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Migration to the U.S. from Cuba is now at its highest rate since the 1960s. U.S. authorities say Cuban migrants are increasingly being brought here by smugglers using high speed boats. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen has this report.

GREG ALLEN: 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.

Commander JIM OLIVE (U.S. Coast Guard): We've seen an increase in the number of go-fast vessels, and it has become more of an organized crime element. 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 just walking away from us and scoffing as they did so.

(Soundbite of boat)

ALLEN: 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 struggle with Cuban smugglers. Olive says 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.

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

ALLEN: 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, now the Coast Guard spends most of its time trying to stop people smugglers. Under long-standing U.S. law, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. 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's helped create the people smuggling industry. Suddenly it was 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 often are stolen and the people operating them are themselves migrants recently arrived from Cuba.

But he 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 safety, Kunkel says, is not a concern.

Admiral DAVID KUNKEL (U.S. Coast Guard): 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. The boat is overloaded. It is unsafe. And we've had some very unfortunate incidents lately to where, I mean, we had one boat disappear with 40 people on it.

ALLEN: It was a boat that left the port of Matanzas in Cuba on November 23rd. It was headed to Florida, and among the people onboard were Asmani Martinez's(ph) 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, improbably, that they may be found.

Mr. ASMANI MARTINEZ (Cuban Refugee): (Through translation) We have no rest, he 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 onboard also. My wife is still breastfeeding my daughter.

ALLEN: 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'd been since the Balsero crisis of 1994.

Mr. RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ (Activist): There is sort of a silent exodus taking place from Cuba.

ALLEN: Ramon Saul Sanchez is 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.

Mr. SANCHEZ: And this causes people to also 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.

ALLEN: Sanchez condemns the smugglers and those who hire them, but says U.S. policies 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 the Cuban Americans in South Florida stop supporting them.

Adm. KUNKEL: The bottom line here is we need a population to agree that this is unsafe and illegal, and we haven't quite reached that state yet.

ALLEN: 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.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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