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A new kind of smuggler?

Coast Guard cutters are used to intercept smugglers along the Florida coast. Coast Guard photo

Coast Guard cutters are used to intercept smugglers along the Florida coast. Coast Guard photo

The Miami Herald reported that dozens of Chinese nationals without visas have been smuggled from the Bahamas to South Florida aboard yachts. The Coast Guard recently stopped two vessels approaching Florida and arrested three men for transporting 26 Chinese passengers and one Bahamian. The two operations were not related, according to federal records.

Rocco Oppedisano, a 51-year-old Italian national, was arraigned on Wednesday in Miami federal court on charges of conspiring to transport aliens into the United States and bringing them here for financial gain. Oppedisano was stopped by the Coast Guard on Dec. 2 while skippering a 63-foot Sunseeker with 14 Chinese passengers and one Bahamian, according to the indictment. One of the passengers, Ying Lian Li, had been deported last April.

Oppedisano, who allegedly charged each passenger tens of thousands of dollars, had his boat seized, as well as $172,000 in Bahamian currency and $41,000 in U.S. dollars.

The Herald reported that during the past five years, the Bahamas has seen Chinese workers enter the country as part of a push by China to invest in the country’s hotel, tourism and trade industries.

The second case involved a 70-foot Hatteras that transported 12 Chinese nationals without visas last July. The yacht’s charter captain, James A. Bradford, admitted that the trip was to pick up a “tour group of aliens” in the Bahamas, transport them to South Florida and return to the Bahamas on July 26.

Bradford, who has been a charter captain for decades, said “he never checked to see if the passengers had proper documents to come to the U.S.,” according to the affidavit. A search of the yacht uncovered 10 cellphones in the bridge area; none of the Chinese nationals was in possession of mobile phones.

“Based on my knowledge and experience in human smuggling cases, smugglers often collect cellphones from migrants until they are paid for delivering the migrants to the U.S.,” wrote HSI special agent David Jansen, who added that none of the passengers carried luggage.

The search also uncovered $118,100 behind paneling in the master stateroom, the affidavit said. Investigators seized more than $2,800 from the crew.

The boat’s captain and a crewmember were indicted on charges of conspiring to transport aliens into the United States and bringing them here for financial gain. The crewmember, Robert McNeil, pleaded guilty to one count of alien smuggling to make a profit. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Bradford will stand trial in a Fort Lauderdale federal court. 

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