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No strait route for Cubans

Times Staff Writer

In the face of a U.S. crackdown on illegal immigration in the waters between Cuba and Florida, Mexican authorities have reported a surge in detentions of Cubans as quick-moving smugglers shift their routes westward.

Under a 1995 proviso of U.S. immigration law known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, Cubans who reach U.S. territory are entitled to legal residency. With the Florida Straits under the gun, much of the traffic has been rerouted to bring migrants to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and then guide them overland to the U.S. border -- where they are detained on illegal entry charges for just a few days.

Even before summer’s high season of human trafficking, more than 1,000 Cubans had been detained in Mexico by late June, compared with 1,359 in all of 2007. More than 11,500 made it to the U.S. border last year, 33% more than the previous year and almost double the number who arrived via Mexico in 2004.

The number of Cubans detained in Mexico has grown 500% over the last five years, a politician from Mexico’s traditionally center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party told parliament last month. The lawmaker, Edmundo Ramirez, pointed to a recent bus hijacking as evidence that the smugglers have huge economic heft and firepower at their command.

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In the June 11 incident in southern Mexico, armed men seized a bus carrying 33 Cubans who had been intercepted off the Yucatan peninsula and were being taken to a detention facility in Chiapas state. The Chiapas prosecutor, Amador Rodriguez, blamed the incident on Miami-based smugglers determined to retrieve their cargo for payment on delivery to U.S. soil.

Eighteen of the Cubans showed up at a Texas border crossing a week later, where they were detained and eventually allowed to make their appeals for legal residency.

The Cuban route through Mexico has become the preferred approach of flourishing human smuggling enterprises keen on evading stepped-up surveillance of South Florida shores by the U.S. Coast Guard and air and marine patrols of the Customs and Border Protection agency.

Coast Guard interceptions of suspected traffickers are up this fiscal year by about 20%, with 323 encounters since Oct. 1, 2007.

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By the start of July, 108 captured smugglers had been indicted this year -- almost as many as in all of 2007, when charges were brought against 113, said Alicia Valle, special counsel to the U.S. attorney in Miami.

The indictments reveal the mounting dangers involved in what has long been perceived in South Florida as a delivery service. In June, a woman and an 11-year-old boy died when smugglers in a speedboat rammed a raft holding 20 Cubans to create a diversion when a Cuban patrol boat intercepted the offshore pickup. In November, a Cuban suffered fatal head injuries when smugglers on “go-fast” boats led the Coast Guard cutter Tornado on a 90-minute high-seas chase.

That same month, 42 Cubans boarded a go-fast off the Havana coast, never to be heard from again. In August, a man was run over and killed by a go-fast in Cuban territorial waters when the smugglers threw passengers overboard to distract a Cuban patrol.

“These are criminal enterprises and they’re really reckless. They have little to no regard for their cargo,” said Lt. Matt J. Moorlag, public affairs officer for the 7th Coast Guard District in Miami.

Moorlag acknowledged that it’s difficult to know whether the rise in interceptions means authorities are chipping away at the industry or if it reflects higher traffic in the region.

“If the South Florida Cuban community continues to pay smugglers, there is going to continue to be migrant smuggling. It’s supply and demand,” Moorlag said.

The price for bringing a Cuban to the United States has gone up over the last year, from about $7,000 to as much as $15,000.

That may suggest that demand for the service continues to grow, or that the number of operators has decreased because of the disrupted networks, or even reflect the soaring price of operating fuel- guzzling vessels, said Zachary Mann, special agent and spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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“Good guys, bad guys, they’re all paying the price,” he said of rising fuel costs.

Other U.S. agents say they are gaining ground on the traffickers, partly because the increasing violence gives pause to those paying to have their relatives smuggled.

“These guys are criminals. They’re in it for the money. There have been cases where they’ve threatened family members and kidnapped migrants for ransom,” said Lazaro Guzman, a supervisory U.S. Border Patrol agent in Miami. “We had a case last December where migrants were left out on a sandbar because the smugglers had not received payment. They were left out there so the Coast Guard could repatriate them, and one migrant lost his life.”

Under “wet foot, dry foot,” Cubans who don’t make it to shore are sent back.

U.S. agents have expanded the fight from sea to shore, patrolling marinas in search of go-fasts equipped with “tools of the trade,” Guzman said. One telltale sign: three high-powered outboards that can propel overloaded boats at 50 mph so they can make the round trip across the Florida Straits in as little as eight hours.

After the recent tragedies, Cuban American community leaders have stopped turning a blind eye to the operations.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement exile group with members on both sides of the Florida Straits, blames Havana and Washington alike for the thriving smuggling business.

“As long as you have dictatorship in Cuba, you will have an exodus,” he said. But he criticized U.S. sanctions limiting Cuban Americans’ visits to their homeland to once every three years as encouragement for them to turn to traffickers for family reunification.

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Those willing to pay the smugglers know where to go.

“I have no doubt that any Cuban who wants to get a relative out of Cuba can in a matter of days, if not hours, find out how they can do that,” said Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation.

The foundation has urged the U.S. to set aside for family reunification cases a significant portion of the 20,000 visas Washington issues to Cubans annually for legal migration under agreements signed with Havana after a 1994 exodus of rafters that brought more than 35,000 to Florida shores. If Cubans in Florida had greater confidence that their loved ones could join them legally, they wouldn’t resort to smugglers, Hernandez said.

The U.S. failed to issue that full complement of visas last fiscal year, blaming Cuban officials for blocking the importation of supplies and personnel to do the paperwork at the U.S. Interests Section here.

Asked whether the U.S. government was on track to meet the quota this fiscal year, which ends in September, State Department spokeswoman Heidi Bronke would say only that Washington “is committed to and encourages safe, legal and orderly migration from Cuba.”

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carol.williams@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.


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