ISLA MUJERES, Mexico
On the night that Lazaro Mendez got an alert that his boat had been stolen from the Florida Keys, he was swept up in a new chapter of the Cuban boat-people drama.
Grabbing a laptop computer that tracked the fishing boat’s position by satellite, he watched as it stopped for refueling at sea, then shot off toward Cuba - the latest in a swarm of thefts of Florida boats prized by smugglers for their speed.
Mr. Mendez, a Cuban-American and a popular Miami radio personality known as “DJ Laz,” set out to get his boat back, succeeded and even came face to face with the men who stole it. But it was just the tiniest of setbacks for a human-trafficking industry that is thriving off the Cuban exodus.
Because it has become so hard to dodge the U.S. Coast Guard and reach Florida to qualify for U.S. residency, Cuban migrants in recent years have been heading for Mexico, then overland to Texas. Last year 11,126 used that route, compared with just 1,055 who landed in the Miami area, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Evidence of this new escape route is stacking up at a Mexican navy yard in Isla Mujeres, where the dock regularly runs out of space for seized Florida boats. During a visit to the small dock last week, the Associated Press counted eight superfast boats, all with Florida registration numbers.
Mexican authorities are getting fed up, and islanders fear the trafficking is bringing crime to laid-back Islas Mujeres, off Cancun.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said Sunday that Mexico and Cuba have agreed to return Cubans reaching Mexican shores illegally. On Monday, Cuban and Mexican officials signed an agreement to that effect.
But Mexico currently catches only about one-tenth of the Cubans landing here, and few resist because they’re confident they will be released. If Mexico begins deportations, many Cubans - or their smugglers - might put up stiffer resistance.
Thefts of boats for smuggling are so frequent that some insurance companies require Florida owners to equip their boats with satellite tracking systems. That’s how Mr. Mendez discovered that his cherished Tranquility was stolen: the system alerted him by cell phone and updated its location every 15 minutes.
“The entire time I was on my laptop, watching every move that they made,” Mr. Mendez said in a telephone interview from Miami, where he has a daily show on WPOW. When he saw Tranquility heading straight for Mexico, “I decided to jump on a plane and go and get my boat back.”
He reached a dock on Isla Mujeres just in time to confront the men as they were tying up his boat.
“They walked by me. They’re wearing my fishing hat. My fishing glasses,” he recalled. But they didn’t know that he had alerted police, who pulled out assault rifles and promptly arrested them.
“I showed them the laptop, and I said, ‘Look, this is where you stole the boat, this is you in the ocean, this is when you went to Pinar del Rio [in Cuba], this is where you picked up all the people, this is where you dropped all the people,” Mr. Mendez recounted.
He brought his boat to a local police dock and was astonished to find 19 other boats there - all of them U.S.-registered speedboats like his own. These $175,000 “center console” boats, which often have three engines to reach 60 miles per hour and give anglers the edge in fishing tournaments, can jam 25 migrants on board and make the 120-mile run from Cuba to Isla Mujeres in a couple of hours.
Isla Mujeres is now rife with tales of speedboats set adrift or afire to distract the Mexican navy while the smugglers escape.
U.S. Coast Guard patrols have sharply reduced the flow of Cubans across the narrow Florida Straits, enforcing a policy of returning people intercepted at sea to Cuba’s communist government.
It is called the”wet-foot, dry-foot” policy - wet for those caught at sea, dry for those who reach land in Florida and thus qualify for U.S. entry. A third expression has entered the jargon - “dusty-foot,” referring to Cubans who arrive in Texas, where Cubans need only present identity documents and undergo medical and background checks before being welcomed to America.
The price of passage is $5,000 to $10,000 per person and much shorter than when Cubans would spend days at sea on rickety boats and rafts.
But the Mexican route is also becoming increasingly prone to violence.
In June, gunmen snatched 33 Cubans off a government bus taking them to an immigration station in southern Mexico, possibly to extort money from them or their smugglers. Many of those migrants later turned up in the U.S., and all detained Cuban migrants now have armed police escorts.
In August, as the navy gave chase, smugglers set fire to their boat just off the beach in Cancun, creating a diversion that allowed them to swim ashore and escape. The migrants jumped into the sea and either swam to safety or were rescued by beachgoers on water scooters.
“These are pretty ruthless organizations that are focused on making money,” said Lt. Matthew J. Moorlag, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard’s 7th District, which cooperates with Mexico but doesn’t patrol in Mexican waters. “We’ve seen people get thrown overboard and forced to swim to shore.”
Several Cuban-Americans thought to be involved in trafficking have been killed in recent years in or around Cancun. And once inside Mexico, the migrants often find themselves at the mercy of Mexico’s feared drug cartels, who have diversified into people-smuggling.
U.S. federal prosecutors in Miami have charged many purported smugglers of Cubans recently, including 39 Cuban-Americans named in 18 indictments in the past month alone.
The smuggling has spawned new trends in Florida: Now that owners in Miami and the Keys are using tracking devices, chains and motion detectors, boat thefts are shifting up the coast, said Ricky Linale, Miami-area agent of King’s Bay Insurance.
And some boat owners “lend” their craft to smugglers and then falsely report them stolen for the insurance money, Mr. Linale said.
Vice Adm. Carlos Angulo of the Mexican navy says the smugglers’ boats “are mainly stolen in Florida,” and Cuban-Americans clearly run the business. The six smugglers that his sailors caught this year “call themselves Cuban-Americans, and they carry their U.S. residency papers.”
Last year, Adm. Angulo’s detachment seized 26 makeshift craft with Cubans aboard and only five modern boats, but so far this year, his sailors have seized 32 modern, multiengine vessels, and only six homemade ones.
Mexico has long tolerated the escape route and seldom returns escapees to Cuba, but its people are tiring of the exceptional treatment that the U.S. gives Cubans, as well as the corruption and violence spawned by people-smuggling.
“It is all handled by a gang,” said Jose Sanchez, 42, an Isla Mujeres fisherman. “They bring them here, they give them new clothes to make them look like an average citizen … and they take them to Cancun,” where almost all are given a 30-day transit visa to the U.S. border.
Mr. Mendez, the radio host, is still outraged by what the smugglers are doing.
“I’m a Cuban-American, my parents are Cuban, and I understand what those people are going through in communist Cuba,” he said.
But, “now it’s no longer … ‘I really want to go help my family members.’ Now it’s, ‘I want to go make money off these poor, innocent people, and if I’m going to get caught, what I’m going to do is dump all of them in the water and get off scot-free.’ ”
c AP writers Traci Carl in Mexico and Tamara Lush and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.