Crackdown further south pushes drug, human smuggling north to Palm Beach County, Treasure Coast

By Julius Whigham II

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

It began as a midnight chase by the U.S. Coast Guard during an early March morning on the south end of Palm Beach. It ended with a Bahamian boat captain’s arrest and the detention of two Jamaican men in a case of suspected human smuggling.

On an early morning in June, Jupiter Island Police and U.S. Border Patrol agents located a group of 10 people from Haiti in another case of human smuggling.

And on Monday, two people told border agents they came to the shores of Palm Beach from the Dominican Republic with a total of seven people.

From human smuggling to drugs, criminal organizations have been targeting the shores of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast in recent years, local officials said.

Edward Thompson, the Homeland Security agent in charge for the Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast areas, said, “I has been a trend for the last couple of years of like a northern migration of those types of crimes.”

While the Miami area and Florida Keys still remain popular destinations for human and drug smuggling, Thompson said he thinks heavy enforcement and prosecutions in those areas may be one reason criminals are targeting local shores more often. However, Thompson added that smuggling operations, including many operating primarily out of the Bahamas, have been a concern for the area for many years.

“That marine threat has always been there,” he said. “It’s historical here in South Florida. There have always been organizations in the Bahamas that have been in position to smuggle contraband or migrants, drugs, etc.”

A report from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that because the country has been more diligent in protecting inland borders in recent years, criminal organizations are using the seas more to smuggle humans and contraband.

And while the number of maritime immigrant landings has remained consistent over the past three years in this area, authorities said it’s a concern.

According to data provided by that agency, there have been 15 known maritime landings involving 87 immigrants from Oct. 1, 2011, through the end of August in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties. During the previous fiscal year — from Oct. 1, 2010, to Oct. 1, 2011 — there were 13 known landings involving 79 immigrants. And from Oct. 1, 2009, to Oct. 1, 2010. there were 16 known maritime landings involving 170 immigrants.

Those with smuggling activity involved immigrants from the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic — and some from as far away as China, Sri Lanka and Romania.

“We do get a lot of different nationalities,” said Michael Flanagan, the deputy chief patrol agent for the Miami sector of Customs and Border Protection. “There are smugglers that exploit the proximity of the Florida coastline to the Bahamas, and they do exploit the proximity to Cuba with South Florida as well. The coastline in Florida is huge, it’s very large and there are a ton of legitimate vessels out there, and our job is try to find the bad guy in the midst of all those legitimate good guys.”

Flanagan said that the number of marine-related incidents his agency has investigated has remained consistent the past few years, but he noted that there have been several smuggling prosecutions in the West Palm Beach area in recent years.

“There are a lot of smugglers over the last year, or even two years, that we have successfully prosecuted and held accountable,” Flanagan said. “We’ll continue to do that. That’s our goal, and we feel like that’s the best way to successfully disrupt these smuggling organizations that are attempting to exploit the coastline.”

To that point, earlier this year, three men were sentenced to prison terms for participating in a smuggling operation based out of suburban West Palm Beach. Abdiel Agustin Borges, Yoel Ortiz and Fabiano Augusto Amorim were arrested after agents intercepted a vessel at sea on Feb. 16 near Stuart.

Prosecutors alleged that the men organized an operation to smuggle 11 Brazilian citizens and a Peruvian citizen out of the Bahamas. Borges was sentenced in July to 15 months in prison and 24 months of supervised release; Ortiz was sentenced in August to 36 months in prison; and Amorim was sentenced in September to 36 months in prison.

Court records show that their operation had been under surveillance since October 2011 and that Homeland Security special agents had been tracking the men’s movements at addresses in West Palm Beach and suburban West Palm Beach.

Borges was operating the vessel that smuggled the immigrants, while Ortiz and Amorim had traveled to a park in Hobe Sound to meet them, authorities said. Ortiz, who resides in suburban West Palm Beach according to court documents, told investigators that he is owner of the vessel and that he loaned it to Borges to go fishing. He denied having knowledge of smuggling or receiving compensation. Amorim, a Brazilian citizen who lives in Boston, told investigators that he was aware of Brazilian nationals being brought into the United States and that he he received $200 for each person on board, according to court records.

Borges, who is a U.S. citizen, said that he has been friends with Ortiz for several years and that Ortiz introduced him to Amorim to work as a boat driver, the court records show.

In another case that ended in August, two Bahamian men, Wardell Hall and Rico Jerome Miller, pleaded guilty in federal court in West Palm Beach to attempting to smuggle six people into the United States. Federal prosecutors alleged that in April, passengers from Trinidad, Ecuador and Jamaica paid the men $2,400 to travel from the Bahamas to Miami. However, the boat became disabled near the St. Lucie Inlet and was intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter.

“They’re criminal organizations that are profiting, or trying to profit by exploiting the coastline,” Flanagan said. “That’s our highest priority to is dismantle those organizations.”

Crackdown further south pushes drug, human smuggling north to... |