In the Bahamas, a smuggler’s paradise thrives on today’s cargo: people

In the Bahamas, a smuggler’s paradise thrives on today’s cargo: people

The Bahamas have been a smuggler’s paradise for generations:

Rum. Cocaine. And, increasingly, people.

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NASSAU, Bahamas — By day, Jet Ski operators zip through the turquoise waters around Arawak Cay, where tourists dine on conch salads from brightly painted wooden shacks.

But by night, inky blue waves become a covert gateway through the vast Caribbean to the United States.

It was here that a 33-foot boat named Bare Ambition set out after midnight one day last summer. It slid away from a rocky beach hidden behind a dilapidated former nightclub known as the Sand Trap, which sat beside a brothel and a block from a building once operated by the U.S. Embassy.

The boat, described by an investigator as a “pleasure craft,” was supposed to carry only 20 people. Instead, dozens of Haitians huddled together on board. Some had spent years living in the Bahamas. Others were recent arrivals. All hoped to reach the promised land for thousands of migrants crossing these waters: Florida.

The Bare Ambition didn’t get far. Battered by rough waters about six miles from the harbor, it began to take on water. In the darkness and panic, some on board began spilling over the sides of the boat and into the sea. Others were trapped inside. No one wore a life jacket.

(Royal Bahamas Defense Force/AP)

Authorities heard knocking from the hull. Inside, they found a woman who had survived in an air pocket.

At least 17 Haitians died that morning — a man, 15 women and a little girl. It was the worst loss of life in Bahamian waters in years.

This island nation has stepped up patrols to confront a record surge in migration to and from its many shores. Its prime minister has declared that “the Bahamas is for Bahamians.”

So far this year, Bahamian authorities have apprehended 1,736 migrants, 1,281 of them Haitian.

The United States also has increased enforcement. Coast Guard cutters have been rescuing migrants from foundering or overcrowded boats every few days and sending them back to their home countries.

To discourage irregular migration, the Biden administration has set up a system for foreigners to apply for asylum online, while turning back those who have not.

None of those measures have stopped the perilous journeys.

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Only 25 people were rescued on that morning last summer.

Authorities laid the bodies of the dead facedown on a tarp and took photos. One of those images reached the cellphone of Lenise Georges as she sat in a Nassau church pew and listened to Sunday services.

There, on WhatsApp, was the body of her 43-year-old sister, Altanie Ivoy, a mother of three, in a pink zigzag shirt. Georges recognized her back and the shape of her arm, the elbow she’d known since they were children.

Next to her, wearing red polka-dot pants, was Ivoy’s 1-year-old daughter Kourtney, who had just begun to say her first words. She was the only child on the boat.

Kourtney, who was on the boat with her mother, Altanie Ivoy, was 1 year old when both died. (Georges family photos)

For centuries, the Bahamas has been a smuggler’s paradise.

The islands were a haven for pirates plundering gold in the 1600s, rum runners bootlegging liquor during Prohibition and “Cocaine Cowboys” ferrying drugs into Florida in the 1980s.

Now the smugglers are moving people.

As one put it: “All that changed was the cargo.”

Ongoing chaos and violence in Haiti and a crippling economic crisis in Cuba are powering a new surge of people who try to slip into Florida by sea.

It’s no longer only people from the Caribbean who use this route to make a run for the United States. With its relatively lenient visa requirements, the Bahamas now draws migrants of means from around the world, from as far away as China, Cameroon and Iraq. They buy a plane ticket, land on an island and look for a boat.

Migrants are seen as “human commodities” and routinely extorted, kidnapped or forced into sex trafficking by larger smuggling networks, Salisbury said.

“It’s a volume business,” he said. “The more cocaine you can move, the more you’re going to get paid. The more people you can smuggle, the more money you get — only these are living, breathing human beings we are talking about.”

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What’s unknown is how many people manage to slip ashore and into Florida’s large Caribbean communities — and how many die trying.

The U.N. Missing Migrants Project estimates at least 349 people either disappeared or died in Caribbean waters last year, nearly twice as many as the year before. That’s the highest toll since the agency began tracking them in 2014 and is probably an undercount, said Edwin Viales, a data and research assistant for the U.N. project.

“In the bottom of the Caribbean Sea,” Viales said, “there are thousands of remains of migrants who remain unidentified.”

People in Haiti and Cuba routinely call U.S. authorities distraught that they have not heard from loved ones who left days earlier. Coast Guard Lt. Katrina Prout, a pilot, is dispatched to fly over the vast Caribbean waters as often as four times in a week.

“We will go and search and search for them and we will never find them,” Prout said. “I can’t imagine that kind of heartbreak of a family just never knowing what actually happened.”

The flourishing smuggling business operates under the cover of tourism, at times with the knowledge of local authorities, according to migrant advocates and smugglers.

