The Miami Herald
Thu, Feb. 26, 2004

U.S. authorities investigate Haitian freighter incident


The fate of 21 Haitians on a freighter intercepted off Miami remained uncertain Thursday as U.S. Coast Guard investigators and immigration agents continued interviewing them.

The federal authorities would not say if the Haitians had asked for political asylum or if they would be repatriated to their country, which is in the midst of a violent uprising.

They also would not confirm or deny the freighter captain's claim that the ship had been hijacked by 17 of the Haitians, who identified themselves as police officers and government officials.

Lt. Tony Russell, a Coast Gaurd spokesman, said three shotguns and a handgun were recovered from the 199-foot, Panamanian-registered Margot.

But that alone is not evidence of a hijacking, he warned.

''It is not uncommon for commercial vessels to have weapons on board for safety reasons,'' he said. ``As a precaution, we had the captain secure all weapons and hand them over to us.''

Asked if the incident could have been a smuggling operation disguised as a hijacking, he said ''all the possibilities'' were being considered.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said investigators were still trying to sort out the details Thursday morning.

''Agents worked until early this morning and now collating all their information and briefing the boss,'' Pruneda said.

If evidence shows the Haitians hijacked the ship, it would be the first incident in more than a decade in which Haitian migrants used force to reach South Florida -- and they could be brought ashore to face federal charges.

Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday that they should be sent back.

''They should be sent back to Haiti. They hijacked a boat, a large vessel, and unless they have a well founded fear of persecution that is specific and meets the criteria of our laws, they should be sent back,'' the governor said in Tallahassee.

His brother, President George W. Bush, said a day earlier that the U.S. would continue its policy of turning back all Haitian refugees seeking to reach U.S. shores in an effort to discourage a mass migration: ``We encourage, strongly encourage, the Haitian people to stay home.''

Russell, the Coast Guard spokesman, said there is no indication of a mass migration. So far this year, the Coast Guard has reportedly picked up 370 Haitians at sea.

But it appears, from a statement on the Coast Guard's Miami district website, that the enforcement levels have stepped up because of the developments in Haiti.

''As a deterrent and in the execution of our duties relating to homeland security, migrant interdiction and counter-drug operations, we maintain a constant presence of surface and air assets in the Windward Pass,'' reads the statement, titled Coast Guard Monitoring Haitian Situation.

``As always, we are closely monitoring the situation and looking for indications of migrants leaving by boat. At this time, we have not seen any indicators beyond the normal levels seen of the last several years.''

In 2003, the Coast Guard reported 1,490 Haitians were interdicted at sea -- the highest number since 1995, when it was 2,336. That followed a year of mass interdictions, at more than 25,000.

South Florida has experienced four mass migrations in the last 20 years:

In 1980, the Mariel boatlift resulted in more than 125,000 Cubans entering Florida. Between 1991 and 1994, more than 50,000 Haitians were interdicted by the Coast Guard and returned to Haiti.

In 1994, 38,000 Cubans were interdicted in less than one month.