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Coast Guard facing violent resistance from migrants on high seas


January 14, 2000
Web posted at: 10:50 p.m. EST (0350 GMT)

In this story:

Struggle for gun

Self-mutilation used to gain U.S. entry

Migrants from 26 countries interdicted


From Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Coast Guard reports a dramatic increase in the number of incidents where its boarding parties are met with violent resistance while stopping ships carrying migrants attempting to illegally enter the United States.

In the past two years, Coast Guard boarding parties have used force more than 20 times to quell riots or other disturbances, officials said. Before 1998, disturbances aboard migrant ships were rare.

"There have been some very hairy situations. We've had Coast Guard boarding personnel physically assaulted with fists, with knives, with pieces of wood, pieces of metal, and it has been very dangerous," said Anthony Tangeman, chief of law enforcement for the Coast Guard.

"Every Chinese vessel that we come across that has a lot of migrants aboard we know are going to involve violent acts against not only the Chinese themselves, the migrants themselves by the enforcers, but also the enforcers inciting the migrants to riot against us," Tangeman said.

VideoMilitary Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre looks at the dangers the Coast Guard faces interdicting migrant ships on the high seas.
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Struggle for gun

One notable incident occurred last month when the Coast Guard Cutter Munro encountered the Wing Fung Lung, a dilapidated vessel teetering with more than 240 Chinese migrants 200 miles (320 kms) west of Guatemala. The ship had been at sea for more than two months, and passengers were without food and water, officials said.

As Coast Guard personnel approached the ship in an inflatable boat, eight migrants jumped into the water, evidently fearing their ship was sinking. Coast Guard personnel rescued the jumpers, boarded the ship and made emergency repairs.

But, in an incident not reported at the time, smugglers set several fires on board the ship, and one migrant attempted to wrestle a gun from a Coast Guard officer, firing one shot into a bulkhead before being restrained, No one was injured, officials said.

"It's a constant high-stress cat and mouse game that we play with the migrants," said Tangeman.

The Coast Guard placed a 28-member boarding team on the Wing Fung Lung to keep control of it. Ultimately, four crewmembers were charged with alien smuggling offenses, and 249 migrants were returned to China.

In another major incident, the Coast Guard used pepper spray and batons in August of 1998 to quell two riots onboard the Chih Yung, a 200-foot freighter holding 172 Chinese migrants off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico.

And in 1997, passengers on a migrant vessel off Bermuda set fires and attempted to sink the ship by bashing the hull with a ramming rod.

Wing Fung Ling
In December the Coast Guard intercepted the Wing Fung Lung; 240 Chinese migrants were aboard the ship.  

Self-mutilation used to gain U.S. entry

Officials believe the violence is increasing at least partly because of the involvement of Chinese gangs in the smuggling operations. Gang enforcers, known as "snakeheads," intimidate the migrants and maintain control.

"For about every five to 10 migrants aboard a vessel, there is at least one enforcer," Tangeman said. "An 'enforcer' has complete responsibility for keeping his people, his cargo in line. He does everything to keep them in line, physical abuse, mental abuse, withholding food, withholding water, not letting them go to the bathroom, it's a horrible situation."

Coast Guard officials describe conditions on board the vessels as deplorable. The ships lack sanitation and medical facilities, and migrants are forced to stay in overcrowded holds.

In numerous occasions documented by the Coast Guard, migrants have mutilated themselves in an effort to be flown to hospitals in the United States, where it is believed they will be allowed to stay. The Coast Guard typically diverts migrant ships to other countries, where immigration laws make it easier to return the migrants to their homelands.

Migrants from 26 countries interdicted

The Coast Guard has interdicted migrants from 26 countries throughout the world. While officials say Chinese migrants are the biggest problem, they say Haitian and Cuban migrants are becoming more violent, too.

In June, the Coast Guard was criticized after television news crews taped a crew using pepper spray and fire hoses to stop Cuban migrants from coming ashore. Officials say the action was prompted when the Cubans waved oars studded with nails.

The Coast Guard's top officer, Commandant Adm. James Loy, said he needs more resources because of the problem.

"I would only hope that the reality of this mission is clear to the congressional leaders that will be making those judgments," he said.

The U.S. force also wants to be able to send its ships further south to stop the smugglers from dumping their human cargo in Latin American or Mexico, where the immigrants make their way to the United States overland.

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United States Coast Guard
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
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