FORT PIERCE, Fla. — The Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County are now renewed targets for smugglers coming from the Caribbean, according to agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operation Unit.
Interdiction Agent James Clynes told WPTV the agency is now seeing two to three smuggling events per week in that area.
"There's been an influx in the last, I would say, two to three weeks," he said.
The influx comes as air and marine operation agents responded to two migrant encounters in just one week. CBP agents Tuesday interdicted a human smuggling vessel off West Palm Beach. According to a tweet from the agency, agents stopped the vessel after a night chase and took 12 migrants into custody.
Night Chase..!! @CBPAMORegDirSE agents in West Palm Beach interdicted a human smuggling vessel, as an AMO aircraft located it heading westbound from the Bahamas. Initially it tried to flee, but agents were able to stop the vessel and take 12 migrants into custody. @USCGSoutheast pic.twitter.com/kbCMiDILSM— CBP AMO Regional Director SE (@CBPAMORegDirSE) February 21, 2023
Clynes said shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, agents, with the help of the Martin County Sheriff's Office, first spotted and detained a vessel coming into the St Lucie Inlet near the Sailfish community on South Hutchinson Island.
The 54-foot yacht was crammed with 78 migrants, most of whom were of Haitian descent. Those on board included two pregnant women and four children.
"They did not have life jackets, did not have water, or had inadequate water, and did not have food," said Clynes, who said those on board were lucky to have made it to shore alive. "Seventy-eight people is extremely overloaded for on a vessel of this size. I would say something comfortable on this boat would be no more than 12 people. Therefore, all 78 people were down inside the cabin all cramped up, most of them laying on each other."
Martin County Sheriff Snyder said the smuggling event isn't just dangerous for the migrants. It's also a challenge for his agency and the citizens he serves.
"Had [the migrants] made landfall, it would have taken all night and all the resources I have to try to locate them," Snyder said. "It creates a public safety issue."
Clynes said there's a reason behind the uptick in migrant encounters and it's likely not going to change any time soon.
He and other CBP agents told WPTV that since the Florida National Guard was called in to help counteract the influx of migrants hitting the Florida Keys and Miami, the amount of migrants hitting that area of Florida has significantly dropped off.
Clynes said the downside is that smugglers tend to adapt to the increased patrols, aiming for areas they believe are less patrolled.
"What we're seeing now, I believe, is the flow coming up more north to the Treasure Coast and the area here," Clynes said.
Clynes confirmed to WPTV that many of the smugglers are coming from Haiti and driving through or around the Bahamas to make it to Palm Beach County and north.
"Would it be safe to say the Treasure Coast is the new target for smugglers?" WPTV's Kate Hussey asked.
"That is the way it looks right now," Clynes said.
In response, Snyder has written a letter to President Joe Biden, calling on the president to provide additional resources to apprehend smugglers at the border.
"I'm a cop, and I have a responsibility to protect the citizens of my community. And you're the President of the United States, and you have a responsibility to protect the citizens of this country," Snyder wrote.
Snyder said despite the recent influx, the Treasure Coast has always been a target for smugglers.
Clynes said in reaction to the recent uptick, CBP Air and Marine agents are now upping patrols on the Treasure Coast, staffing agents on patrol 24/7.
It's an issue that hits home for Clynes. As someone with a family himself, seeing pregnant women and children in immediate danger is no easy sight to stomach.
"It's very concerning," Clynes said. "As someone who has a family, you want to make sure they have the best help available at all times."
Clynes said agents are still investigating which country the boat came from and whether or not it was stolen.
Snyder said there was also a report of a possible second boat coming ashore, but he said the intel was either incorrect or the boat sped away before law enforcement could respond.