U.S. returns 40 migrants to Cuba after intercepting two vessels

U.S. Department of Homeland Security emblem is pictured at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) located just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia September 24, 2010. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

MIAMI, Jan 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard on Friday said it has returned 40 people to Cuba after intercepting two vessels near Florida while two people were being investigated for human smuggling.

Increasing numbers of migrants are trying their luck at sea amid growing economic problems in Caribbean nations.

The vessels were spotted near the Florida Keys on Sunday and on Tuesday. Two suspected smugglers were transferred to Homeland Security Investigations, a Coast Guard statement said.

"People illegally entering the U.S. using smugglers put their lives in the hands of criminals," said Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Mark Cobb. "Migrant smugglers are ruthless criminals who only care about profit."

U.S. sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced international tourism, have hurt Cuba's economy. The Coast Guard said that its crews have interdicted 690 Cubans since Oct. 1, compared with 838 in the 12 months ending on Sept. 30.

Haitian boat migration is on the rise due to an economic downturn and a spike in gang-related kidnappings that have worsened since the July assassination of President Jovenel Moise.

The Coast Guard on Thursday said it had intercepted a sailing vessel carrying 191 Haitians. L1N2U723B

It also called off its search for 34 people who disappeared after a boat carrying 40 people capsized off Florida's coast. U.S. authorities have not released the nationalities of those on board.

Five bodies were recovered, and there was one survivor. Colombia's foreign ministry on Friday said it would assist that survivor, a citizen identified as Juan Montoya, who was transferred to a Miami hospital in the custody of immigration authorities. His sister, Maria Montoya, died in the accident.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; additional reporting by Julia Symmes-Cobb in Bogota, Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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