The 90-mile sprint across the Straits of Florida is a dangerous crapshoot, but for Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras’ family and 18 other Cubans the wild ride from Cuba to the Keys paid off.
The 21 illegal migrants and two smugglers crammed into a 32-foot Chris-Craft “go-fast” in June to make the early-morning run across the Gulf Stream from Cuba, according to U.S. Customs spokesman Zachary Mann.
The boat was just 15 miles southwest of Key West around 3 a.m. when watchstanders on the 110-foot Coast Guard cutter Knight Island detected it, says Petty Officer Sandra Bartlett, spokesperson for the Miami Coast Guard. That’s when the chase began. Authorities tried to intercept the Chris-Craft as it raced for U.S. soil in the predawn hours of June 21.
Under the U.S. “wet foot-dry foot” policy, Cubans who try to enter this country illegally by boat and make it to the beach can stay and start a new life here. If authorities intercept them before they make landfall, they are repatriated to Cuba unless they can show they are victims of political persecution.
The cutter dispatched a rigid-hull inflatable to stop and board the Chris-Craft, which reportedly was running without lights. One press report said eight government pursuit boats and a helicopter joined the two-hour chase. Coast Guard and Customs acknowledge only two boats — the RIB and a Customs “go-fast” — chasing the Chris-Craft until it ran up on a beach along Beach Road on Big Pine Key, 20 miles east of Key West.
“They just wouldn’t stop,” says Mann.
The Coast Guard has developed strategies for stopping drug smugglers when they refuse to heave to. It puts armed marksmen on helicopters to shoot out smugglers’ engines, or has chopper crews throw out nets to foul their props or drop bomblets with rubber sting balls to stun them. Bartlett says the Coast Guard doesn’t normally use these tactics to stop boats packed with migrants.
“The Coast Guard’s main concern is the safety of the people aboard that vessel,” she says. “We do as much as we can without jeopardizing the safety of the people on board.”
Mann agrees. He says the Chris-Craft was overloaded and running at high speed with no lights. “We didn’t want it to turn into a recovery effort,” he says.
U.S. Border Patrol rounded up the migrants and smugglers shortly after they reached the beach. Among those who piled out of the boat to safety and a new life here were Contreras’ 31-year-old wife, Miriam Murillo Flores, and the couple’s two girls, 11-year-old Nailan and 3-year-old Nailenis Contreras. Mann says Customs still was investigating the two suspected smugglers’ involvement and who owns the boat. No charges had been filed as of shortly after the incident.