Cash Cargo

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."

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.

The cases have yielded some interesting data. Most of the smugglers are Cubans whoarrived in the United States just a few years ago on rafts. Many lancheros (the new breed of Cuban immigrants, who unlike their predecessors, come in high-speed crafts) arrive in large groups and have family members in Miami. The per-passenger charge can be as high as $9000. Some smugglers belong to organized rings and use speedy craft called go-fast boats that can cost as much as $200,000 and reach 100 miles per hour. As the trade has become more lucrative, an increasing number of narcotics smugglers have become involved, prosecutors say.

Prevarication and theft are basic to the business. Smugglers have used stolen vessels, falsified boat titles, taken on fake identities, and lied about the purpose of their trips. One example is the case of Ramon Marquez, who pleaded guilty in April to alien smuggling conspiracy and was sentenced to six months in jail. He is a welder who came to Miami from Cuba in 1994. On June 6, 1998, Marquez and Ernesto Fernandez (charges against Fernandez were later dropped) set out to sea in a 1973 T-Bird, a 26 foot-long speedboat. In court testimony Marquez and Fernandez said they were fishing and testing the boat near Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas, when they saw a group of eighteen Cubans waving at them. The two men asserted they loaded the refugees onboard for "humanitarian" reasons and headed for Key Largo, where they dropped off the group.

The pair's story was a lie. An onboard global positioning system, a mechanism that uses satellite signals to establish location, showed the boat had traveled to Cuba. The device also indicated the smugglers had waited about four hours off the coast of Florida before landing in the Keys at about midnight. Authorities also found a cell phone belonging to 30-year-old Abel Fanjul. At least three of the passengers were his relatives. In July Key West jurors convicted Fanjul of conspiring to smuggle. Fanjul faces up to a year in jail when sentenced later this month.

In another recent case, smugglers clearly instructed passengers to cover for them. This past June U.S. Coast Guard officers embarked on an hourlong, high-speed chase when a Coast Guard aircraft flying over waters near Cuba spied a black vessel heading north from the island. After authorities caught the vessel in international waters and boarded it, they discovered seventeen Cubans hidden beneath a blue tarp. Boat captains José Martinez, Ricardo Cordero, and Rigoberto del Campo threw a cell phone and beeper overboard about nineteen miles from U.S. soil, according to the indictment. Four female passengers testified the smugglers had instructed them to lie. The four said they had been told to say they left Cuba on a boat that sank near the Marquesas Keys. Martinez, Cordero, and del Campo are each charged with conspiracy to smuggle aliens, alien smuggling, and alien smuggling for commercial gain. No date has been set for the trial, which will be held in Key West.

Smugglers can be callous.In the summer of 1998, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a 29-foot, twin-engine Scarab carrying two smugglers and 37 Cuban immigrants. On their way to Miami, José Lima and Miguel Broche left five passengers on a remote island just north of Cuba because the go-fast boat was overloaded. According to witness testimony, Lima and Broche chose the five because their families hadn't paid the full $8000 fare. Those left on the island were given only bottled water and a can of sardines. They were later rescued.

In court Lima and Broche said they were fishing at night when they came upon the large group of Cubans on a rickety boat. They claimed they had attempted a rescue by first trying to tow the other vessel, then, when it started to sink, by bringing aboard the Cubans, according to their attorney, Daniel Forman. A Coast Guard cutter intercepted the Scarab when it ran out of gas a few miles south of Cape Florida.

Juan Ruiz, a cook at Palacio de los Jugos in Miami, was one of the boat's owners and, prosecutors claim, the ringleader. He was charged with alien smuggling along with Lima and Broche; all three were convicted in March. A jury found they had not profited, despite an informant's testimonythat he made a $9000 down payment for three family members who were passengers.  

On a Tuesday morning in August, 38-year-old Steve Quiñones sits in his drab Pembroke Pines office surrounded by a collection of model galleons. A walkie-talkie is on a shelf behind him. On one corner of his desk there's a globe. An empty mug that reads Stress is on the opposite corner. A framed picture of 25 Dominicans on a 27-foot wooden boat hangs on a wall. Quiñones says there were actually 60 people onboard when authorities intercepted the craft in 1994 near Puerto Rico. "They're piled inside these boats one on top of another," Quiñones says. "I mean you gotta go in with special suits because of all the infections." He rolls up the right leg of his pants and points at a scar. "This was just a little scratch. It became infected when I walked into all the urine and vomit inside a boat used to smuggle Cubans. I go into one of these Cuban boats and now I'm scarred for life."