Interviews with half a dozen current and former smugglers here describe an illegal but profitable industry passed down through generations and made possible through small-town connections in a place where just about everyone has a boat, or knows someone who does.

The high-rise resorts of Paradise Island overlook the Nassau Cruise Port. In the Bahamas, it can be hard to know who’s on a small boat with proper registration — tourists or smuggled migrants. The scene at popular Junkaroo Beach in Nassau. The desperate are easy prey. Mustafa al-Hamadani and his wife and children were stranded in Bimini for months when a smuggler took his cash. (Photos by Octavio Jones for The Washington Post and Samantha Schmidt/The Washington Post)

Keturah Ferguson, the Bahamas’ immigration director, said catching smugglers is a challenge. Many use small fishing boats or medium-size yachts with proper registration, making it difficult to detect whether vessels carry migrants or vacationers.

Over-patrolling would be counterproductive for an economy heavily reliant on tourism, she added.

The country is “a big tourist destination” for island-hopping, she said. “That can be used as a camouflage.”

Louby Georges, a prominent advocate for Haitian immigrants in Nassau, put it another way: “The government and the people of the Bahamas do a good job of hiding it.”

Bahamian authorities are frequently accused of turning a blind eye to these trips, and some prominent Bahamians have been accused by the United States and others of smuggling and profiting from it.

In one well-documented case, federal prosecutors in New York in 2010 charged a Bahamian for arranging transport to smuggle Chinese nationals into Florida. Adrian Fox allegedly earned up to $300,000 from the scheme over three years. His co-defendant pleaded guilty and spent 33 months in prison.

Fox, however, was never extradited. The co-founder of the Bahamian casino and lottery company Island Luck, he has become an influential businessman and philanthropist.

In October 2021, Fox was fined $5,000 and sentenced to one year of probation after pleading guilty to grossly negligent operation of a vessel. His plea deal omitted all mention of the original human smuggling charges.

Before the sentencing, the federal judge in the case received letters vouching for Fox’s character from several Bahamian officials, including Philip Davis, who was the opposition leader at the time. A month before Davis’s election as prime minister, he wrote that Fox was a friend and exemplary citizen — “the poster boy for reform.”

Wayne Munroe, the Bahamas’ minister of national security, rejected claims that Bahamian authorities were taking bribes to ignore human smuggling. He spoke of what he said was the recent arrest of officers with the Royal Bahamas Defense Force for their alleged complicity in a smuggling operation, but declined to share details.

With the close cooperation between U.S. and Bahamian authorities, he said, it would be “possible but very hard” for Bahamian officials to profit from smuggling.

Ask just about anyone here, and they’ll acknowledge that smuggling as a business is part of life in the Bahamas. Many will know someone involved, or someone who has taken a trip. Yet they will rarely discuss specific journeys.

“That perception of paradise, that’s it,” said Louby Georges, who is no relation to Lenise Georges. “We don’t want that image to be tarnished in any way.”

Secrecy extends to the family members of those who make the dangerous journeys. Often, they learn a relative crossed the sea once they’ve made it safely to the United States — or once they’ve been caught. Others receive even less information.

Lenise Georges, who is 50, talked to her younger sister almost every day. And yet she had no idea that Ivoy, with two older children in Haiti, wanted to go to the United States. She knew nothing about the journey until she saw the photograph.

She knew nothing about her sister slipping away in the dead of night from the Sand Trap, a place that bristled with activity during the day.

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“You hear from your sister?” the friend on the phone asked.

“No, she in Eleuthera,” said Georges, referring to the slender island some 60 miles east of Nassau. “If she was in Nassau, she would call me.”

“She went in a boat,” the friend said. “And the boat went into the sea. She died.”

Georges refused to believe it. Then another person called. It wasn’t until she saw the picture on WhatsApp that she started to cry.

Her pastor asked her what was wrong.

“You sure that’s your sister?” he asked.

“Yes, I know that’s my sister,” she replied. “Because I know her.”

In those initial moments and in the days that followed, she struggled to understand why her sister had taken the risk.

Ivoy was the youngest of nine siblings in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, the baby sister all the rest wanted to protect. She was in her early 20s when her older sister moved to the Bahamas. Georges would miss the births of Ivoy’s first children, but the sisters remained close. For years, as life grew ever more difficult in Haiti, Georges encouraged Ivoy to join her in the Bahamas.

Her own life, she hoped, would prove what was possible for Haitians here.

Georges came to the Bahamas more than two decades ago. She soon met her husband, another recent arrival from Haiti. Noradieu Georges began working as an assistant mason and opened up his own construction company. He built the family’s three-bedroom home — magenta, with elegant white pillars in front.

