Bimini has long history of human smuggling

The Bahamian island of Bimini, only 50 miles from Miami, has a long heritage of human smuggling that continues today

Bimini's long history of smuggling turns to human cargo
Its proximity to the U.S. has made Bimini a portal for generations of illegal migrants, primarily from Cuba and Haiti.
Miami Herald Staff

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Sipping on a breakfast of Barton light rum, Eric Hinzey sits on a wall near Bimini's beach, squints his one good eye, and gestures across the 50 miles of ocean separating the Bahamian islandfrom Miami.

''People come from Haiti and Cuba and other places, and we try to get them over there,'' said Hinzey, 49, shrugging. ``You're not doing anything wrong. You're just trying to save people's lives.''

Hinzey is one of Bimini's many ''former'' smugglers, those who joined its long history of capitalizing on its tantalizing proximity to the United States.

Despite a sign in the marina that calls Bimini the ''Gateway to the Bahamas,'' for generations of migrants from the Caribbean, Latin America and even as far away as China, this sandy spit of land has been the illegal portal to the United States by way of South Florida.

Since the 1920s, when rum runners carrying contraband into Florida added Chinese workers to their load, a steady tide of people have viewed Bimini as the last stop on their pilgrimage toward a new life in the United States.

For many local ''Biminites,'' that nearness has meant a cottage industry built around the flow of U.S.-bound illegal travelers, one that runs parallel to the business of catering to a reverse flow of vacationing tourists.

With the U.S. economic downturn, and the job losses that accompany it, both of those industries are suffering -- spawning the sudden growth in ''former'' smugglers. But even as the ferrying of undocumented immigrants has slowed, Biminites say that many continue to risk their lives in dangerous voyages across the sea.

''The large groups are not coming as much as they used to, but . . . people who want to make money nefariously still view this as an opportunity,'' Jeff Dubel, public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, said of smuggling out of the Bahamas. ``The smuggling leads to many tragedies in the sea.''


Behind the tourist facade, with the well-known ''End of the World'' bar, the T-shirts that say ''Relax -- God is in Charge,'' and the houses with signs that merrily proclaim ''Cirrhosis by the Sea,'' groups of immigrants periodically huddle in the safe houses that dot North Bimini's gently sloping hills, waiting for word that their boat is ready and the weather is cooperating for this last leg of their journey.

Although that ocean voyage can take as little as an hour in a fast boat, it has proved deceptively treacherous to hundreds of would-be migrants who have died in smuggling accidents.

There are at least 50 confirmed smuggling-related deaths each year in the waters off the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but U.S. Coast Guard officials estimate that the real number is more than double that. Just last week, two Dominican migrants were found alive after nearly a month at sea while 49 others were believed dead, the Dominican Navy reported Friday.

In November and September alone, more than 100 people are believed to have died in that area, said Capt. Peter Brown.

Those cases ''are tragic, but sadly not unusual,'' said Brown, chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Coast Guard Seventh District, which includes Florida and the Bahamas. ``We have cases like that every year.''

Smugglers and their human cargo brave the waters in vessels ranging from cigarette boats to three-seat dinghies that are more difficult for Coast Guard radars to detect, smugglers say.

Bahamian Lambert Kemp says he smuggled people from Nassau to Bimini, and then from Bimini to Florida, until last year. In the final trip, he had 13 Haitians in a 14-foot dinghy when the wind picked up and sent the ocean crashing over the edges.

''I had to turn back,'' said Kemp, 54. ``Sometimes people ask me to go now and I say no, because the sea don't have no back door.''

The large number of smuggling-related deaths, often because the captains overload their boats or force migrants to jump out before they reach the shore, have turned many in Bimini against the practice.

''That is my biggest concern, that so many people die because they put them in such frail boats,'' said the Rev. Stanley Pinder, 73, of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist church. ``If these smugglers continue to follow the rough way, they will end up in one of only two places: dead or in jail.''

Many of the smugglers said they developed sophisticated arrangements with collaborators in other countries who bring the immigrants to Bimini.

''I worked only with a Colombian connection, and I would go every month or so,'' said ''Hutch,'' a Biminite who would give only his nickname because he feared exposure of his illicit activities. ``I did that for years.''

For $1,800 apiece, Hutch would get the immigrants to a safe house, then ferry 15 at a time across in his 30-foot boat. On one night four years ago, he made eight trips.

''Business has gone down, and it ain't what it used to be,'' said Hutch, 70, who says he stopped smuggling two years ago. ``People are getting caught.''


Nonetheless, he said, the trade continues.

''All these people say they've stopped, but if the money is right, they'll make a run,'' he said, grinning before pedaling away on his battered red bicycle.

In the past, time spent in the Krome Detention Center in South Florida -- where undocumented immigrants are often sent -- was viewed as an acceptable price for the income that smuggling provided. Many smugglers, including Hinzey and Hutch, said they have done months-long stints there.

Now, though, stepped-up enforcement by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force and prison terms have lessened many smugglers' appetite for the business. Federal prosecutors have increased enforcement against smugglers in recent years, issuing 32 indictments against 67 men accused of involvement in smuggling rings in the last year alone.

''All my friends are in jail for the things I used to do,'' Kemp said. ``It doesn't make sense now that it could create problems with the Coast Guard and with people getting drowned.''

Bimini traces its roots in the illicit movement of people and goods to pirates, who first staked out the islands in the 1600s to attack ships passing by on the Gulf Stream shipping route.

Through successive generations, smugglers used it as a staging site for shipments into the United States, beginning with guns to Confederates during the Civil War, then rum during Prohibition, and drugs starting in the 1970s. People were often part of that cargo, although human smuggling truly took off in the 1980s and '90s, said local historian Ashley Saunders.


That heritage still runs deep, Saunders said.

''If you live on this island, somewhere you have a relative who's a smuggler,'' said Saunders, who also runs the Dolphin House guest house. ``It's in our blood.''

Saunders' ancestor Buck Saunders was one of the most notorious ''shipwreckers,'' in the 1800s, who used lights to lure vessels to their ruin on the rocks, priming them for plunder.

Saunders' more contemporary family outlaws include a cousin recently released from a U.S. prison after serving a sentence for a smuggling trip that left an immigrant dead, and a 94-year-old uncle who was arrested and charged a decade ago with leaving a boatload of Haitian immigrants stranded on a different Bahamian island.

During the human-smuggling heyday, both Saunders and his mother ran guest houses that occasionally took in U.S.-bound immigrants. He has a collection of wool sweaters, leather suitcases, and coins left behind by travelers from far-flung places such as Tanzania, India and Turkey -- evidence of the island's recent past.

As Saunders walks through the village's sleepy streets, he points out the pieces of its smuggling present: a boarded-up clapboard house that serves as a hiding place for would-be travelers, the rocky point on the beach where immigrants still gather to wait for their ship captains at night, and the signs posted in restaurants, announcing the latest boats that have been stolen, most often by smugglers to use for the trips.

''The people who came through here are now in America, many of them leading very successful lives, and they owe that to Bimini,'' said Saunders, a lanky man with an angular face and large hazel eyes. ``I look at the Statue of Liberty and I think we need a similar type of monument here, because Bimini has provided all these people with freedom.''