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.
He speculated that smuggling operations are also thriving because "people are just more willing to break the rules in both the United States and in Cuba."
Anti-smuggling patrols have intercepted go-fasts carrying as many as 65 Cubans, said Luis Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman. The vessels are designed to carry eight to 10 passengers safely.
With the boats costing about $200,000 each and Miami sponsors paying $6,000 to $10,000 for a relative's transportation from Cuba, smugglers can quickly recoup their investment, especially when they're willing to compromise safety, he said.
One of the go-fasts confiscated this month wasn't carrying immigrants but had four outboard engines and extra fuel tanks, making its intended use clear, Diaz said.
A cutter chasing the darkened vessel had disabled its engines with gunfire -- an example of the increasing level of confrontation that law enforcement consider necessary to employ against smugglers.
The 1994 and 1995 immigration agreements signed by Washington and Havana were drafted after the biggest influx of illegal Cuban immigrants since the Mariel boatlift of 1980 brought 125,000 here in a motley flotilla.
The accords mandate that at least 20,000 U.S. visas be issued to Cubans each year to provide a safety valve for the overwhelmed Cuban economy.
U.S. diplomats in Havana conceded this summer that they were unlikely to issue their full quota of Cuban visas by the end of the fiscal year, blaming Cuba's officials for putting up obstacles to the import of needed supplies, equipment and personnel to process the documents.
Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, Dagoberto Rodriguez, countered last month that the U.S. government was trying to instigate another dangerous illegal exodus.
Independent analysts of immigration trends blame both conditions in Cuba and U.S. immigration policy for the mounting numbers of illegal Cuban arrivals.
"What's driving the go-fast business is that Cuba is a Third World dump and people are going to try to sneak into the United States any way they can," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.
He also blames "wet-foot, dry-foot" for providing illegal Cuban arrivals with residence permits, opening the United States to another potentially huge influx and giving the Cuban exile community a sense of being above the law.
"It's important that we rein in this sense of entitlement that the community has now because Castro's going to die at some point soon," Krikorian said.
"And when that happens we're going to have an immigration mess on our hands that will make Mariel look like a walk in the park."