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Florida makes sure it knows drill on mass migration

The domestic security exercises were planned before Castro fell ill.

March 09, 2007|Robert Nolin | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

aboard the u.s. coast guard cutter bluefin -- An offshore drill Thursday capped a two-day exercise called Operation Vigilant Sentry, designed to stem a possible mass migration to Florida from the Caribbean.

The scenario:

A cabin cruiser bearing extra fuel drums seems suspicious, so an anonymous 911 caller reports the vessel's bearing -- south off Fort Lauderdale -- conjecturing that it's headed to Cuba to smuggle back refugees.

Law enforcement scrambles. A Broward Sheriff's Office helicopter spots the suspect vessel about three miles offshore. A U.S. Customs Blackhawk chopper thrashes overhead. Ten vessels from several agencies surround and stop the vessel.

But the fuel drums were only cardboard boxes. The cabin cruiser was a Coast Guard Auxiliary boat.

In all, 12 helicopters, 20 boats and 500 personnel were pressed into service for South Florida's Homeland Security Task Force, which conducted the exercise.

During simulations in Broward and Palm Beach counties, more than 40 real refugees, whom authorities said were probably Cubans, came ashore in Miami-Dade County. They were in custody Thursday afternoon, and authorities were still investigating.

"It's our belief that they were the result of organized smuggling," Border Patrol spokesman Steve McDonald said.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. David Kunkel, the task force head, called the arrival of the refugees coincidental, and something his agency dealt with daily.

"We're not embarrassed at all," McDonald said. "It's not uncommon" for Cubans to land.

The task force exercises were planned last spring, before Cuban President Fidel Castro fell ill. Though intended to simulate a wave of migration from any Caribbean nation, a possible change of government in Cuba was a factor.

"The idea of Operation Vigilant Sentry has nothing to do with Castro and his health," said Zachary Mann, spokesman with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "Is it something that you think about? Of course."

The goal of the exercise, the largest since 2003, was to interdict 95% of an imaginary 2,000 refugees headed to South Florida by sea. During the Mariel boatlift in 1980, some 125,000 Cubans fled to South Florida, causing crises in social services and housing.

In Palm Beach County, Boca Raton police, firefighters, park rangers and lifeguards chased about 10 people acting as refugees across the beach. They were volunteers from Boca Raton Community Hospital and other agencies. Three feigned illnesses such as tuberculosis or hepatitis.

The air and sea operation off Fort Lauderdale, a maritime ballet of police boats bouncing in a light chop, was a far cry from a real interdiction.

"What you'll see in the exercise is going to be extremely mild in comparison to reality," Mann said. Actual interdictions can involve boat collisions and gunplay.

Speaking to reporters at a briefing in Miami to mark the end of the drill, Kunkel said the exercise met its goal.

But communication was sometimes lacking, the admiral said.

"It's more than turning on a radio and making sure we are on the same frequency," he said. "It's a matter of communicating between agencies."

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