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New law aids fight against smugglers
Defying an order to halt a boat is now a felony.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 13, 2007
MIAMI BEACH - Authorities say a law introduced last year making it a felony for captains to ignore federal officials' orders to stop a boat in U.S. waters is aiding their efforts to combat human smuggling across the Florida Straits.
This week six people were sentenced and three more convicted for failing to stop go-fast boats for federal agents, officials said Thursday. The sentences ranged from a few months to five years in prison. The "failure to heave to" charge, as it is called, was instituted in March 2006, and prosecutors call it a powerful weapon.
The charge is easier to prove than smuggling and can be used even when no migrants are found aboard a boat. It gives authorities greater leverage over low-level boat runners who may have information about those organizing the smuggling operations.
"You have to go after the serfs to get the kings," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil.
In one of the cases, two individuals led Customs and Border Protection agents on a high-speed, 15-minute chase in the dead of night Nov. 10 off Key Largo. The captains of the alleged smuggling boat rammed the agents' boat three times before a collision injured one agent and catapulted the two boat captains into the water, according to authorities.
Both men were sentenced Monday to nearly five years in prison and ordered to pay $9,666 in penalties for failing to stop.
"These sentences hold accountable those criminals who attempted to flee law enforcement on the high seas and recklessly endangered our Coast Guard and agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection," said Coast Guard Capt. James Watson.
In another case, four individuals pleaded guilty Monday and Tuesday to conspiracy to smuggling migrants into the United States. Those convictions are part of a larger case targeting more than a dozen people involved in smuggling migrants.
All of the cases involved the alleged transportation of Cubans to the United States. Unlike Haitians and Dominicans - the other groups most likely to enter the United States illegally through the Florida Straits - Cubans who reach U.S. land are generally allowed to stay.
Thus, those smuggling Cubans have an enormous incentive to not only flee law enforcement but to reach U.S. shore rather than head back to the island.
Despite the recent crackdown, the migrants keep arriving.
Last year 7,027 Cubans attempted the voyage. More than half made it.
On Wednesday, Coast Guard officials repatriated 70 Cuban migrants stopped at sea earlier in the week. But a line of newly arrived Cubans curled around the block outside the Miami-Dade County Refugee Health Assessment Program office in Little Havana.
Several of those waiting to be seen admitted they came illegally in recent weeks on boats packed with more than 40 people. One group of 15 Cubans from Pinar del Rio had arrived the night before.
"What are our options on the island?" said Lazaro Yuced, 22, of Havana, who arrived four months ago. "What other option do we have but to come here?"