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COLUMN ONE

Inside Look at Human Smuggling

More Cuban Americans face tougher jail terms in Havana, but Castro's Border Guard unit confesses to being overmatched.

January 05, 2001|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — Convicted smuggler Joel Dorta Garcia sat inside the forbidding compound of Cuba's Department of State Security and showed little remorse while describing the journey that killed a man.

Dorta was trying to outrun the Cuban Border Guard and reach U.S. waters in 1999 in an overloaded 32-foot Scorpion speedboat when the cap blew off a 200-gallon gas tank on deck.

The 14 paying passengers screamed as gasoline soaked their legs. The seas were rough. There was no moon. And the Border Guard officers speeding alongside the boat were shouting for Dorta to stop, to save the men, women and children on board from almost certain disaster and to turn himself in.

"I said, 'I'm not stopping,' " the Cuban American said coolly in an interview room here last month, reliving that night. "I didn't force these people to get on the boat. And I thought, 'If I stop, we'll capsize and I'll never get home.' "

Now, Dorta most likely never will. The Scorpion did flip over, killing 47-year-old Sergio Maurilio Martinez. The Border Guard captured the 29-year-old smuggler and saved the rest of his human cargo, who, according to prosecutors and survivors, had paid $8,000 each for the crossing.

Dorta is among nearly a dozen Cuban Americans who have been convicted under Cuba's tough new anti-smuggling laws and one of two sentenced to life in prison in this nation's effort to deter the multimillion-dollar trade in illegal migrants.

But the smuggling continues to grow exponentially, driven by the yearning of about 1 million divided families, the Border Guard's limited resources and, critics say, a U.S. policy that permits any Cuban who illegally reaches American soil to remain. Virtually nonexistent before the implementation of that policy in 1996, the smuggling of Cubans for profit has roughly doubled in each of the past four years, Cuban statistics show, while scores of people have died in failed attempts to illegally cross the treacherous seas between here and the U.S. shoreline.

Those are among the findings of a rare look inside the Cuban government's secretive Border Guard, its judicial system and its prisons--all long off limits to outside observers.

For a week, Cuban authorities permitted a reporter to tour their aging naval fleet, accompany a Border Guard patrol in a speedboat confiscated from Florida smugglers and interview several of the more than 70 Cuban Americans who have been jailed here for illegally transporting humans.

For the government of President Fidel Castro, the unique access was meant to show Cuba's commitment to policing a trade that U.S. authorities privately concede they are powerless to deter.

A Castro Campaign During Elian Episode

Castro's campaign against the U.S. immigration policy reached new heights during the prolonged legal battle over custody of young Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez, who survived a smuggler's journey that killed his mother and 10 others in November 1999. The Cuban leader insists that the policy is a magnet that draws economic migrants to their deaths with little or no official deterrence from the U.S.

Cuban court records show that smugglers caught and prosecuted here routinely have been sentenced to 20 or 30 years in prison since tougher laws took effect in April 1999.

By contrast, thousands of pages of U.S. federal court records on file in South Florida show that smugglers convicted for similar offenses in Miami--even for those in which deaths occurred--received far lighter sentences from U.S. judges.

"The problem is that the U.S. side isn't doing its part to stop this terrible business," said Maj. Ernesto Hernandez Gomez, a Border Guard commander. "The American government doesn't punish them. If they were doing what we're doing, the number of these journeys would diminish very quickly."

Hernandez and half a dozen other Border Guard commanders interviewed along the island's northern coast, where they patrol a 12-mile territorial limit, echoed the frustration of many U.S. Border Patrol and Coast Guard officers, who are responsible for stopping the smugglers after they leave Cuban waters but before they reach the Florida coast.

Under the U.S. policy informally known as "wet foot/dry foot," Cubans intercepted by U.S. authorities at sea are sent home--an American commitment enshrined in bilateral immigration treaties signed in the mid-1990s. The Cubans in turn have agreed not to jail or prosecute those sent home.

But, in what Cuban officials have repeatedly asserted is a breach of those accords, their nationals who reach Florida's shore illegally are "paroled" into the U.S. and automatically get residency status in a year, although the smugglers who bring them are subject to federal prosecution.

Privately, several U.S. federal prosecutors say the seemingly contradictory policy makes smuggling cases difficult to try in South Florida, where many judges and juries view Cuban migrants as political refugees.

The net effect, Cuban and U.S. authorities agree, is that the numbers are on the rise.

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