MIAMI (Reuters) - While hundreds of U.S. law enforcement agents intercepted imaginary Cuban migrants during a massive training exercise in south Florida, two boatloads of actual Cubans sneaked ashore on Miami Beach on Thursday.
Boaters dropped off 21 Cuban migrants at a popular nudist beach and left 19 others on another beach a few hours later, the Border Patrol said. Both vessels escaped.
“It’s our belief that they were the result of organized smuggling,” Border Patrol spokesman Steve McDonald said.
The Cubans arrived on day two of a training exercise to test “Operation Vigilant Sentry,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s plan to halt a possible mass migration from the Caribbean. About 325 agents from 85 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies took part in the exercise, which ended on Thursday.
“We’re not embarrassed at all,” McDonald said. “It’s not uncommon for them (Cubans) to have landings.”
Thursday’s arrivals almost certainly will be granted asylum, like most Cubans who reach U.S. soil. Cubans intercepted at sea are usually returned to their communist homeland.
The training scenario envisioned a mass exodus of Cubans fleeing violence after their government fell, with Florida boaters headed south to pick up relatives and a deadly virus spreading among 2,000 migrants intercepted at sea.
Most of the action was simulated, but the long-planned exercise took on new urgency after Cuban President Fidel Castro temporarily handed power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, and underwent gastrointestinal surgery in July.
“It’s a mass migration plan in general. It doesn’t have to be from Cuba,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. David Kunkel, director of the Homeland Security southeastern task force.
“However we do recognize that Cuba is certainly an area where we must be prepared.”
Participants at one location pretended to be aboard a command ship at sea, relaying information to those at emergency centers from the Florida Keys to West Palm Beach. On paper, 26 Coast Guard cutters and seven Navy ships took part but the agencies saved fuel and manpower by putting only four helicopters and a dozen small boats into service.
The goal was to get all the agencies and the military working together to interdict at least 95 percent of the migrants before they reached the U.S. shores, and return them to their homeland.
“Since 9/11 it is essential that we work diligently to protect our borders,” Kunkel said.
Many in south Florida law enforcement have worked on actual mass migrations in the past as waves of Cubans and Haitians fled violence, poverty and repression. Kunkel was a Coast Guard helicopter pilot in the Florida Keys during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cubans to southeastern Florida in a chaotic few months.
Since then, he said, “Things have changed. First of all, there is a plan.”
The Coast Guard has picked up 637 Cubans at sea since October 1, and 2,810 in the 12 months before that.
The United States has better intelligence-gathering about political and economic conditions that could provoke a mass exodus, and would potentially have some lead time to warn would-be migrants against setting out for Florida, the Coast Guard officers said.
“Our message is, ‘Don’t take to the sea. It’s dangerous,’” Kunkel said.
Additional reporting by Tom Brown in Miami and Laura Myers in Marathon, Florida