MIAMI – In Miami, the U.S. Coast Guard is urging Cuban-American families to stop financing the dangerous business of smuggling people from Cuba to the United States.
So far, though, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears as the lucrative trade in human cargo continues to grow and more men, women and children die at sea. Based on recent reports, the Coast Guard believes as many as 65 people may have died in Cuban smuggling trips since Nov. 24.
"I find it particularly frustrating and deeply disturbing that some in the South Florida community, and some Cuban-American families in particular, continue to support illegal and life threatening migrant smuggling," said Rear Admiral David W. Kunkel, Commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District.
Arguing that paying migrant smugglers directly funds organized crime, Kunkel added, "Some members of the community are also tacitly supporting these criminals by failing to report suspicious activity or looking the other way."
Smugglers – not saviors, criminals
The biggest problem, Coast Guard officials say, is that the smugglers are not gentle saviors driven by a humanitarian urge to reunite Cuban families separated by decades of political strife. Instead, they are seen as increasingly organized criminals who charge upwards of $10,000 per passenger. In order to make the most money possible per trip, they cram way too many people on small speedboats, provide no safety gear and venture out on unpredictable seas that can turn fierce with little warning.
In taking the unusual step of pointing fingers at the U.S.-based families who pay for the smuggling trips, the Coast Guard is desperately trying to avert what it sees as a looming disaster. As more speedboats head from Florida under cover of night to pick up passengers from Cuba, the risks grow and the likelihood of even more deaths as sea rises dramatically.
Within just the last few weeks there have been several tragic examples: As many as 40 people from Perico, Cuba – including perhaps a dozen children – are believed to have died on a failed smuggling voyage aboard a boat chartered in Miami.
A short time later, two more people drowned and more were thrown into the sea when another smuggling boat capsized near the Cuban coast. In yet another incident, a Cuban man was airlifted to Miami in a coma after he struck his head on the deck of a speedboat that was trying to outrun the authorities.
Now there are reports still being investigated that shortly after midnight New Years Eve, at least 21 Cubans ended up in the water near Key Biscayne. Four of the men made it to land and notified police. The Coast Guard and Miami-Dade County authorities then pulled 17 more people from the ocean, including three 7-year-old children, a 6-year-old, a 22-month-old and a 10-month-old infant. Authorities suspect the passengers were forced off a smuggler's boat and were told to swim for shore, because a search turned up no evidence of any other craft they might have used.
Never to be known is how many boats capsized at sea without any trace at all, or how many people in broken-down vessels simply drifted off course and died horribly on the huge and unforgiving ocean.
Reasons for taking huge risks
There are many explanations and arguments for why people would take such risks to leave Cuba. U.S. officials blame what they describe as the Castro regime's failed political, economic and social policies. Many of the passengers have told us that life in Cuba has simply become too uncertain and unbearable to stay.
Cuban authorities blame U.S. immigration policy for luring Cubans to the United States with the promise of political asylum if they set foot on American soil.
Many in South Florida claim that restrictions on travel and sending money to the island are causing Cuban-Americans to take drastic measures to reunite with their family members. And there are widespread arguments in both countries that the legal process for granting U.S. visas to Cubans is too slow and unwieldy.
Coast Guard hoping to halt 'human tragedy'
Without entering the political fray, the U.S. Coast Guard, from a pure safety standpoint, is strongly urging families to wait out the legal immigration process and to quit hiring the smugglers who callously risk the lives of their loved ones for profit. When the families stop paying, the smugglers will be out of business.
"The Coast Guard, and our partners in border security, need the help of the community to bring migrant smuggling – and the human tragedy that accompanies it – to an end," said Kunkel. "Just like cops on the beat, we need a community that refuses to tolerate criminal behavior."
Right now, though, the illicit trade is not only being tolerated, it is booming and on the rise, with more and more families likely to face the unimaginable tragedy of having unintentionally paid for the serious injuries or even deaths of those they love.