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.
Of those attempting the crossing, roughly 25 percent drown, most in inclement weather.
“The sharks in the Florida Straits are the best-fed in the world,” says U.S. Border Patrol Agent Darrel Walraven, as he surveys a boat on the base that was intercepted on suspicion of smuggling in nearby Key Largo before its captain even had a chance to put the vessel in the water.
Sharks, inclement weather and fear of arrest didn’t prevent nearly 2,300 Cubans interdicted at sea last year from trying to reach dry soil, the only requirement for residents of the island to remain in the United States under the controversial “wet foot, dry foot” policy.
The Keys are an ideal landing site, not only for their close proximity to Cuba, but for their wooded shorelines and numerous tiny islands, some no larger than a baseball diamond.
“It’s a big game of cat-and-mouse,” Petty Officer Fleming says, expressing sympathy for those who struggle to reach the United States only to be interdicted within miles of shore.
When they aren’t scanning the seas in search of migrants, Coasties at Station Islamorada hone their skills for future interdictions. A recreation room where the men and women watch movies and play video games in their downtime doubles as a training center where they practice submission holds used on migrants who won’t comply with their orders.
Seaman Angel Sierra — a Coast Guard veteran who also spent time in other branches of the armed services — is repeatedly placed in headlocks and subjected to painful pressure-point tactics that force even the tough guy to submit. The station’s dog Rusty, a friendly black Labrador who is by far the station’s most popular resident, looks on curiously as they take turns bending Seaman Sierra’s wrists at ligament-straining angles and jabbing thumbs under his jawbone.
Outside on the water, an old boat fitted with wooden targets shaped like men and an old outboard motor is used for target practice. When towed out to sea, Coasties take turns trying to shoot the motor in an effort to disable it without hitting the targets, a crucial skill for when a smuggler is attempting to outrun them.
“Not one hole in any of them,” Machinery Technician 3rd Class Joe Tankersly points to the targets proudly.