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Trade in Cuban Migrants Appears on Rise

July 29, 2001|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — In the six years since U.S. immigration authorities declared Eliecer Lara-Salado a political refugee, the 37-year-old Cuban rafter has pleaded guilty to dealing crack cocaine in South Florida, escaped from federal prison in Georgia and spent two years on the lam.

This month, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service stumbled onto him again--this time in a case that federal law enforcement officials say underscores how brazen the multimillion-dollar trade in Cuban migrant smuggling has become.

Lara-Salado was arrested here along with boat captain Alexis Gonzalez-Hernandez as they allegedly delivered a would-be immigrant to an undercover U.S. immigration agent posing as a bag man. The agent was carrying an $8,000 ransom that the two men had demanded as payment for bringing Rogelio Garcia from Cuba, according to federal court records here.

The case of Lara-Salado, who is scheduled to be arraigned on "alien-smuggling" charges this week, appeared to reinforce Cuban government claims that the U.S.-based smugglers who have brought nearly 2,000 migrants from the Communist-run island to South Florida in the past year are in it for profit--not politics.

Cuban President Fidel Castro's government insists that most of the smugglers are former drug dealers or other criminals who never should have been given U.S. asylum. Lara-Salado won refugee status in 1995 in the aftermath of the rafter crisis that sent tens of thousands of Cubans to the U.S. and an untold number to their deaths. Just two years later, federal court records show, he pleaded guilty to cocaine charges and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Castro's argument is increasingly being echoed by some of the U.S. agencies that are struggling to combat the growing trade in human cargo, which is driven in large part by the United States' so-called "wet foot/dry foot" immigration policy.

Under that policy, grounded in a 1966 federal law, most Cubans--and only Cubans--who reach U.S. soil, even by illegal means, can remain in the United States, whereas those intercepted at sea are sent home.

The latest statistics suggest that the traffic in humans is on the rise--and that more Cubans are making it to shore. In the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the U.S. Border Patrol has detained 1,921 Cuban migrants on land, compared with 1,820 in all of fiscal 2000. By contrast, the U.S. Coast Guard reported intercepting 500 Cubans at sea in the first nine months of this fiscal year, compared with 1,000 during all of fiscal 2000.

"These smugglers are not doing it because they're freedom fighters," said Joe Mellia, spokesman for the Border Patrol in Miami. "They're doing it for the dollar."

To collect their $8,000 fee, Lara-Salado and Gonzalez-Hernandez went to extremes rarely reported to federal authorities, according to court records and interviews with officials here. The alleged smugglers took Garcia hostage and threatened to hurt him or return him to Cuba if his Florida relatives didn't pay up, according to the affidavit filed in federal court here by INS agent Ralph DeFelice.

The tip to the INS came from Garcia's relatives--an unusual move, law enforcement agents said, for a community that Mellia called "pretty tight-lipped." Even in cases when migrants have died crossing the 90 miles of rough waters between Cuba and Florida, relatives who financed their journey have refused to testify against the smugglers who were responsible.

"The smugglers are criminals," Mellia said. "They do intimidate the relatives."

As a result, smuggling convictions have been rare in a city where a large, anti-Communist Cuban American community holds sway. And judges here traditionally have handed down light sentences to those few found guilty.

But, like the reticence of relatives, that may be changing. A federal judge in Key West this month sentenced a smuggler of Cuban migrants to five years in prison, and there have been several other harsher sentences in recent months.

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