The couple became Bahamian citizens. Lenise Georges, who has a U.S. visa valid for 10 years, travels frequently to Miami. Her twin daughters just finished their first year at Hastings College in Nebraska.

But the success of the Georges family remains out of reach for many of the estimated 80,000 Haitians who have settled here.

Work permits for foreigners can cost thousands of dollars, plus agency fees. That’s too much for many Haitians, fleeing the poorest country in the hemisphere and sending money back to their relatives.

Over the past decade, authorities have ramped up raids in densely packed Haitian shantytowns, knocking down doors in search of people without passports or work permits. Children born in the Bahamas to foreigners do not automatically gain citizenship.

“If you didn’t have papers, you were effectively a nonperson,” said Fred Smith, a human rights lawyer with offices in Freeport and Nassau. “You were an outlaw.”

Haitians now make up an estimated one-fifth of the Bahamas’ population. Davis, the prime minister, says the country is facing an immigration crisis. In February, he announced a new crackdown, with vows to root out unauthorized shantytowns and to deport more undocumented migrants.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry has apologized to the Bahamas “that the Haitian people are losing hope in the future and are taking boats. … We are really sorry that they affect the lives of the Bahamians.”

The United Nations, meanwhile, has pressured Davis to stop deporting Haitians.

Ivoy had arrived from Haiti just a few years before she drowned in the sea.

Georges helped her apply for a work permit and gave her a job in a restaurant she owned with her husband. When the family closed the restaurant, Ivoy struggled to find work in Nassau. She didn’t speak English or know how to use a computer, her family said, and her work permit eventually expired.

She decided to try her luck in Eleuthera, an exclusive and sparsely populated island, where she soon became pregnant with her third child, Kourtney. Georges said she would occasionally give Ivoy money to send to her two children in Haiti.

Ivoy would call her sister often, but their conversations never lasted very long. “Sister how you feel? How’s your back pain?” she would always ask. She would tell her she was working at a restaurant but give few other details.

“I can’t understand,” Georges said. “She was working. I don’t know why she would want to go. … She probably knew if she told me she was going, I’d tell her no.”

What actually happened on Ivoy’s brief journey remains a mystery.

Survivors estimated there were anywhere from 50 to 70 people on the boat. Some bodies were never recovered.

Last summer, Bahamian authorities charged four men with 18 counts of manslaughter in connection with the deaths. At least two of them have previously been convicted of smuggling migrants into the United States from the Bahamas, according to court records.

The Washington Post reached out to at least a dozen Bahamian government officials, as well as the lawyers of three of the defendants. They declined to release further details about the case.

These trips by sea are so furtive that some Haitians are afraid to claim the bodies of their relatives, worrying that they’ll face punishment.

Since the July 2022 capsizing, a Haitian bishop in Nassau, Celiner Saint Louis, has been posting YouTube videos in Haitian Creole urging family members to send him photos of their missing relatives, so he can identify their bodies in the morgue and give them proper burials. Many families can’t afford funerals, so Saint Louis has raised money on his own, performing multiple services a week.

“That’s my people,” he said. “I care for them in life. I care for them in death.”

During eulogies, he warns mourners against the boats. But he also understands the challenges that push Haitians in the Bahamas to desperation.

Georges can only imagine Ivoy was trying to find better opportunities to support her young daughter and her children back home in Haiti.

Officials say she was headed for Florida on a route often taken by smugglers.

First, the boat would stop in Bimini.

The Southern Cemetery in Nassau. Haitian migrants on the shore after a boat ran aground in the Florida Keys in March 2022. Dejani Louistan stands with the belongings she salvaged after Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. A migrant boat lies grounded on the shoreline in Tavernier, Fla. (Photos by NL Aubrey Smith for The Washington Post, United States Border Patrol/AP, Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post, Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

A tiny island 50 miles from the lights of Miami, Bimini is often a migrant’s final stop before reaching the United States.

From this tourist destination — a weekend playground for yacht owners from South Florida’s elite — the wealthiest migrants rent boats and sail into Miami Beach undetected, wearing fancy watches and bathing suits. The less fortunate are smuggled in overcrowded, poorly maintained vessels without life jackets.

Before, the only migrants who came through here were Haitians or people from other Caribbean islands, hidden away in safe houses on Bimini. Those groups are still arriving, often staying in small, cramped mobile homes that house Bimini’s construction workers and hotel employees behind the Resort World property that takes up half the island. Now there’s an upper tier, the clients who stay in Airbnbs or hotels — even the Hilton — dressed as any of the hundreds of tourists who arrive on cruise ships almost every day.

“Now, the migrants don’t have to hide,” one smuggler in Bimini said. “You wouldn’t even know.”

Last year, the smuggler drove his golf cart around Bimini’s most luxurious hotel, the sleek white Hilton, with its rooftop infinity pool and oceanfront suites with floor-to-ceiling windows, and knew his clients were among the guests there.

