On the night Lazaro Mendez got an alert that his fishing boat had been stolen from the Florida Keys, he was swept up in a new chapter of the Cuban boat people drama.
On a laptop computer that tracked the boat's position by satellite, he watched as it stopped for refueling at sea, then shot off toward Cuba – the latest in a swarm of thefts of Florida boats prized by smugglers for their speed.
Mendez, a Cuban American and a popular Miami radio personality known as “DJ Laz,” set out to get his boat back, succeeded, and even came face to face with the men who stole it. But it was just the tiniest of setbacks for a human-trafficking industry that is thriving off the Cuban exodus.
Because it has become hard to dodge the U.S. Coast Guard and reach Florida to qualify for U.S. residency, Cuban migrants in recent years have headed for Mexico, then overland to Texas. Last year 11,126 used that route, compared with 1,055 who landed in the Miami area, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
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Evidence of this new route is stacking up at a Mexican Navy yard in Isla Mujeres, where the dock regularly runs out of space for seized Florida boats. On a visit to the small Navy dock last week, The Associated Press counted eight super-fast boats, all with Florida registration numbers.
Mexican authorities are getting fed up, and islanders fear the trafficking is bringing crime to laid-back Isla Mujeres, off Cancun.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said on Sunday that Mexico and Cuba have agreed to return Cubans reaching Mexican shores illegally to the island.
Mexican officials would not comment on the agreement, which Perez Roque said was to be signed today.
But Mexico currently catches only about one tenth of the Cubans landing here, and few resist because they're confident they'll be released. If Mexico begins deportations, many Cubans – or their smugglers – might put up stiffer resistance.
Thefts of boats for smuggling are so frequent that some insurance companies require Florida owners to equip boats with GPS – satellite tracking systems. That's how Mendez tracked his cherished Tranquility.