Clashes between Cuba’s Coast Guard and human smugglers turning violent

By Henry Shuldiner / InSight Crime

A series of shootouts between migrant smugglers and Cuban armed forces suggest that organized crime groups may be shifting their human smuggling tactics between the Caribbean island and the United States.

On June 28, the Cuban Interior Ministry announced that at least two clashes between speedboat crews coming from the United States to pick up Cuban migrants and border patrols had occurred earlier in the month. Additionally, 13 speedboats had been intercepted so far this year.

On June 18, a Cuban Coast Guard boat intercepted a speedboat that was sailing off the coast of Villa Clara, in central Cuba. During the chase, one of the smugglers opened fire with an automatic rifle, leaving a Cuban soldier wounded and the boat damaged in several places. The boat escaped, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

In parallel, members of the Ministry of Villa Clara detained 30 people who were to be trafficked to the United States, reported Univision.

A week later, a Cuban Coast Guard vessel shot down an alleged trafficker who was aboard a speedboat that came from the United States, according to the authorities of the Cuban Interior Minister.

Violence linked to human smuggling from Cuba is uncommon, but clashes have increased in recent months. In March, one person died and two others were injured after a speedboat collided with a Coast Guard vessel.

At least one of the boats captured by Cuban authorities was registered in the United States, which has prompted an investigation by the US Coast Guard.

InSight Crime Analysis

Increasing economic despair on the island and a dearth of legal migration pathways have led more and more Cubans to seek to join the United States. While many still take to the sea in hastily made rafts, the increased use of speedboats shows the involvement of human smuggling networks.

While hundreds of thousands have tried to reach the United States by land after traveling through other Latin American countries, US Border Patrol has reporteda rapid increase in human smuggling by sea in 2022.

In May, the newly appointed US Border Patrol chief for Miami tore into human smugglers profiting from Cuban migrants.

“The criminal organizations that overload these vessels sacrifice the safety of the migrants for the sake of profits,” Walter Slosar told local media. “They are just standing room only on those boats, not enough water, not enough life preservers. It is a huge tragedy just waiting to happen.”

And the willingness or armed crews to engage in gun battles suggest that there are indeed serious profits to be made from migrant smuggling. However, one analyst suggested such violence may not be entirely new.

“This is normal on the island. It has happened in the past but Cuban authorities don’t reveal it,” César Mendoza, a long-term analyst of Cuban human rights based in Mexico, told InSight Crime. “They may have made it known now to pressure the United States somehow.”