To the hotel staff and to everyone around them, they were tourists, a family of three from Ireland enjoying a Caribbean vacation. But the smuggler knew Bimini was not their final destination.

He slowed down the golf cart as he approached a friend on a bicycle.

“I got three people waiting to go,” the smuggler said to his friend. “Do you have any captains ready to go?”

He did, the friend said, but the tide was high. They would have to wait a bit longer.

The smuggler, a scar-faced 51-year-old man who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was working as a kind of middleman in Bimini, connecting migrants from around the world with captains they would pay to take them to Florida.

“I was born into this,” said the smuggler, whose parents first arrived in the Bahamas on an illegal sloop from Haiti. His father was also a smuggler and migrated the family to the United States by boat in the 1980s. After serving time in prison in New York, the smuggler returned to Bimini at 38, upon hearing how much money he could make in the smuggling business — upward of $30,000 a trip. “This stuff just falls in your lap,” he said.

He estimates there are at least 15 other smugglers like him on Bimini. On an island with a population of about 2,500 people, many others are involved in some way — or will at least stay quiet if they hear about it. “Everybody’s in on it,” he said.

Some of his clients are sent to him by a Rolodex of smugglers in their home countries — Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic. Others from around the world simply arrive in Bimini for a week or two without a clear plan, but they know it’s the closest island to the United States, just a two-hour boat ride from Miami. He knows how to spot them from the crowds of tourists, looking slightly out of place as they walk around the island.

That was how he met Mustafa al-Hamadani, an Iraqi father who came to Bimini with his wife and children. A man had offered to smuggle his family to Miami for $6,000. But then the smuggler took his cash and ran, leaving them with no way to pay for a way to the United States — or even a place to stay at night. After three months, his children weren’t eating enough, his wife had suffered a miscarriage and the family was forced to sleep on the beach.

Unwilling to trust another smuggler, al-Hamadani chose an alternative approach: With donations from his family, he bought a boat and drove his family to Florida on his own.

Lenise Georges had spent weeks planning the funeral, and now the limo was on its way to her house. She darted around her kitchen in her high heels, giving instructions to her friends frying chicken and cooking peas and rice in a pot outside.

The twins helped each other with their makeup, while her husband tried fixing the zipper of her other daughter’s dress, the elegant blue gown with the gold-lace embroidery that Georges had custom-ordered for each of the women in the family.

Altanie Ivoy and her daughter Kourtney lie together in the casket at their funeral in Nassau. Apostle Cyprianna Johnson prays with the Georges family on the funeral day. Lenise Georges is consoled by her husband, Noradieu. and a funeral home associate. Noradieu wrote the names of his sister-in-law and her daughter in wet concrete at the cemetery. (Photos by Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

“Let’s go, the limo is outside!” Georges shouted from the living room.

The family members walked one by one into the church where Georges and her husband serve as ministers. A man in a top hat escorted her to the dusty rose casket covered in flowers. Tears fell down her face as she looked down at her sister, lying beside her 1-year-old niece.

Facing an altar with a Bahamian flag on the left and American flag on the right, the congregation sang a hymn in English.

Georges began to wail. Her husband helped hold her upright.

And moments later, as the congregation was asked to read her sister’s obituary in silence, the only sound in the church was Georges’s high-pitched, roaring wail.

In the obituary, Noradieu Georges wrote of his sister-in-law’s brief visit with her baby last year.

“They brought a breath of fresh air into the home,” he wrote, “and we all appreciated it.”

Kourtney spoke her first words and learned how to walk during the visit, and “like other children of course she got obsessed to Cocomelon.”

Ivoy “was determined to making sure she could do as much as she could to make her children’s lives better,” he wrote, “and that is what she was trying to do when Kourtney and herself went on that boat.”

Pallbearers carried the casket out of the church, and Georges followed, still wailing.

And in the cemetery, as the casket was lowered into a grave, Georges stood and lunged forward, reaching for her sister and niece one last time.

About this story

Jasper Ward contributed to this report.

Data for the map of ocean currents is from Rick Lumpkin, director of the Physical Oceanography Division of the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Videos and video interviews from the Bahamas are by NL Aubrey Smith. Videos showing migrant vesssels and apprehensions and rescues are from the U.S. Coast Guard. Video of Coast Guard flyover of the Florida Straits is by Reshma Kirpalani.

Editing by Ann Gerhart, Christine Amario, Reem Akkad, Matthew Hay Brown and Julie Vitkovskaya. Video editing by Alice Li and Angela Hill. Photo editing by Max Becherer. Graphics editing by Manuel Canales. Graphics and mapping by Hannah Dormido. Design editing by Joe Moore. Design and development by Agnes Lee. Copy editing by Mina Haq and Stu Werner.

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