KEY LARGO, FLA. (WSVN) – Federal authorities said they have taken more than 300 Haitian migrants into custody after a grounded sailboat was spotted near Key Largo, as they investigate what they described as part of a larger smuggling operation.
At around 3 p.m. on Saturday, U.S. Border Patrol, Coast Guard and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue units responded to the migrant vessel near Ocean Reef Club.
Cellphone video captured just how close the sailboat got to shore.
“All of a sudden, we got people on speaker saying, ‘Everyone needs to clear the beach, everyone out,’” said Cuyler Brown, the witness who recorded the video.
Investigators said 113 of the migrants jumped into the choppy water without life jackets and managed to swim to shore. They were taken into Border Patrol custody.
Just after 5:20 p.m., 7SkyForce hovered above the vessel as Coast Guard and Border Patrol crews worked together to bring the roughly 200 people who remained on board the vessel to safety. They will be repatriated.
Officials said there are some women and children among the migrants, but the majority of them are men.
Coast Guard crews used two cutters and at least three of their small inflatable boats to remove the passengers from the vessel.
First responders evaluated the passengers and provided medical care to those who needed it. Four migrants were taken to an area hospital where they were treated for dehydration. They are expected to be OK.
Authorities said the conditions on the sailboat were poor. There was no shade, not enough water, and there were hundreds of people packed into a vessel that’s just over 40 feet long.
“With over 300 migrants on board a vessel, they were extremely dehydrated, in very dangerous conditions. They were overcrowded, they had limited water, no life vests, so we had [emergency medical services] on scene,” said Border Patrol Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Adam Hoffner.
Back on shore, pictures captured several of the passengers as they sat draped in towels. Some were seen holding plastic water bottles.
Brown said the juxtaposition of the migrant’s sailboat close to shore and the affluence seen at Ocean Reef Club was not lost on him.
“We’re in Ocean Reef, which is pretty nice, and you just kind of wonder what the cultural shock must be when they land ashore and they see all the amenities that we have here,” he said. “You really feel horrible for the people that are going through that. You can only imagine what atrocities that they’re facing back home.”
Investigators said that Saturday’s incident was part of a larger smuggling operation.
“In the interview process, we were able to identify two suspected smugglers involved with this event,” said Hoffner. “We will partner with our Department of Homeland Security Investigations and attempt to prosecute any individuals in any of these cases.”
This has been at least the third time this year that migrants have been intercepted off the coast of Ocean Reef Club. Authorities said they are attempting to determine why so many migrant landings have taken place there.
The 113 migrants who made it to land were later bussed to a Dania Beach facility for processing because the Border Patrol facility in Monroe County is overcrowded.
Over the past two days, Border Patrol units have responded to 16 migrant landings in the Florida Keys.
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