Migrant smuggling spiked in past month
Twelve Cuban migrants made it to Elliott Key safely, but many who flee
aren't so lucky. Up to 65 people went missing this month.
Posted on Fri, Dec. 28, 2007
BY LAURA MORALES AND TIM CHAPMAN
As 12 Cubans were picked up on Elliott Key Thursday, the U.S. Coast
Guard announced it has stopped seven migrant-smuggling operations
heading to Cuba within the past week, with 11 suspected smugglers among
The Cuban government also for the first time acknowledged that the
sinking of a go-fast boat off the northern coast had resulted in two
drownings among the 30 onboard, according to Agence France-Presse.
Two smugglers, suspected of traveling to Cuba from the United States,
apparently escaped from Cuban authorities and a search was underway on
the island, Cuba's Interior Ministry said, adding that the 26 surviving
Cubans were being questioned. The bodies of the two dead had been turned
over to family, the government said.
Earlier reports by family members to El Nuevo Herald and local
Spanish-language Radio Mambí suggested that at least 25 had perished
during a chase by the Cuban coast guard as the boat hit a reef.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil said conflicting reports from
communist Cuba make it difficult to track the number of lives lost at sea.
'If family members' reports are accurate, up to 65 people are missing at
sea since Nov. 24,'' said O'Neil. The Coast Guard spokesman noted the
report of one missing boat in November did not surface until Dec. 6,
when family members notified his agency.
He attributed the deaths mostly to the recklessness of smugglers.
``You have these go-fast boats jammed with 30 or 40 people. When they're
going at high speed, they start flooding, and people panic.''
Citing the July 2006 death of a young Cuban woman who suffered head
trauma when she fell inside an overcrowded speedboat, O'Neil also said
that folks on such packed vessels have no way to steady themselves,
making the trip even more dangerous.
''Why do people think it's OK to pay a felon for endangering the lives
of their loved ones when there are legal avenues available?'' O'Neil
said. ``These smugglers don't care about safety. But they operate with
the tacit approval of the community.''
The Coast Guard also announced that 28 migrants had been repatriated to
Cuba on Thursday. The crew of the cutter Tornado had intercepted a
speedboat carrying the 28 Cubans and two suspected smugglers 16 miles
north of Mariel Harbor on Dec. 21. The suspected smugglers, who would
bring the total to 13 so far this month, were turned over to Customs and
Border Patrol officials in Key West.
With 2007 about to end, the Coast Guard has interdicted 3,197 Cubans --
up from 2,293 in 2006.
Since Fidel Castro had emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006, the
number of Cubans trying to leave the island -- many by sea to Mexico and
then across the U.S. land border -- has risen sharply. Under the
Cuba-U.S. migration accord, the United States is supposed to issue at
least 20,000 immigrant visas annually in Havana. But that number
periodically falls short, leading to recriminations between Havana and
The two governments have recently traded accusations on which side is to
blame for this year's visa deficit.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for
Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, which assembled a recent migration
report, has said the increase in arrivals reflects growing
''disillusionment'' with the Cuban regime.
Tracking Cubans at sea becomes particularly difficult when U.S. family
members fear calling the Coast Guard for help.
On Dec. 6, some relatives of up to 40 migrants believed to have left
Cuba on a speedboat on Nov. 24 told the Coast Guard that their family
members had not been seen or heard from since. Extensive Coast Guard
searches failed to turn up any sign of the boat or its passengers.
''Until the community begins speaking out against human smuggling, we're
going to keep seeing these senseless and avoidable tragedies,'' O'Neil said.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Honduran authorities
recently detained 21 Cubans who allegedly were dumped and abandoned by
their smuggler along that country's Caribbean coast.
The 12 ''dry foot'' Elliott Key migrants -- six men and six women,
roughly between the ages of 17 and 35 -- appeared in good health, with
ample supplies of ice, water and some crackers. They were dressed in
casual clothes, including one man in a skin-tight blue swimsuit.
Under the United States' wet foot/dry foot policy, Cubans who arrive on
American soil are generally allowed to stay while those interdicted at
sea are generally sent back to the island.