Cubans landing in new places
Early edition: Immigrant smugglers seem to be testing new routes, but arrests may discourage that.
By JOSE CARDENAS
Published January 12, 2007
MARCO ISLAND — The two blue-green fishing boats were virtually identical down to their modified fuel tanks, and Collier County sheriff’s deputies were suspicious from the start.
Cpl. Robert Marvin spotted one of the boats below the Jolley Bridge before dawn one morning last August. Up the road, the other was at a nearby boat ramp.
They were the same model, made one year apart. Both had 225-horsepower outboard engines and hidden gas tanks that added 150 gallons of capacity to their standard 200-gallon tanks.
“There is a great deal of information that would lead one to believe those vessels were in the same smuggling venture,” said Jesus Casas, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Myers.
But they were suspected of smuggling people — Cuban refugees — not drugs. Deputies questioned men with both boats, leading to federal charges against two men found at the boat under the bridge.
This week, Noel Lopez, a 36-year-old man from Opa-locka in Miami-Dade County, pleaded guilty to two counts related to the smuggling of 20 Cubans to Florida.
Over the past six years or so, the make-shift rafts carrying Cubans across the Straits of Florida increasingly have been replaced by the go-fast boats of organized smugglers.
And authorities have seen a series of recent landings in Collier and Lee counties, well north and west of the Florida Keys and Miami.
“I think they experimented with southwest Florida as a destination,” said Doug Molloy, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Myers. “Hopefully, with the recent prosecution … we will shut down this route.”
Just before Christmas, Molloy won guilty verdicts against Jose Luis Zaldivar of Miami and two other men.
Zaldivar, 50, was accused of orchestrating the smuggling of 39 Cubans to Loggerhead Key and picking up his boat at the same ramp as Lopez in Collier County.
There’s one more case under investigation, Molloy said.
But other times smugglers have escaped capture.
Refugees reached shore at Sanibel Island in Lee County in August and at Naples Beach in Collier County in November. And in mid December, 26 Cubans landed at Longboat Key, the northernmost landing in memory.
The landings in Southwest Florida aren’t necessarily a trend, said Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
But he said it raises the question whether the U.S. Coast Guard could handle a mass migration if Raul Castro loses his grip on the country.
“The Coast Guard is trying to prevent this as much as possible,” he said. But “as you know, they don’t have the boats. Some had to be taken out of commission.”
James Judge, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami, said the agency is prepared.
“We have assets all over the world,” Judge said. “We have cutters that come down from New England and assist in that process, trying to interdict.”
Molloy said last year he asked the U.S. Coast Guard and Immigration and Customs Enforcement for help in light of the increased landings.
Since an important part of the strategy is preventing the smuggling boats from launching in the first place, a special unit with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office plays an important role.
Officials suspect smugglers head to southwest Florida because they are less likely to be caught.
“There’s one road in and one road out of the Keys,” said Collier sheriff’s Lt. Dave Johnson. “With the scrutiny in the Keys, they stand a very good chance of being caught.”
So deputies look for fishing boats with no fishing gear or a lot of food, water or blankets.
“Those are what we call tools of the trade,” said Steve McDonald, agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol office in Tampa.
In late December, Johnson said he believes deputies interrupted a smuggling operation. Raul Blanco, 32, of Miami was charged with unlawful conveyance of fuel because he was carrying 250 gallons of gasoline. His truck was hauling a boat on U.S. 41.
“They will put five, six, sometimes $700 of gasoline in a truck or a boat and then haul it on a trailer all the way from Miami,” said Johnson. “What it amounts to is basically a bomb.”
Running a smuggling operation is complicated, Johnson said. But Lopez and Zaldivar’s cases offer a glimpse of how they are carried out.
Lopez had an accomplice named Juan Gonzalez-Hernandez of Miami-Dade County, who prosecutors say was himself smuggled in about two years ago.
Gonzalez-Hernandez asked Lopez to bring up his family, and Lopez said he would do it only if Gonzalez-Hernandez went along.
They launched from Key West on Aug. 13 and the next day they picked up the Cubans, including
Gonzalez-Hernandez’s wife and daughter at Pajarito Beach in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, authorities said. They arrived at the Jolley Bridge the next day.
Though there was no evidence that Lopez charged the migrants, officials believe many smuggling operations are “organized crime” that charge Cubans $10,000 each.
Molloy said Zaldivar orchestrated another operation by hiring two accomplices to drive his 36-foot Contender boat.
The accomplices picked up the Cubans in Mantua, Pinar del Rio, and took them to Loggerhead Key near Dry Tortugas National Park.
Meanwhile, Zaldivar drove a truck and a trailer to the boat ramp near the Jolley Bridge to pick up his boat.
Zaldivar had been stopped by law enforcement before under similar circumstances but had never been charged,
Molloy said. But a fingerprint found on the boat helped make the case, Molloy said.
Attorney Joseph Viacava said Zaldivar manages a gas station in Fort Lauderdale and is a married father of two. He said the Coast Guard was looking for someone after Cubans landed in Loggerhead Key and zeroed in on Zaldivar who was merely picking up his boat.
Viacava said the boat was not in Zaldivar’s possession and that he would say in an appeal that the fingerprint is not reliable.
The most puzzling landing has been at Longboat Key because it happened so far north.
Luiz Ortiz, who lives on the island, said the Cubans told him they paid $2,000 and the smuggler asked them to wait for three hours before going to the road.
“I think the coyote (smuggler) knew the area,” said Ortiz, 49. “If he didn’t, he just kept going north.”
Jose Cardenas can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4224.