Quiñones has been with the border patrol for fifteen years. (The border patrol is the police arm of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.) He began his tenure in Miami in 1995 after working in Puerto Rico, New York, and Texas. Now he faces a daunting task: combating an illegal business in which profits outweigh risks. Quiñones heads the Smuggling Enforcement Action (SEA) Team formed in Marchto arrest and prosecute smugglers. Fifty-one SEA Team members (thirty-four agents, fourteen investigators, two intelligence analysts, and a technical surveillance agent) have zeroed in on 225 miles of coastline from Palm Beach County to Key West.

"There are several rings we are trying to expose and dismantle," Quiñones comments. "What we have here are South Florida-based organizations that work closely with Cuban citizens. We also know there are large numbers coming from Santa Clara and Bahia Honda."

Investigators believe that immigrant smuggling works in much the same way as the drug trade. Among the few differences between the businesses, according to Quiñones: "The penalties are not as stiff [for transporting people.]" But the profits can be just as high. In an attempt to maximize earnings, smugglers overload the boats.

The chain starts out in the United States, usually with family members in Miami who hear about smuggling services through word of mouth, Quiñones explains. Customers are often required to pay half the charge in advance and the other half upon delivery. Most smuggling voyages include more than one boat, Quiñones reports. A Cuban gathers the immigrants on to a skiff, which drops them off in a deserted cove or on an island, usually Cay Sal Bank in the southern Bahamas, just 30 miles from Cuba. A second craft then departs South Florida and retrieves them from the agreed-on spot.

In a substantial number of cases, only one boat is used. Smugglers depart South Florida and pick up passengers directly from deserted Cuban beaches. The immigrants sometimes wait in hiding several days for the trip, which only takes about three hoursin a go-fast boat.

(Few people arrive in the United States on Cuban boats, the method that Juana Chambrot claims to have employed. Quiñones calls her story unlikely.)

Immigrants usually disembark in remote areas on the Florida Keys or in South Miami-Dade, usually at night. In some cases smugglers arrange for a pick-up vehicle, then hold the recent arrivals at a hotel or a safe house until their families pay the balance of the fare. If everything works out as planned, the Cubans are allowed to head to their relatives' homes, where they clean up and then miraculously appear on Miami Beach. "That's where the lying starts," Quiñones says.

Occasionally the missions turn tragic. The crowded boats sink and people drown. Indeed, since 1993 more than 140 people have died in smuggling operations. Yet even when authorities catch the smugglers, judges rarely impose long prison terms.

The case of Abel and Nicandro Morejon, who pleaded guilty to fourteen felony counts of smuggling this past November, is instructive. On March 10, 1998, the Morejons piloted a 23-foot rented powerboat to Bimini in the Bahamas. At about 3:00 p.m. they docked the boat and went ashore. Fourteen refugees boarded the following evening. Each one had agreed to pay the Morejon brothers $1500 for the crossing. In some cases the Morejons had agreed to help the Cubans find jobs after arrival so they could pay for the trip.

At 7:00 a.m. on March 12, the Morejons called authorities for help on a cell phone. Their vessel had started to take on water three miles off Miami Beach. The Coast Guard responded quickly, but because the boat was drifting in the Gulf Stream, pinpointing its location proved difficult.  

Before searchers could track down the wreck, seven-to-nine-foot waves had tossed almost all of the passengers into the sea and ripped off some of their life vests. Survivors were either clinging to the hull of the capsized boat or floating nearby. Raquel Guerra Capote became trapped and drowned. Her husband, Aurelio Sanchez, died of a heart attack while in the water. Their three-year-old daughter's body was never recovered. The deceased couple's fifteen-year-old daughter offered the following statement to federal prosecutor Yvonne Rodriguez-Schack: "You can't imagine how much it cost me to come to the U.S."

