Florida Boat Thefts Linked to Human Trafficking

Boat thefts in Florida are 30 per cent higher than a year ago, according to state officials, who put the number at over 1,200 stolen boats through October. High performance or 'go-fast' boats have also become the boat of choice, according to officials at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

'Go-fast boats, 26-39 feet long, are being targeted with greater frequency than in previous years,' said Lt John Humphreys of FWC's Investigations Section in a statement. 'These boats are targeted by criminals because of their high-dollar value and for use in maritime-based smuggling activities.'

Dade, Monroe and Broward counties have the highest number of boat thefts. However, stolen boats have been reported all across Florida. Boat thefts are also becoming more common in the Florida Keys, where they are often connected to the smuggling of illegal immigrants. 'Detectives are warning Upper Keys residents about boat thefts,' said a Monroe County Sheriff's Office statement. 'Seven boats have been stolen from behind Upper Keys residences over the past two months.'

Most of the human trafficking originates from Cuba, according to a story in Florida Sportsman magazine. Smugglers prefer high-horsepower boats or fishing vessels 26 to 39 feet long.

Many Cubans have arrived in South Florida via homemade vessels, the story noted, but many others have been transported on stolen vessels. The Coast Guard has stopped 2,587 Cuban migrants in the Florida Straits so far this year. 'This is not a mom-and-pop operation,' Andrew Corsini, assistant special agent for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami, told the magazine. 'These are sophisticated groups trying to bring people into this country and they're paid well.'

'Boat theft is big business and a growing trend in Florida,' added Capt David Bullard of FWC's Investigations Section. 'Frequently, boat thefts are linked to larger issues, such as organized crime and illegal immigration.'

In Southern California, where the border with Mexico is more heavily patrolled than in previous years, human traffickers are using older boats that they simply abandon on the beach. In the past six months, about 15 boats have been dumped along the San Diego shoreline.

'What we are seeing now is a new tactic that is being used, which is basically to get these old boats for cheap somehow, and then abandon them as quickly as possible,' Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Diego, told the San Diego Tribune. 'It's no loss to the organisation.'

ICE officials told the paper that abandoning boats after a smuggling operation is the latest development in a long history of human smuggling by sea. A spokesman for US Customs and Border Protection said the agency was hiring additional agents. 'We are trying to plan ahead by having a more robust marine capability,' Vince Bond, an agency spokesman in San Diego, told the paper.


(14 November 2007)