Every morning, a group of people watches the sun rise on the beach at Oceanfront Park in Boynton Beach.
Some scour for treasures. Some exercise. Others like 76-year-old Mario Calogero sit at the edge of the water, toes in the sand, watching the waves crash.
But on Sept. 22, something unusual washed up — a wooden boat in pieces.
Nearby, beach-goers found bags of wet clothes, a fuel tank, oranges, a compass and gallons of fresh water tied to ropes.
“The boat was in two pieces,” Calogero said. “When I asked police, they said they were illegal immigrants.”
It’s not an extraordinary scene on the coast anymore.
The number of immigrants arrested on and off South Florida shores have shot up, fueled by an increasingly sophisticated pipeline of smuggling from the Bahamas, Border Patrol agents say. Smugglers are using technology and money to evade detection on the water and to scope out the best places to drop off immigrants.
Arrests increase along coastline
More than 1,000 immigrants have been arrested on land during the federal budget year that ended Oct. 2. It’s a huge increase from last year, said U.S. Border Patrol agent Frank Miller.
Arrests at sea are up 36 percent from last year with more than 2,000 caught within the Miami sector of the Border Patrol, which covers Florida to the Carolinas.
Miller said a number of reasons could explain the influx.
“One can say more are coming or Border Patrol is out there more,” he said. “It could also be said that we have better intelligence. It could be the smugglers are more being more brazen and taking more risks.”
The bulk of immigrants are still from northern Cuba and Haiti, reaching for the Keys or Miami shores. But an increasing number of Bahamian-sprung human smuggling operations have been thwarted on and off the coasts of Palm Beach County.
Tim Cronin, deputy chief of enforcement with the Coast Guard, said he started noticing the traffic hike in 2010.
“These are groups of migrants using the Bahamian islands as a launching point,” Cronin said. “You can leave Freeport and be in Boca Raton or West Palm Beach in two hours.”
The smuggling operations taking off in the Bahamas are getting more organized and businesslike, Miller said. Smugglers reinvest their proceeds to buy vessels, fuel, and technology and to pay off informants.
“They have counter surveillance in the U.S.,” Miller said. “They are looking out for which law enforcement agency is out there patrolling. Whatever opportunity has the best chance of getting them in, that’s what they’ll use.”
Blending in with boaters
In 1994, Fidel Castro allowed thousands of Cubans to flee the islands. They set off for the U.S. in rickety, cobbled-together boats. A rising tide of Cubans are once again showing up in the waters off Florida. It means more Cubans are putting their lives at risk, but the outlandish vessels make it easier for Coast Guard to spot them.
A crackdown by law enforcement and lack of money available to Cubans on the island have shifted the immigration method back to what it was two decades ago.
Authorities say it’s tougher to nab people smugglers from the Bahamas, who transfer their human cargo in stolen pleasure crafts and fast boats.
“One of the challenges in this area is that you have hundreds and thousands of boats going each different direction,” Cronin said. “You have commercial traffic, you have recreational boaters, you have fishermen. From high above, they all look the same.”
Smugglers charge $5,000 to $10,000 a head. In cases where the price is not paid in full, the immigrant will go into debt to the smuggler, according to Edward Thompson, assistant special agent in charge with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In 2010, a West Palm Beach woman was sentenced to more than seven years in prison on charges of forced labor and alien smuggling, according to ICE. Veronica Martinez admitted to illegally smuggling two Honduran women and forcing them to talk, dance and drink with men at a bar to pay off their debts.
Taking to the sea is a deadly journey
But just because the boats that are used in Bahamas-to-Florida smuggling aren’t as flimsy as the rafts or wooden planks many Cubans use in their attempts to cross waters, the journey isn’t necessarily safer.
In February, at least four people drowned when a motorboat smuggling 12 immigrants overturned about 75 miles northeast of West Palm Beach. Seven survivors were found atop the upside-down hull and three bodies were recovered from under the boat.
Michael Flanagan, deputy chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol, said smugglers will sometimes overload their boats to maximize profit.
“We routinely encounter grossly overloaded vessels that are not up to specs as far as safety equipment,” Flanagan said. “Like life jackets, a flare gun. Routinely, these smugglers don’t have any of that stuff.”