Just a few months later, on December 17, 1998, fourteen people drowned twelve miles from Florida. It was the deadliest documented Cuba-to-Miami alien smuggling trip in recent history. Pedro Julio Guevara and Francisco Gomez had piloted Gomez's 30-foot Scarab speedboat to barren Anguilla Cay, where they picked up 21 people, five of them Guevara's relatives: his wife, Maida, his nine-year-old son, Yasel, his brother, Alexis, his sister-in-law, and his four-year-old niece, Lineidys. A Cuban smuggler on a wooden boat had dropped off the group on the low-lying Bahamian island before Gomez and Guevara arrived.

Like many smugglers, Gomez and Guevara had close ties to Cuba and the smuggling business. Gomez had arrived on a raft from the island in 1993. And even before the incident, border patrol agents were investigating whether Guevara was involved in transporting 37 Cubans, including his wife and child, in 1997.

On the way to South Florida a cold front, ten-foot swells, and a new moon turned the Gulf Stream into a black abyss of nasty weather. At about 11:30 p.m., a fast wave pounced on the fiberglass Scarab and split it in two. Nineteen people plunged into 70-degree water within sight of the Miami skyline. When it was all over the sea had claimed the lives of Maida and thirteen others. On December 18 the crew of a Greek freighter rescued nine survivors at about 9:20 a.m. The Coast Guard recovered the bodies of eight drowning victims, all women. Six others were never found.

In court Gomez and Guevara testified they were expecting only Guevara's relatives. At least one Cuban testified that the refugees had forced Gomez and Guevara to take them aboard. Yet other witnesses revealed that Gomez had purchased the vessel only two weeks before the trip with just eight life vests aboard. In the aftermath of the smuggling debacle, authorities counted 23 vests. Prosecutors argued that Gomez and Guevara knew the other passengers would be waiting.

On June 11 a judge sentenced Gomez and Guevara to sixteen months in prison.

The Cuban government has taken a more stringent approach than the United States to the smuggling problem. In February island officials began enforcing a penal code that allows courts to sentence defendants to life terms when refugees are injured or killed. In August Fidel Castro announced that anyone who bought, transported, or repaired boats without official approval would be fined up to 10,000 pesos (which is equal to four years' salary for the average Cuban). All vessels must now be registered with port authorities, who are empowered to seize boats they suspect are involved in the business. The officials can also impound the homes and vehicles of violators. And just recently Castro indefinitely banned the return to Cuba of anyone who left the island illegally after September 9, 1994, the day Washington, D.C., and Havana signed the immigration accords.

During the past six years the Cuban government claims to have busted 40 alleged smugglers in Cuban waters. Since 1993 the Miami Herald has reported on 21 Miami-Dade residents who have been charged in Cuba with smuggling people from the island. At least two of those have been released. Authorities on the island have intercepted some alleged smugglers with no one onboard. Others have been caught heading north with large groups.

On July 3 two Miami residents, 27-year-old Joel Dorta and 33-year-old David Garcia, took a 32-foot Chris Craft vessel from Miami to a spot near Cuba, where they picked up fourteen Cubans. About seven miles from the Port of Mariel, the boat began to sink. By the time the Cuban coast guard arrived, 45-year-old Sergio Martinez had drowned. Rescuers fished out the others, including five children. Cuban prosecutors accused Dorta and Garcia of charging passengers $8000 each. On September 17 a Cuban court sentenced Dorta to life in prison for smuggling human cargo. Garcia was sentenced to 30 years. Pedro Cordova, a 29-year-old Cuban resident who gathered the immigrants for Dorta and Garcia, will spend fifteen years in jail.  

(Dorta's ex-wife, Lourdes Conde, who now lives on Stock Island with Juana Chambrot, says she knows nothing about Dorta's alleged smuggling. Chambrot doubts the charges: "Our differences aside, I just don't think he was involved in smuggling. In Cuba he was a fisherman; I think he was just fishing.")

Barbara and Roberto Morales's wedding picture stands between two unlit candles on one of the shelves of an entertainment center in their tidy Hialeah home. The couple married four and a half years ago, almost two years after Roberto arrived on a raft from Cuba. They bought this house, their first, a year ago and this past spring their daughterwas born. But now Roberto, his cousin Hector Gonzalez, and friends Denis Bravo and Arsenio Garcia are stuck in a Cuban jail. This past July 21 they were caught off the coast of Pinar del Rio in two boats. Although there were no passengers onboard, the Cuban government claimed nineteen refugees were waiting for them.

