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Feds: 4 arrested, accused in Cuban migrant smuggling scheme

March 23, 2021 GMT

MIAMI (AP) — Federal agents have arrested four men in a scheme to smuggle migrants from Cuba to the Florida Keys, authorities said.

Alberto Garcia, Manuel Fonseca, Yudier Panaque and Yosniel Fuentes made their first appearance Monday in Key West federal court, the Miami Herald reported. They each face a charge of knowingly and willfully conspiring to encourage and induce aliens to enter the United States.

Agents with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations arrested Garcia, Fonseca and Panaque on Sunday at a marina in Tavernier as they worked to bring in their latest group of migrants, officials said. Fuentes was arrested later after agents executed a search warrant at a house in Homestead, southwest of Miami.

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A criminal complaint said Garcia and Fonseca asked someone who really was an undercover agent if they could borrow a boat earlier this month to smuggle people from Cuba into the U.S. Garcia told the agent the boat would be stored at a Key Largo home, which operated as a staging area and a place to hold migrants until their smuggling fees were paid, officials said.

The group charged $10,000 for each migrant brought to the U.S., according to authorities. During the group’s most recent trip last week, they picked up 20 people from Pinar Del Rio, Cuba, the agents said.

Online court records didn’t list attorneys for Garcia, Fonseca, Panaque and Fuentes.

The arrests come as U.S. Coast Guard officials report an increase in Cuban migrants being intercepted at sea as conditions on the island continue to deteriorate. Crews have stopped 107 Cubans since October, already more than the entire previous fiscal year.