Neil Townsend waited in Nassau, Bahamas, for the call from a woman he knew only as "Viola." Townsend, a young Jamaican man, didn't know her, but he'd paid her $2500 and was counting on the mystery woman to make it possible for him to start a new life in the United States.
When the phone rang, the female voice at the other end of the line told Townsend to go and pick up a little girl and fly with her to Freeport, Bahamas, where he would meet another woman named Cheryl, later identified as Cheryl Berthamae Edden, a Bahamian national.
Townsend arrived with the child, who was about seven years old, in Freeport the next morning, February 17. Edden met the unlikely pair at an airport and took them to her house. That afternoon Edden, who had a valid passport, bought four open-ended, round-trip tickets for the Discovery Sun cruise ship, which makes daily trips from Fort Lauderdale to Freeport and back. Before boarding the ship, Edden handed Townsend a fake Bahamian passport complete with a false identity. The little girl was then taken under the wing of another woman Townsend didn't know.
All four boarded the Discovery Sun and were soon on their way to Fort Lauderdale, coming to the U.S. in style -- aloft a multimillion-dollar vessel with dinner service, air-conditioned quarters, a swimming pool, casino gambling, live entertainment, and a cash bar.
This form of illegal immigration is a far cry from the popular image of immigrants struggling to stay afloat on rickety rafts, dehydrating on the ocean, and burning under the tropical sun. But U.S. Border Patrol officials say it's an ever-popular -- though rarely publicized -- way for sophisticated smugglers to bring their human cargo into South Florida.
"It's much larger than what we've seen, and we're dealing with it as best as we can," says Border Patrol Assistant Chief Agent Keith Roberts. "We have other pressing investigations that are siphoning our resources."
Roberts says there is at least one active investigation of an immigrant smuggling ring using cruise ships but won't discuss the details. He says the smugglers are highly organized, complete with safe houses, transporters in both Freeport and Fort Lauderdale, and "enforcers," who make sure the smuggler is paid.
"We've seen these smuggling schemes time and time again," Roberts says.
Simon Nader, the area port director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), says his inspectors are stopping and deporting roughly one illegal immigrant a week from the Discovery Sun, which is now the only cruise ship that makes daily trips to the Bahamas. International cruise ships that take longer voyages are far less popular for smugglers because of the higher cost of the trip and tighter security. Hanns Hahn, the general manager of the Discovery Sun, says his company is working very closely with immigration officials in both the U.S. and the Bahamas to keep illegal immigrants off the cruise ship.
Just a few years ago, daily cruise ships to the Bahamas were a veritable free-for-all for illegal immigrants. INS inspections were done in a little room onboard the boat, with non-U.S. citizens being called to a room where they would be questioned and asked to produce legal papers. It was, in effect, a voluntary system, and anybody who chose not to go to the room could literally stroll into the U.S., avoiding the INS altogether.
A Border Patrol investigation, dubbed Operation Seacruise, spanning six years and ending in 1993, showed just how useless the system was. The investigation uncovered crime rings -- engaged in drug dealing and homicides -- actively smuggling foreign gangsters to South Florida onboard the day-cruise vessels. The investigation resulted in numerous convictions and a call for INS to inspect all passengers.
After many bureaucratic delays and a New York Times investigation that spelled out the loopholes, INS instituted a system a few years ago whereby everyone on day-cruise ships would, in theory, be examined by immigration inspectors. The new method, Nader says, still had numerous flaws. It continued to be done onboard the cruise ship, as passengers were about to depart the boat, making it next to impossible to really inspect every passenger. There were several exits on each ship, and a lone inspector sat at only one of them, making it easy for illegals to simply walk down another of the ship's gangplanks, unhindered by the feds.
"With all the people mulling about the ship, it was disorganized," says Nader, who has supervised ports from Fort Pierce to Fort Lauderdale during the past seven years. "We didn't have enough space to conduct a proper immigration inspection. People could sneak around -- there were so many entrances to the boat. It was not enough. We needed to do more."
They began doing more just four months ago. Nader says all passengers must exit from one door and inspections are now conducted in a terminal at the port rather than onboard. At the terminal, passengers are lined up, peppered with questions, and asked to provide either proof of U.S. citizenship or a valid passport. If the traveler fails to answer the questions -- like "What is your birthday?" and "Where did you go to high school?" -- or their documents look fake, they are taken to a side room, where an investigation begins.
Townsend, Edden, the young girl, and the unidentified woman arrived in Port Everglades on the Discovery Sun a few months before the improved system was in place. But, instead of sneaking off the boat, they were confident enough to try to get past the INS inspector, who, on that night happened to be Nader, the port director.
"I like to get in the trenches with my troops," Nader explains.
When Townsend showed him the passport, Nader became suspicious that it was fake. When Nader questioned Townsend, the Jamaican stumbled, failing to answer where he went to high school and giving contradictory statements as to where he was going.
"He started stuttering," Nader says.
Townsend was detained, and the Border Patrol was called in to investigate. Cheryl Edden, who said she came to the U.S. to go shopping at Wal-Mart, said she had bought Townsend a ticket as a "favor," according to a Border Patrol report. She was allowed to go because she had a valid passport.
Upon further questioning Townsend admitted he was trying to get into the country illegally and that Edden had supplied him with the fake passport. He was deported. Two days later Edden was stopped as she tried to board the Discovery Sun to return to Freeport. She admitted she was working in a smuggling ring and said her payment was a free round-trip ticket -- which costs $159 -- aboard the Discovery Sun.
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Edden told the Border Patrol that she was working for a woman she knew only as "Yola," who was sometimes simply called "Y," according to federal court documents. This is believed to be the same woman Townsend thought was named Viola. Edden was indicted on one count of immigrant-smuggling and detained in the Krome Detention Center. Last month she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison. Because she'd already been detained for six months, she was taken back to the Bahamas and is now on supervised release.
It was hardly a victory for federal immigration officers. Nader says the little girl and the unidentified woman initially got through his inspection. When it was realized the pair may have used illegal papers, he says, the unidentified woman was found at the port and deported after discovering that she did, indeed, have a fraudulent passport. The young girl, however, wasn't seen again. Nader says it's believed that family members waiting at the port took her away. Roberts won't talk about the little girl. Court papers reveal, however, that agents questioned Townsend about the girl's whereabouts. The Jamaican deportee told them he had no idea where she might be.
And Yola (or Viola), has never been found, either. Higher-level ring members like her are hard to catch, Roberts says, because they often stay away from the United States altogether and nobody, including the people working for them, seems to know exactly who they are.
"These people are almost global-level smugglers," Roberts says. "They have the money and the connections to be very, very sophisticated in their smuggling, including fraudulent passports.... To come up with a silver bullet quick-fix, I don't think that's available to us or to anyone.