Shots fired into speedboat’s engine ended chase off Key Largo

The go-fast boat that was stopped with more than 30 Cuban migrants aboard March 12 is seen docked at the Ocean Reef Club’s marina.
The go-fast boat that was stopped with more than 30 Cuban migrants aboard March 12 is seen docked at the Ocean Reef Club’s marina.

The captain of a go-fast boat carrying more than 30 migrants that was stopped off Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo in early March heaved his vessel only after federal agents pumped eight rounds into one of the three 250 horsepower outboard engines powering the craft, according to documents filed in federal court this week.

The disabling bullets were delivered after pursuing agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations fired two warning shots across the 40-foot speedboat’s bow during an early-morning high-speed chase March 12. A Customs plane patrolling between Florida and the Bahamas spotted the vessel about 24 nautical miles west of Andros, Bahamas, traveling north-northwest with its navigational lights turned off. The aircraft’s crew alerted two Customs patrol boats based in Key Largo.

U.S. Homeland Security Investigations filed a criminal complaint in U.S. District Court Tuesday accusing Miguel Broche Ortiz, 55, and Rodriguez Ferrer, 33, of smuggling at least 33 Cubans into the country. Broche Ortiz has twice been indicted on human smuggling charges and twice deported.

Broche Ortiz was behind the wheel of the go-fast, and ran the boat aground after it was shot by agents about a half mile north of Dynamite Docks in Hawk Channel. Broche Ortiz and nine passengers jumped from the boat into the shallow water and ran toward the nearby mangroves. The Customs agents immediately caught up to Broche Ortiz and four others and took them into custody.

Agents lost sight of the other four, who were later caught at the gated entrance of the Ocean Reef Club by the subdivision’s security officers and agents with U.S. Border Patrol. Ferrer was among that group and claimed to agents that he was never on the boat, but rather a friend in Cuba contacted him and instructed him to wait in the mangroves for the vessel to arrive.

While Broche Ortiz and Ferrer face human smuggling charges, their passengers were handed over to the U.S. Coast Guard and sent back to Cuba. The incident marked the first time a group of Cubans attempted to migrate to the United States by sea since the former Obama administration made an end-of-term executive decision in January to end the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which granted most arriving Cubans instant refugee status. If they were caught at sea, most were sent back.

Obama ended wet-foot, dry-foot because his administration renewed diplomatic ties with the communist Castro regime in 2015, which the former president said made the policy no longer appropriate. In the two years leading up to the repeal of the policy, Cuban migration to the U.S. spiked because the island’s residents feared the inevitable was coming. Ending wet-foot, dry-foot pretty much turned off the taps since then.

However, the Ocean Reef incident was not the only human smuggling operation foiled that day in the region. A 40-foot center console boat captained by a Naples man, Richard Mork, was stopped by a Key Largo-based Customs crew in Tavernier Creek later that afternoon. According to his indictment, Mork was six people from Jamaica, four Haitians and one Bahamian. Two of the Jamaicans were charged with re-entering the country after having previously been deported.

Mork picked up the passengers from Bimini in the Bahamas. According to a detention order holding Mork until his trial, the passengers paid an intermediary $5,000 apiece for passage to the United States. Agents found $20,000 in cash on Mork’s vessel.

Federal agents that day also caught a small group of Cuban migrants at the Black Point Marina near Key Largo in south Miami-Dade County. They were sent back to Cuba.

Ten days later, Customs Air and Marine Operations stopped a cuddy cabin cruiser north of Carysfort Reef Light, about six miles east of Key Largo. Agents arrested a Cuban national who was smuggling six people from China, one person from the Dominican Republic and one person from Gambia, said Andrew Regan, agent in charge of U.S. Border Patrol’s Marathon station.

Like the Tavernier interdiction, immigration officials think that smuggling operation originated in the Bahamas, Regan said.

“I believe the visitor visa requirements to fly into the Bahamas are very lenient or non-existent for numerous countries around the world,” Regan stated in an email.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204