone call letting us know about them. There are little kids on board also. My wife is still breast-feeding my daughter."

Martinez maintains he didn't know that his wife and daughter were attempting the trip from Cuba and he has no idea who may have arranged and paid for their passage.

Coast Guard authorities share the frustration of family members but say one of the problems is they weren't called until nearly two weeks after the boat disappeared.

Meanwhile, the number of Cubans making their way to the U.S. continues to rise. Interdictions by the Coast Guard last year were the highest they had been since the Balsero crisis of 1994.

"There is sort of a silent exodus taking place from Cuba," says Ramon Saul Sanchez, an activist in Miami who runs a group called the Democracy Movement.

After the transition of power from Fidel to Raul Castro, Sanchez says, the hardships and repression in Cuba have continued.

"And this causes people to lose hope, which is the worst condition that you can suffer. And then they look for that hope somewhere else and try to leave the island in whatever way they can."

Sanchez condemns the smugglers and those who hire them but says U.S. policies of restricting travel and remittances to Cuba only make people more desperate.

Admiral Kunkel meanwhile says the Coast Guard won't be able to stop the people-smuggling operations until Cuban-Americans in south Florida stop supporting them.

"The bottom line here is that we need a population to agree that this is unsafe and illegal. And we haven't quite reached that state yet," Kunkel says.

As the Coast Guard has stepped up patrols in the Florida straits, smugglers have developed new routes. Many of the boats now head west from Cuba and make for Mexico's Yucatan peninsula where Cubans make their way over land to the U.S. border.

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