Bound at the wrists and ankles, a Cuban man accused of smuggling a boatload of his countrymen from the communist island to U.S. shores is loaded off the deck of a Coast Guard cutter and onto a small, swift vessel that whisks him to the Florida Keys.
land to U.S. shores is loaded off the deck of a Coast Guard cutter and onto a small, swift vessel that whisks him to the Florida Keys.
There, customs and immigration officials await his arrival at Coast Guard Station Islamorada beneath a picnic shelter used as an impromptu interrogation center.
The suspect — a resident Cuban alien — is questioned about the knife, bullets and camouflage flak jacket found in his boat, not to mention the 27 Cubans crammed into his small, rickety speedboat.
Still wearing a Coast Guard life preserver, he says he’s part of a revolutionary group hoping to topple the Castro regime, a story none of the Coast Guardsmen are apt to believe.
“That’s a new one,” says Petty Officer John Fleming, a veteran of numerous interdiction missions. “Usually, the people we pick up on suspicion of smuggling say they were just fishing.”
Among the weapons and ammunition found in the suspect’s boat are what the Coast Guard calls a smuggler’s “tools of the trade,” drinks, food and changes of clothes for the human cargo trying to make landfall in the Keys. The trip can take anywhere from four or five hours to several days, depending on the conditions, making sustenance and dry clothes essential to survival.
Petty Officer Fleming and a handful of his fellow “Coasties,” as they like to refer to themselves, go to work on the suspect’s powder-blue vessel as the suspect watches forlornly.
Nearby, another boat seized on suspicion of smuggling, bobs gently in waters churned by pleasure cruisers trying to catch a glimpse at the action.
Like a team of crime scene investigators, the Coasties don latex gloves and unload heaps of incriminating evidence from the bowels of the boat, which is littered with candy wrappers and beer cans, and then begin an extensive search of its compartments.
“What do we have here?” says one, shaking a vitamin bottle filled with extra ammunition. A gun, however, is nowhere to be found — likely thrown overboard when the patrol boats closed in for interception, he surmises. The bottle is added to the contents of the boat now scattered on the station’s well-manicured lawn.
When seas are calm, as they have been in recent weeks, Coasties at Islamorada are on high alert, knowing full well that smugglers are keen to capitalize on the glassy waters.
Coasties rouse from their bunk beds as early as 4 a.m. to patrol the seas until the sun rises over the crystalline blue waters of the Florida Straits. A favorite of pleasure cruisers and fishermen, these waters just a few miles off the Keys are considered the home stretch for smugglers who are paid anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 per person to transport their clientele to the United States, said Cuban-American activist Camila Ruiz Gallardo.
On a calm morning, the sea’s beauty is unparalleled. The first thin wisps of a gold and auburn dawn crown the verdant islands. But when hurricanes and tropical storms bear down, the dreamscape beauty erodes into a nightmare of crashing waves that can sink even the sturdiest of ships.