Special unit patrols amid ‘dangerous’ surge of migrants trying to reach South Florida shores

Local 10 News gets a look inside the Air and Marine Operations branch of customs agents

As a surge of migrants and smugglers continue to head to South Florida from Cuba, the Caribbean, and Bahamian islands, federal agents are busy patrolling the coastline.

As a surge of migrants and smugglers continue to head to South Florida from Cuba, the Caribbean, and Bahamian islands, federal agents are busy patrolling the coastline.

Agents with Air and Marine Operations, a specialized law enforcement branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, gave Local 10 News a firsthand view of the work they do patroling South Florida from the sky and in the water.

AMO patrols the waters 12 nautical miles from the shore, including west of the Marquesas Keys.

Some agents are specifically trained on vessels equipped with radar and infrared technology so they can see images in pitch black.

Others fly fix-winged planes with high-resolution cameras, as well as a Blackhawk helicopter.

“2020 and 2021 — significantly busy,” said Patrick, an AMO agent who declined to provide his last name for security reasons. “Averaging about an interdiction a day.”

In the Florida Keys, most migrants are coming from Cuba, and many are arriving in homemade boats. Patrick said it shows the level of desperation people are feeling, and the risks they are willing to take to leave their home country.

“Extremely, extremely dangerous. This year alone we’ve all seen it. We’ve seen bodies in the water — deceased floating,” he said.

Along with partners in the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection agents report significant increases in illegal migrant landings and suspected smuggling operations over the last year.

In Fiscal Year 2020, 49 Cuban migrants arrived illegally in South Florida. That number skyrocketed to 838 in 2021, data shows.

“I think there is a lot of misinformation out there. It is not legal to illegally enter the United States,” Patrick said.

Others coming to South Florida are suspected to have been smuggled.

In October, deputies in the Keys said more than 30 migrants, including children, were found crammed and hiding in a go-fast boat that was being towed north on the Overseas Highway. The driver was arrested.

In June, deputies stopped a truck towing a boat that was hauling more than 200 gallons of gasoline, had a bag with ski masks, a satellite phone and GPS. Authorities believe this may have been the start of what would have been a smuggling operation.

Both cases are under investigation.

Most migrants are processed and returned via Coast Guard Cutters.

“Times are tough in Cuba right now. COVID threw a big wrench in the lives of everyday Cubans there. People are seeking the freedoms we have here in the United States,” Patrick said.

There is now a bipartisan effort to increase the area AMO agents can patrol.

On Wednesday, U.S. Representatives Mike Waltz (FL-6-R) and Stephanie Murphy (FL-7-D) introduced the bipartisan Extending Limits of U.S. Customs Waters Act to double law enforcement’s area of operation in coastal waters to enable more effective enforcement of U.S. customs laws, interdict drugs, and stop human traffickers.

About the Author:

Janine Stanwood joined Local 10 News in February 2004 as an assignment editor. She is now a general assignment reporter. Before moving to South Florida from her Washington home, Janine was the senior legislative correspondent for a United States senator on Capitol Hill.