Cops, federal agents stop yacht off Miami-Dade with 30 Haitian migrants on board

Miami-Dade County police marine patrol officers stopped a yacht near Key Biscayne last Friday that turned out to be a human smuggling boat with more than 30 people from Haiti on board, the department, state fish and wildlife police and federal agents said.

Dade officers stopped the 60-foot boat around 11:15 a.m. near the iconic Stiltsville group of homes located in the shallows off Cape Florida in Key Biscayne, Detective Argemis Colome, a department spokesman, told the Miami Herald.

Following the initial contact, other agencies, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Border Patrol, Coast Guard and U.S. Customs converged on the luxury vessel.

Government officials have not said yet whether the yacht came to South Florida directly from Haiti, or if the migrants made their way to some place like the Bahamas and paid the smugglers to bring them to the U.S.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. John Beal, spokesman for the Homeland Security Task Force Southeast, told the Herald that the vessel’s point of origin is under investigation by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agents.

A photo of the boat released by the Border Patrol shows it with a motorized dingy attached to the back. U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a photo of the migrants cramped in a cabin below deck.

A group of people from Haiti sit below the deck of a 60-foot yacht that was stopped by local police and federal agents near Key Biscayne Friday, April 19, 2024.A group of people from Haiti sit below the deck of a 60-foot yacht that was stopped by local police and federal agents near Key Biscayne Friday, April 19, 2024.

A group of people from Haiti sit below the deck of a 60-foot yacht that was stopped by local police and federal agents near Key Biscayne Friday, April 19, 2024.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Coast Guard placed the migrants on board a cutter to be returned to Haiti. One of the two people police say are the smugglers was turned over to Homeland Security Investigations, said FWC spokespersons Ashlee Sklute and Shannon Knowles.

A Homeland Security Investigations spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the case.

A criminal complaint had not yet been filed against the alleged smugglers as of Monday evening, according to a search of federal court records.

Violence in Haiti

The boat’s arrival comes a month after Gov. Ron DeSantis sent state police officers and Florida National Guard soldiers to South Florida and the Keys in anticipation of a surge in migration from Haiti in the midst of ongoing gang violence and political turmoil in that country.

That mass exodus has yet to materialize, but the violence in Haiti shows no sign of abating.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 2,500 Haitians have been killed or injured, the United Nations political mission in Port-au-Prince said, the deadliest three-month period since it began tracking deaths and injuries in 2021.

The large-scale coordinated attacks on public institutions and strategic infrastructure in the Haitian capital since Feb. 29 have left at least 19 police officers dead or injured and 22 police stations and other police buildings pillaged or burned, Haiti’s representative to the U.N., Antonio Rodrigue, said Monday, reiterating a call for a deployment of an international force to assist the Haiti National Police.

“It is absolutely vital to act swiftly to avoid the crime of genocide being committed in the country,” Rodrigue told the U.N. Security Council.

The violence in Haiti is affecting all aspects of daily life and has pushed the country into a severe humanitarian crisis. More than 5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, while more than 1.6 million are facing starvation.

“The insecurity in Port-au-Prince has made it virtually impossible for health and nutrition supplies to reach at least 58,000 children suffering from severe wasting in the metropolitan area,” Catherine Russell, the head of UNICEF, said. “The Martissant road, the only humanitarian corridor from Port-au-Prince to the southern regions, remains blocked, leaving an estimated 15,000 children suffering from malnutrition at risk of death.

Making matters worse, she added, cholera has reemerged, with more than 80,000 cases. The violence is also compromising the work of humanitarian workers, she said.

Members of the Security Council pleaded for the swift deployment of a Multinational Security Support Mission, led by Kenya, to help. the Haiti National Police combat gangs. The mission has yet to get off the ground even though the U.N. gave its approval in October.

Smuggling boat stopped off the Keys

Friday’s interdiction comes a week after Customs agents stopped a boat off the coast of Key Largo that federal agents said was smuggling 14 people from Ecuador.

On April 15, U.S. Customs Air and Marine Operations agents tracked a center-console boat as it traveled from the Bahamas to Key Largo, according to a federal criminal complaint.

A Customs airplane crew watched as the boat’s operator retrieved a large drum and refueled the vessel as it was under way, the complaint says. Several people were lying on the deck of the boat, according to the complaint.

Agents stopped the boat about three miles from the Garden Cove subdivision in Key Largo.

They arrested Yasmani Lopez Torres, 29, and Reynel Hernadez Almeda, 34. Both are Cuban nationals with parolee status to stay in the United States, according to court documents.

“Both separately admitted to traveling to the Bahamas for the purpose of picking up 14 non-citizens to bring them into the United States in exchange for payment,” a Homeland Security Investigations agent wrote in the complaint.

As of Monday, Lopez Torres and Hernandez Almeda have not been formally charged, but, they remain in custody facing multiple counts of conspiring to encourage and induce people to illegally enter the U.S.

The Coast Guard confirmed Monday that the people being smuggled are from Ecuador, and they have been transferred to the custody of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force.

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