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Cuban smuggling business is thriving

More immigrants from the island are illegally entering the U.S. Some experts want to target the exiles who pay for relatives' passage.

September 17, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — A multimillion-dollar human smuggling enterprise is bringing thousands of Cubans to the U.S. on high-powered speedboats at a price of up to $10,000 a head, and the flourishing business has increased the number of Cubans illegally entering the U.S. by double-digit percentages in each of the last three years.

More than 16,000 Cubans have arrived illegally this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Most arrived on remote beaches in the Florida Keys or in Mexico, where they could enter the U.S. Southwest through official border crossings.

Under a practice known as the "wet-foot, dry-foot policy" -- stemming from immigration accords negotiated between Washington and Havana -- Cubans who make it to dry land can stay and obtain legal U.S. residence. Those intercepted at sea are sent back.

Coupled with the 20,000 visas issued to Cubans each year for legal immigration, the numbers arriving now rival the 35,000 who crossed the Straits of Florida in 1994 to escape the poverty that gripped communist-ruled Cuba after the Soviet Union disintegrated, ending the billions in subsidies it once sent to Havana.

The mounting numbers have alarmed law enforcement officials.

"We don't know at 3 a.m. when we see a 'go-fast' boat running without lights if that's migrants seeking a better life or terrorists coming here to blow up a nuclear power plant," said Zachary Mann, senior special agent and spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.

The smugglers' success using so-called go-fast boats -- light, open craft fitted with powerful outboards enabling speeds as high as 100 mph -- has convinced South Florida Cuban exiles who put up the money for their relatives' passage that they are paying for a service rather than committing a crime, authorities say.

"I get calls here in my office all the time with people saying, 'Hey, my cousin Jose was supposed to have arrived last night and I haven't heard from him,' " Mann said.

"The families clearly know who's coming, when they're coming and where they're going. We have cases where families are waiting at the marina for them to arrive."

Stepped-up Coast Guard and Border Patrol surveillance has netted record numbers of go-fast boat operators and their human cargo. Authorities have also seized 159 of the specially outfitted vessels over the last year.

Fifty-eight men have been arrested and prosecuted over the last 18 months, according to the U.S. attorney's office for Florida's Southern District in Miami. There have been at least half a dozen deaths resulting from erratic maneuvers by boat captains trying to evade capture or from smugglers tossing paid passengers overboard to force authorities to stop chasing the boats and rescue the jettisoned men, women and children.

Some law enforcement officials and immigration policy analysts have proposed targeting the people whose money sustains the thriving network of smugglers.

"The bottom line is that anyone involved in a conspiracy may be held accountable and may be criminally charged," said Barbara Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Miami office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Miami's powerful Cuban exile community opposes any such move and appeared to have shot it down as soon as it was voiced by another customs official last week.

"We aim to pursue and identify the criminal infrastructure, the owners of the boats, the arrangers, the recruiters," said Gabriel Garcia, deputy special agent in charge. "Our focus is on the criminal enterprise itself."

The U.S. attorney's office also balked at the idea of going after the funding sources.

"To date, we have not charged family members who paid to have their relatives smuggled," said Alicia Valle, special counsel to the U.S. attorney.

Camila Ruiz-Gallardo, director of government relations for the Cuban American National Foundation, said prosecution of family members would be politically untenable.

"Everyone in this community can identify with the desperation of individuals who want to get their family out. We don't fault anyone trying to find whatever vehicle they can to do that," she said.

"Not that we condone illegal actions, but how far do you go with this? Do you prosecute someone who gives a family member money who then uses it to buy drugs?"

Other advocates for immigrants also tend to look askance at going after the relatives.

"One person's smuggling operation is another person's rescue operation," said Randolph P. McGrorty, head of Catholic Charities Legal Services, which helps illegal Cuban immigrants obtain legal status.

A trend has emerged in recent months: More Cubans have been arriving in the U.S. via organized smuggling operations than by homemade rafts or other rickety craft that have brought hundreds of thousands here in the years since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Dana Warr, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's 7th District in Miami, described today's fleeing Cuban as more risk-averse than their predecessors, who now bankroll what are perceived to be safer trips.

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