During the darkest hours of the night, a cramped boat will race toward the shore at full speed, turning off its navigation lights to slip past patrols.
As the hours pass, city lights begin twinkling ahead.
“You’re approaching the beach and you’re beginning to feel the stress and anxiety,” Flanagan said, describing a typical scene. “They pull into the surf and yell at everyone to jump. There’s panic.”
Now and then a smuggler will push immigrants off the boat and force them to swim to shore in order to increase the odds of returning to the Bahamas undetected.
But not everyone always make it. A woman drowned in August while she and 19 other Haitians were trying to make it to Hillsboro Beach.
“The smuggler has no regard for the people or their safety,” Cronin said. “He just got paid to take them across. He doesn’t want to get caught.”
‘Special interest’ immigrants
The average person fleeing his or her country to live in the U.S. is looking for a higher standard of living. Cronin classifies these people as “economic” immigrants.
But Cronin said others want to enter the country to commit crimes or escape the law of their own land.
“Cubans and Haitians that are seeking a better way of life, a job, perhaps happiness, freedom,” he said. “But a special interest alien is coming to the United States to do something much different than those seeking a job.”
Those who have been deported use the route to reenter the country. According to the Border Patrol, 22 percent of the immigrants arrested between Oct. 1, 2013 and Oct. 1, 2014 had some type of previous criminal record in the U.S., including robbery, drug dealing and violent crimes.
“They are not here to take jobs that Americans don’t want,” Flanagan said. “They are here to commit crime. They have already proven it.”
It is Haitians who mostly use the smuggling service, but authorities this year have picked up immigrants from Brazil, India, China and Sri Lanka.
Cronin said the Bahamas’ visa policies are one reason why they see a wide range of people on smuggling ventures. According to the Bahamas government website, those with passports from at least 160 countries can visit without a visa.
Sometimes, the smuggling operation starts half way around the world, Miller said.
“It’s a network with a good public relations office and recruiting efforts,” he said. “The whole trip is planned out.”
In 2013, a Brazilian couple was convicted of organizing a smuggling system that operated out of Brazil, sending immigrants to France, England and the Bahamas before they came to the U.S., according to ICE.
The husband and wife team of Juliana Rose Tome-Froes and Rabio Rodrigues Froes charged $16,000 to a person coming through Europe, disguised as a tourist. The couple arranged flights and lodging and eventually would send the immigrant to Freeport to be smuggled to Florida.
Cronin said the border’s level of accessibility is a security concern.
“We haven’t encountered a terrorist yet,” he said. “But it’s certainly susceptible to happen.”
Prosecution key to dismantling networks
Sophisticated smuggling networks were once responsible for the vast majority of Cuban immigration — particularly in 2008 when Cubans on fast boats replaced rafters and homemade vessels.
In March 2008, ICE special agents dismantled a six-member smuggling ring planning to bring 20 Cuban nationals into Florida. Authorities later took down another ring that charged $10,000 per person to be smuggled aboard a fast boat and dropped off on Florida’s west coast.
“The price to pay was a lot heavier,” Cronin said. “The more we prosecute and send smugglers to jail, we send the message back to those gearing up for the next run, bringing down whatever network is driving this.”
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, 62 people were convicted of alien smuggling during budget year 2014. The year before, 58 were convicted, 28 of them in West Palm Beach.
On Oct. 30, a Bahamian man was sentenced to 14 years in prison after four Haitian women drowned during one of his smuggling expeditions. Naaman Davis, 54, had smoked crack on the trip and then the boat capsized, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Each interdiction that we get and each smuggler that we bring in and prosecute leads us down the road to dismantle them,” Cronin said.
Smuggling attempts this year
1. East of Port Everglades, Jan. 12 — Nine Haitians and two suspected smugglers caught east of Port Everglades in Broward County. Immigrants sent back to Haiti; alleged smugglers brought ashore for investigation.
2. 400 N. Ocean Blvd., Jan. 14 — Suspected Bahamian smuggler and 11 people caught after boat landed on Palm Beach. The 11 were from China, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
3. 1960 S. Ocean Blvd., Jan. 16 — Sixteen Haitians and one Jamaican arrested coming ashore in Manalapan after being smuggled from the Bahamas. The Jamaican had an active arrest warrant in the U.S. for narcotics trafficking. The suspect smuggler is believed to have fled back to the Bahamas after eluding an air search by the Border Patrol.
4. 1700 S. Ocean Lane, Jan. 30 — Haitians arrested coming ashore in Fort Lauderdale. Resident notified police that a group of people had arrived on the beach. Three needed rescuing from the water. One died at a hospital.
5. 75 miles northeast of West Palm Beach, Feb. 6 — A 24-foot boat carrying 12 immigrants capsized. Four people were killed. Nationalities of the immigrants aren’t known. Seven people were found standing on top of the overturned boat and three bodies inside the hull.
6. 4600 S. Ocean Blvd., Feb. 10, off Boca Raton — Twelve Haitians, including a pregnant woman and a child, arrested coming ashore.
7. 760 N. Ocean Blvd., Feb. 10 — Seven Haitians caught coming ashore near Palm Beach Country Club. Investigators said they were in good health.
8. Singer Island, Feb. 11 — Nine Haitians caught coming ashore. Border Patrol agents said a group bailed from a beached boat, touching off a massive search on the ground, in the air and at sea.
9. Juno Beach, March 8 — Seven immigrants from Colombia, Brazil, Haiti and Ecuador caught coming ashore. Authorities said they were brought over from the Bahamas on a 25-foot boat.
10. State Road A1A, March 21 — Two men and a woman walking along A1A in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea were taken into custody. The trio was part of a group of 10 immigrants dropped off by a boat.
11. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, April 1 — Two women from the Dominican Republic and three men from Haiti were taken into custody after swimming to shore. Several others jumped out of the boat and scattered on the beach, getting away from authorities.
12. 800 S. Beach Road, April 24 — Nine immigrants caught after a boat dropped them off in the Jupiter area around. Five men and four women were taken into custody. Officials were looking for four more.
13. E. Ocean Ave., June 8 — Fifteen adults and two children from Haiti caught coming ashore in Boynton Beach. The sheriff’s helicopter spotted an abandoned boat and the pilot saw footprints leading away from the vessel.
14. Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse, June 29 — Eight men, seven women and two boys, ages 2 and 10, were arrested coming ashore. Fifteen were from Haiti, one from Jamaica and one from Ecuador. They were dropped off about a mile north of the lighthouse where a motorist saw them and called police.
15. Highland Beach, Aug. 7 — Palm Beach County deputies intercepted a boat carrying 21 people from Haiti and one from Jamaica off the coast of Highland Beach. None of the migrants reached the shore.
16. Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum, Aug. 20 — Five men, three women and a child from Haiti were smuggled aboard a 20-foot Bahamian vessel, later reported as stolen.
17. North of Grand Bahama, Aug. 21 — Twelve males, nine females and three infants were intercepted making their way toward the U.S.
18. 1021 Hillsboro Mile, Aug. 25 — One woman died after she and 19 other Haitians arrived on Hillsboro Beach. They were likely smuggled in from the Bahamas and dropped off by a boat, the Border Patrol said.
19. Manalapan, Sept. 1 — Twenty-three undocumented immigrants from Haiti and Jamaica were detained as they tried to come ashore. All of them — 18 adults and five children, one of them traveling without his parents — were processed to be returned to their home countries.
20. 2700 S. Ocean Blvd., Sept. 15 — Authorities tracked down 13 immigrants who came ashore in the 2700 block of South Ocean Boulevard north of Boca Raton. . Eight men and five women arrived in good condition on a small boat from the Bahamas.
21. 1900 S. Ocean Blvd., Sept. 22 — Nine adults and one child were smuggled aboard a 14-foot go-fast boat. Two Cubans, two Jamaicans, five Haitians and one Sri Lankan landed off Boynton Beach.
SOURCES: Palm Beach Post, Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, TC Palm and WPBF-TV
Immigrants heading to South Florida
Number of U.S. Coast Guard immigrant interdictions between Key Largo and Fort Pierce by fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
Immigrants heading to U.S.
Overall number of U.S. Coast Guard immigrant interdictions by Oct. 1.
Interactive Migrant Map: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=z9zfEjoSwjdM.kq0dq6Dht6WQ