Cash Cargo

Despite recent deaths and a federal crackdown, smugglers continue the dangerous business of transporting Cubans to Miami

In a crowded Stock Island trailer park about 90 miles from her homeland, Juana Maria Chambrot lays on a narrow cot lamenting her losses. "I have no life here," she says staring blankly at the ceiling. "I don't even go outside. In Cuba I could at least walk over to my mother's house. Here I'm shut off from the world." On this muggy summer afternoon towels and sheets cover the windows, three fans blow hot air, a broken pressure cooker begins its frenzied seething, and Chambrot's granddaughter, fourteen-month-old Aaliyah, prances around wearing only diapers.

Three months ago a mysterious boat captain smuggled Chambrot into South Florida from Cuba along with her husband, Alfredo Conde, two daughters (one of them pregnant), four grandchildren, a son-in-law, and thirteen others. Details of their sojourn are shady. They claim they spotted a 25-foot Florida-bound ferry by chance while swimming off the Punta Piedra coast of Bahia Honda in Pinar del Rio province. The captain invited them aboard the wooden vessel, which was already packed with people. "It was all a surprise to us; we didn't even plan it," Chambrot asserts. "The man steering the boat told us there was room and gave us a price."

Chambrot and her family members contend they ran home for their savings, shelled out 6000 pesos (about $300) each, and boarded the vessel. "In Cuba a lot of people leave like we did," Chambrot says. "They pay and just jump on a boat."

Juana Maria Chambrot and her husband, Alfredo Conde, claim a Cuban smuggler brought them to the United States
Lissette Corsa
Juana Maria Chambrot and her husband, Alfredo Conde, claim a Cuban smuggler brought them to the United States

On the night of June 14 the family arrived safely on Miami Beach. The smuggler returned to Cuba. The group of 22 sat on a concrete wall near the beach and awaited authorities. "Policemen came and I think they asked us what we were doing there," Chambrot says. "We told them we were Cuban and had just arrived. They brought us sandwiches, coffee, and Cokes."

After spending the night at the Krome detention center, Chambrot was reunited with her four sons: Javier, Alexis, Marco, and Alfredo Conde. The first three departed Cuba five summers ago aboard rafts made of plywood, pipes, and inner tubes. This past April Alfredo sped off toward Miami hiding under the tarp of a 27-foot powerboat with four other men and women; he says he sold his house and peddled stolen gasoline to pay a Matanzas-based contrabandista named Victor 8000 pesos (about $400) for the voyage.

Catholic Charities, an aid group, gave Chambrot and her kin food, clothing, and shoes. Later the nine new arrivals joined six other family members on Stock Island. From mid-June through August, fifteen people shared two tiny bedrooms, one matchbox-size bathroom, and a small living room bursting with worn mattresses. Chambrot, the family's 55-year-old matriarch, cooked and looked after the children.

Chambrot is just one of hundreds of Cuban immigrants to arrive illegally in the United States in recent months. Smugglers have delivered more than 1400 Cubans to South Florida since this October 1998, authorities say. Both the Cuban and American governments have taken an increasingly tough stance against those who pilot the boats and profit from the journeys. This past March the United States formed an anti-smuggling task force to deal with the growing numbers. Federal prosecutors have gone to work too, convicting 43 smugglers this year, five times as many than in fiscal 1998. (The fiscal year runs from October to September.) And on September 17 a Cuban court sentenced Chambrot's ex-son-in-law, Joel Dorta, to life in prison for a failed mission. Dorta is the first person to receive such a stiff penalty for the crime.

Despite the risks Cubans continue to brave the Florida Straits, often leaving loved ones behind, some even dying on the way. Says Chambrot: "We abandoned everything."


The genesis of the new smuggling business is a migration accord that Cuban and American leaders signed in 1994 to stop an exodus in which 33,000 people had left the island on makeshift rafts. The Cuban government promised to try to stop illegal departures. In return U.S. officials pledged to repatriate those who were intercepted at sea and each year grant 20,000 visas to Cubans. Demand has been high; recently 500,000 islanders applied to leave their homeland. Only 1 in 25 of those who enter the bombo (lottery) wins permission to leave, so many must search for other ways to exit. Lottery losers have increasingly turned to smugglers.

Federal prosecutors have their hands full. In fiscal year 1999, they charged 58 people with alien smuggling. Barry Sabin, chief of the criminal division at the U.S. Attorney's Office, credits the growing number of indictments and convictions to tougher laws and increased training of prosecutors. In 1996, he notes, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which doubled the maximum penalty for immigrant smuggling to ten years. A three-year minimum sentence is mandatory if the smuggler earned a profit. If a refugee dies, judges can invoke the death penalty.

Prosecutors acknowledge that they often fail to find conclusive proof that boat captains profited. Immigrants, who feel obligated to protect the smuggler, sometimes clam up. "It hasn't been all that easy," Sabin says. "We have to have witnesses who are willing to tell the truth." Although federal juries convicted eleven people of smuggling Cubans by boat from January to July 1999, only one of them went to jail for profiteering.

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