Armed smugglers interrupted a US Coast Guard operation to remove illegal Haitian migrants from an overloaded boat, holding 60 of the passengers at gunpoint as they escaped authorities, the US Embassy said Thursday. The Coast Guard cutter Venturous intercepted the smugglers' boat Monday near the Haitian barrier island of La Tortue and took on board 35 of the approximately 100 illegal passengers, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen, a Coast Guard spokesman. The 26 men and nine women apprehended were repatriated to Haiti on Wednesday, he added.
But six armed smugglers threatened other passengers and prevented them from getting on the Coast Guard ship, instead fleeing with them aboard the vessel in shallow water.
Ameen said the cutter tried to pursue the migrant-laden boat but lost its trail as it headed back toward Haiti. The smugglers also have evaded the Haitian coast guard and Haitian police so far. Since October, the Coast Guard has stopped about 1,400 Haitian migrants fleeing the storm-wrecked, impoverished country for the United States.
At least nine people, including a pregnant woman, died earlier this month when an overloaded boat carrying Haitians to the U.S. capsized off the Florida coast. The suspected pilot of that boat has been charged in U.S. federal court and could face the death penalty. "We saw just how dangerous these smuggling operations can be," Ameen said. "The way these smugglers were fleeing the Coast Guard showed a total disregard for human life and law enforcement authority. People should not entrust their lives to these smugglers."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during an April visit to Haiti that Washington is considering requests to grant Temporary Protective Status to an estimated 30,000 Haitians who now live illegally in the United States.
The designation blocks deportations to countries that have suffered natural disasters or conflicts and currently applies to six countries including Somalia, Sudan and El Salvador. But Clinton said it would likely apply only to those who had already arrived in the United States before President Barack Obama took office, saying "we don't want to encourage other Haitians to make the dangerous journey across the water."
The news comes as Haitians and Haitian-Americans are mourning the death of Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a 62-year-old Haitian Roman Catholic priest noted for his advocacy on behalf of migrants. He died Wednesday in Miami from stroke complications and a lung problem.