At its meeting tonight, the Clearwater City Council is expected to approve the city's participation in a West Central Florida law enforcement task force that aims to fight back against human traffickers who are stealing boats from home docks and using them for their illegal activities. It is a growing problem, so local police departments from the Keys to Pinellas County, most not equipped to deal with a problem of such scope alone, are linking up with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Fort Myers office. Sharing resources and information is the best way to win the battle against this increasingly sophisticated criminal network.
Clearwater police asked the City Council to approve their involvement in "Operation Island Runners," which is the name assigned to the task force operation. Think there is no need for it in a quiet community like Clearwater? Wrong. The Clearwater Police Department currently is investigating the thefts of two large vessels from Island Estates, according to Deputy Chief Dewey Williams.
The thieves grab the boats from the private docks of waterfront properties — often private homes where there is no security. They favor fast boats that have large gas tanks. The boats are then used to smuggle human beings or drugs into the United States or Mexico.
The Associated Press has reported that some of the stolen boats are being used to pick up Cubans who wish to escape that country. Because getting into Florida has become so difficult, they are taken to Mexico, where they then illegally enter the United States over the U.S.-Mexico border. Many boats stolen in Florida have been found tied up to docks in Mexico.
"Thefts of boats for smuggling are so frequent that some insurance companies require Florida owners to equip their boats with GPS satellite tracking systems," the AP reported. One owner used his laptop to track his stolen boat as it was steered toward Mexico, then hopped on a plane and confronted the thieves on the dock, according to the AP story.
Last summer St. Petersburg Times Outdoors Editor Terry Tomalin reported that the rash of boat thefts was spreading steadily up the west coast from the Florida Keys. At the time, police were investigating the thefts of five luxury vessels from private docks in the Pinellas County cities of Belleair Beach, Largo, St. Petersburg Beach and Clearwater. Tomalin interviewed an insurance company investigator who said he found 44 stolen Florida boats on one visit to Cancun, Mexico.
Whether the boats are used for smuggling drugs, Cuban immigrants, or individuals who are forced into slavery, it is in the best interest of west coast communities that police put a lid on it. That is the goal of Operation Island Runners. Under a mutual aid agreement being signed by local police agencies from the Keys to Pinellas, investigative information will be shared among all jurisdictions, improving the chances that the smugglers will be caught and the boats recovered for their owners.
The thefts of the boats are just the first step in a chain of criminal activities that can include kidnapping, drug dealing, prostitution and involuntary servitude. Given the situation, jurisdictional boundaries should be ignored in favor of a unified attack on the perpetrators.