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Gangs drive the burgeoning number of seafaring Haitian migrants arriving in the Keys

A sailboat with Haitian migrants on board
US Coast Guard
Haitian migrants aboard a 35-foot sailing vessel off the Florida coast last September.

Almost 500 Haitians have come ashore in the Florida Keys in two weeks — and they say they're fleeing violent gangs that control much of Haiti now.

More than 120 Haitian migrants came ashore in the Florida Keys Monday morning — literally in a resident's back yard — after more than 350 arrived in a different part of the Keys last week. Given the conditions they describe in Haiti, South Florida can probably expect many more to come, and soon.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it apprehended 123 Haitians in a sailboat off Summerland Key. Their arrival, like others in recent weeks, is a suspected smuggling operation. Most of the migrants will likely be sent back to Haiti, though immigration attorneys tell WLRN many may have credible asylum claims.

In just the first half of this fiscal year, more Haitians have tried to come to the U.S. by sea than in all of the last fiscal year. The main reason, they say, is to escape the violent gangs that control much of Haiti now as the government there continues to collapse.

Many are fleeing Croix-des-Bouquets, near Port-au-Prince, where the gang 400 Mawozo is based. Haitian-American Regine Theodat was living and running businesses there until recently, when gangsters shot her Haitian husband. He survived, but they and their toddler child have since moved to the Dominican Republic.

“Day in and day out there. you would just hear rounds and rounds and rounds of bullets, like semi-automatic rifles, between the police officers and the gang members," Theodot told WLRN.

"They were just — they were at war. And I'm told it's considerably worse since we left.”

Haitian-American immigration attorneys like Ronald Surin in Fort Lauderdale say many Haitian expats who had relatives on the boats are calling them this week. Surin says they tell him the migrant numbers are much larger now because of the gangs — and because social media networks organizing the boat journeys, like WhatsApp groups, are more sophisticated. So are the overcrowded, often smuggler-operated voyages themselves, which reportedly are using less customary Caribbean sea routes to get to Florida.

“A lot of people, they have to abandon Port-au-Prince to take refuge in the countryside," Surin said. "And once there they have the [social media] connections to find out how they can leave the country. And those networks travel very fast.”

The boat that arrived in the Keys this week embarked from La Tortue, off Haiti’s northwest coast.

South Florida immigrant advocates, including Surin, say they have not been able to contact any of the migrants being processed now by U.S. officials. They are calling for the migrants to be allowed to stay and given protected status due to the violent and destitute conditions back in Haiti.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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