NBC’s Mark Potter went to Havana in an exclusive report on Cuban smuggling and immigration into the United States.
On a calm weather day, with blue skies and a flat sea, a Cuban Border Guard patrol boat made its way along the coastline near the capitol city.
Increasingly, the mission for the officers and crew aboard this vessel is to try to stop the hundreds of smugglers who come here illegally from Florida each year to pick up thousands of Cuban passengers and sneak them into the United States, often through Mexico.
Catching the smugglers is very difficult, because they typically arrive clandestinely in the middle of the night at remote beaches. They board their passengers and then speed away on their high-powered boats in just a few minutes.
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A new form of aggression?
On the patrol boat, Colonel Jorge Samper used a nautical chart to point out many of the hidden coves and islands along Cuba’s vast coastline where American smugglers have come and gone in the last few years.
Samper is second in command of the Cuban Border Guard, and has been in its service for more than 30 years. He believes the increasing activities of smugglers— most of them either Cuban-Americans from South Florida, or Mexicans working for the Cuban-American traffickers— are a safety hazard and a threat to Cuba’s national security.
“Our country is subjected to a new type of aggression,” he said. “Hundreds of boats a year flying a U.S. flag, registered in Florida, that illegally enter our territorial waters and violate our national borders.”
To prove his point, Samper showed a reporter three speedboats with Florida registrations that he said were seized in Cuban waters with smugglers aboard. Two of the vessels were picked up during the same week after they broke down at sea, he said. On board each of the boats was an array of sophisticated navigation and communications equipment.
“Smuggling is a high-risk crime, because it endangers the lives of many people including children, women, the elderly— people of all ages who are caught up in this criminal activity,” he said.
The smugglers from the three Florida boats were being held in a Cuban prison, Samper added. One of the vessels has been converted into a Border Guard patrol boat and flies a Cuban flag now.
A dangerous but lucrative business