Barbara Morales's home has become a support center for family and friends. Neighbors come and go unannounced. Some hang around long enough to catch a segment of the latest Spanish-language soap opera. Others pass the infant back and forth. The wives and girlfriends of the jailed men hope for phone calls from Cuba. But when all the visitors have departed, Barbara lays awake wondering when she'll see her husband again. "Sometimes I'll be in bed and I imagine that he's coming in from work," Morales says. "It's been a nightmare."

Odalis Mendez's eyes fill with tears when she talks about her boyfriend Denis Bravo. The fact that Cubans were waiting nearby while the men were fishing proves nothing, she says. "That doesn't mean anything," Mendez asserts. "Denis's aunt in Cuba tells me that every single day speedboats come to take people. They're conveniently trying to associate the group of nineteen with our men."

According to Barbara Morales and Odalis Mendez, the four men went on a fishing trip as was customary on their day off from work. Bravo and Garcia were caught aboard the first boat as it neared Punta Carenero, in the town of Bahia Honda. Gonzalez and Morales were apprehended an hour later.

Bravo and Garcia were on a Mako, a 21-foot sport-fishing boat with a 200 horsepower outboard. The Cuban government reported finding six life jackets, a global positioning system, and a cell phone onboard. Morales and Gonzalez's 23-foot, inboard propeller boat was equipped with four life vests, a cell phone, a searchlight, and a two-way radio. They also had tanks holding 75 gallons of gasoline and a reserve tank of 55 gallons. "They were old boats," Barbara Morales says. "The media made it sound like they were on Cigarettes. Something else that wasn't reported was the fact that they had all their fishing gear."

The women believe the two boats lost each other at sea, then Bravo's vessel stalled and waves pushed it into Cuban territory. When Morales and Gonzalez went searching for them, they all ended up in the wrong place. "I think they just lost track of time, and when Roberto realized that Denis was missing, he started looking for him," Mendez says. The men are being held at Combinado del Este prison. Cuban relatives have visited them four times. No trial date has been set.

Despite the new aggressive approach at sea and in the courtroom, smugglers continue to profit. Groups of clean-shaven men keep walking into Miami Beach hotels and restaurants claiming they have just rowed into South Florida. And, as in most matters involving Washington and Havana these days, cooperation is often tinged with animosity.

Cuban President Fidel Castro claims U.S. immigration policy drives Cubans to rely on smugglers. He accuses Cuban exiles in Miami of financing the trips. In turn the United States has flayed Cuba's decision to bar many exiles from returning home.

Indeed Miami Cubans have attacked every part of the Cuban-American collaboration. U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart has called it morally repugnant. Ninoska Perez Castellon, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, has termed it a joke. "If a speedboat is going into Cuba to pick up people, I'm sure they pay Cuban authorities to let them go in undetected," she comments. "It's hard to believe that the Cuban government isn't getting a cut of smuggling profits. The big-time operations are done with the blessing of the government. It's absurd that at this point, after 40 years, that Castro would collaborate with us on anything."

Meanwhile Cuban migrants come prepared for battle as they near U.S. soil. On July 6, for instance, Coast Guard officials intercepted a vessel equipped with 60 knives and two spear guns. Refugees have even attacked the Coast Guard. They have also attempted to swim to shore, to outrun authorities, to kill themselves, and even to hold hostages onboard.  

In June desperation led a Cuban woman to threaten to drown her baby when a Coast Guard cutter approached. A month later a Coast Guard aircraft spotted eleven Cubans coming into South Florida. Nine jumped into the water when they realized they had been discovered. Two children who remained aboard the boat watched a male passenger cut his abdomen with a razor blade to avoid repatriation. That same day, in a separate incident, the Coast Guard interdicted a Cuban woman who threatened to slash her wrists to avoid being sent back to Cuba.

Also in July a Cuban migrant brandished a machete to ward off U.S. authorities. When he cut in front of a Coast Guard boat, the two vessels collided. Twelve Cubans were thrown overboard and one woman died. Later that month another Cuban refugee doused himself and others aboard a vessel with gasoline and threatened to set everyone on fire. In another July incident, a Cuban slit his wrist with the jagged edge of a torn soda can. A month later a man chewed the inside of his mouth until it bled.

All of them were repatriated.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >