Wooden Boat Smuggling 356 Haitians Runs Aground off Florida Keys
The U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and multiple partner agencies responded as a wooden boat overloaded with Haitians grounded off the Florida Keys. Numerous people, including women and children, needed to be rescued from the rough ocean surf while others attempted to swim to shore.
The incident began shortly after 1:00 p.m. local time on Sunday, March 6, when the Coast Guard station in Key West received a message from a good Samaritan reporting that the small vessel heavily overloaded with people had grounded. The vessel came to rest approximately 200 yards off the exclusive Ocean Reef gated community in Key Largo, Florida.
Three Coast Guard cutters along with air resources, U.S. Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, and local police and rescue services responded. They said that none of the people aboard had life jackets or any safety equipment and with the vessel at a precarious angle, many people were in the water. Customs and Border Patrol described it as a suspected smuggling operation.
“All of their lives were at risk during this journey,” said Adam Hoffner, U.S. Border Patrol Acting Division Chief, Miami Sector. “It’s most definitely a notable sized group of migrants, especially on that type of vessel, 356 migrants on board a vessel that was not seaworthy and very dangerous conditions with the weather and the high winds.”
The agencies said that as many as 160 people from the vessel had gone into the water and were attempting to swim to shore. Hoffner later reported that a total of 158 people were taken into custody and moved to a Border Patrol facility north of Miami.
The U.S. Coast Guard rescued an additional 198 migrants and transferred them to the cutters. All of them were given food, water, shelter, and basic medical attention and are now being detained and questioned. Three were taken to a local hospital with minor injuries. The authorities reported that they did not find any illegal drugs or weapons on board the vessel as they continued to investigate the incident.
158 people were rescued from the water while nearly 200 more were taken from the grounded boat (US Coast Guard photo)
"The coordinated and timely response of the U.S. Border Patrol and our federal, state, and local partners potentially saved the lives of these migrants today," said Walter N. Slosar, Chief Patrol Agent, U.S. Border Patrol, Miami Sector.
The incident came just days after the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted two sailboats also dramatically overloaded attempting to make their way from Haiti to South Florida. On March 4, they stopped a sailboat near the Bahamas that was found to have 123 people crammed on board. A week earlier, the Coast Guard stopped a sailboat with 179 people from Haiti also near the Bahamas attempting to reach the United States.
The U.S. Coast Guard is reporting a dramatic increase in interdictions of Haitians attempting to escape from the difficulties and unrest on the Caribbean island. In the last six months, 1,152 Haitians have been rescued at sea, compared to 1,527 for the entire year before that. Over the past four years, they report rescuing between 400 and 900 Haitian each year attempting to make the crossing often in small, overcrowded, unsafe boats.