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U.S. halts imaginary Cubans in security drill
by Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - Two thousand imaginary Cuban migrants set sail toward Florida during a massive two-day U.S. training exercise but were intercepted by federal, state and local agents armed with teamwork and acronyms.
"Operation Vigilant Sentry," the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's plan to halt a mass migration from the Caribbean, was put to the test by 325 agents from 85 law enforcement agencies during the exercise that ends on Thursday.
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 known as HSTF-SE.
"However we do recognize that Cuba is certainly an area where we must be prepared."
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 with a mystery virus spreading among the migrants.
Agencies with a dizzying array of initials were neatly combined into LEDETS, or law enforcement districts on the map. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) shared data with FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) and counted on boats provided by BSO (Broward Sheriff's Office).
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 six 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 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 that 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 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.
The exercise came as the Coast Guard juggles resources to fill a gap left when eight of the 10 patrol cutters stationed in Key West were idled because of structural problems. Key West is just 90 miles from Havana.
The 123-foot (37-meter) ships were docked in November after undergoing renovations that expanded and modernized them, but caused the hulls to crack.
The Coast Guard is filling the gap by using more planes in the region, Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil said. Crews from the idled ships have doubled up with those on smaller cutters, enabling those vessels to operate longer because one crew can rest while the other works.
Other Coast Guard ships and aircraft can quickly be brought in from other regions if needed, he said.
(Additional reporting by Laura Myers in Marathon, Florida)
COMMENTS FROM: Miriam J. Masullo, Ph.D.
What I find interesting about this drill scenario is the bio-terrorism implications. It appears that somebody does believe that Cuba is a bio-terrorism thread, but we as a nation have chosen not to do anything about it until we have no other choice. That is called selective national security.