A Brazilian couple was arraigned in federal court in Miami recently, charged with attempting to smuggle undocumented immigrants aboard boats from the Bahamas.
The arraignment Oct. 15 of Fabio Rodrigues Froes and Juliana Rosa Tome Froes, before Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley, where they pleaded not guilty, came less than a month after they were arrested in South Florida in a federal case that has led to the exposure of a little-known dimension to the issue of migrant smuggling.
Court records show that federal investigators from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) believe that the couple was part of a sophisticated and vast smuggling network that brought relatively well-off undocumented Brazilians to South Florida via a convoluted underground system that included flights from Brazil to France, then England and finally the Bahamas where the migrants boarded boats for the final leg of the journey to South Florida. The smuggling trips date back to at least 2009.
While Cuban and Haitian migrant smuggling networks receive the bulk of public attention in South Florida, smugglers who bring undocumented immigrants from other countries are also active but generally keep under the public radar. Besides Cubans and Haitians, Coast Guard vessels also have interdicted immigrants of many other nationalities on boats headed for South Florida, including Chinese, Dominicans, Mexicans and Ecuadorans in recent years.
"While the primary (migrant smuggling) threat comes from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the People's Republic of China, and Cuba, the Coast Guard has interdicted migrants of various nationalities throughout the world," according to a statement posted on the Coast Guard's Miami district website.
In another example of what may be an increase in the smuggling of undocumented migrants of various nationalities on boats, a Customs and Border Protection vessel interdicted on Oct. 8 a boat carrying a Romania, three Brazilians, two Jamaicans and seven Haitians. The Romanian, Gabriel Florica, said he was the captain of the vessel that had been stopped off Palm Beach County. He told investigators he had paid $2,000 to a person identified only as Leroy and then traveled from Britain to the Bahamas, where he boarded his boat.
According to Coast Guard figures, during fiscal year 2012 that ended Sept. 20, the largest numbers of interdicted undocumented migrants were 1,275 Cubans, 977 Haitians and 456 Dominicans. There were also 79 Mexicans stopped at sea and 138 others of various nationalities.
Court records in the Froes case show that the alleged Brazilian smuggling network was uncovered because of a routine stop of a suspicious boat at Hillsboro Inlet near Pompano Beach in Broward County two years ago.
Attorneys for the Brazilian suspects declined comment or could not be reached for comment.
On July 18, 2010, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission vessel patrolling Hillsboro Inlet in the Intracoastal Waterway encountered the boat Got Crabs.
The FFWC officer, Michael Naujoks, boarded the vessel, which carried four people. One of them, under questioning, presented a Brazilian identification card that identified him as Wellington Dos Santos Silva.
After Dos Santos and the others on board were interviewed by U.S. Border Patrol agents at Alsdorf Park Marina near Pompano Beach, Dos Santos admitted that he had tried to enter the United States illegally from the Bahamas. It was the first indication that Dos Santos was one among perhaps dozens of undocumented Brazilians smuggled by the alleged ring.
At that point, the Border Patrol summoned agents from the Department of Homeland Security's ICE to investigate the possibility of an "alien smuggling organization," according to an ICE affidavit filed in Miami federal court.
During the investigation, Dos Santos told ICE investigators that he paid $16,050 to a travel agency in Brazil, identified in court records as Costamares Travel, as the price to be smuggled to the United States.
Dos Santos' claim was the first in a series of similar admissions by other Brazilian immigrants who also told ICE investigators that they paid the same agency similar fees to be smuggled to South Florida.
Dos Santos' story, outlined in the ICE affidavit, describes the convoluted smuggling route the immigrants, most of them previously deported from the United States, took to reach South Florida.
According to the ICE affidavit, Dos Santos said he was instructed to travel from Brazil to Paris, then to London and finally the Bahamas where he stayed for one month awaiting the boat ride to U.S. shores.
While in custody at the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Dos Santos allegedly told an ICE informant that his contact at Costamares Travel was a woman named Juliana and that she was involved in smuggling Brazilians to the United States for a fee of about $6,000 per person.
The ICE affidavit said the fees were paid to associates of Juliana in Newark, N.J., identified only as Ana or Poliana and Alexandro, Alex or Renato. The affidavit said Juliana was later identified as Juliana Rose Tome Froes, the woman arrested with her husband in September.
"Juliana," the affidavit said, "gave specific instructions to Dos Santos to aid in his smuggling, such as directing him to dress and act like a tourist from Brazil, to discard his Brazilian passport that had been issued from a U.S.-based Brazilian consulate and obtain one from Brazil, and she explained that his itinerary through Europe would support his tourist cover story," the ICE affidavit said. "Dos Santos stated that Juliana arranged his air travel from Brazil to Paris, then London and the Bahamas. At each stage of the trip, Dos Santos would speak to Juliana about his status and receive instructions."
A prior boat interdiction on Sept. 16, 2009, had given federal officials preliminary indications of the smuggling ring.
On that date, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bluefin stopped a suspicious vessel traveling to South Florida about 10 miles east of Boynton Beach in Palm Beach County.
Boarding officer Christopher Spurlock and the boarding crew of five observed six people on the boat. Three were later identified as Brazilian nationals, some previously deported from the United States. One of the Brazilians subsequently told federal investigators he had paid $8,000 to be smuggled back to South Florida, via France, Britain and the Bahamas.
A second Brazilian undocumented immigrant, identified as Walderson Gomes Da Silva, told investigators that he had paid fees to be smuggled after meeting with Juliana and her husband Fabio, court records show. Da Silva told investigators that he had been smuggled into the United States at least three times by the ring. One of the times he was smuggled, the records say, he paid about $16,000 and also traveled to the Bahamas via Paris and London.
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