It was time for a boat chase, the sort they craved. Months idling on the open seas left those aboard the Vigilant, a United States Coast Guard cutter, thirsting for action, and in the middle of April 2012, here it was. Somewhere in the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, a lookout on the top deck spotted a speedboat in the distance. "I’ve got a contact," he said, and for Chris Hoschak, the officer on deck, that meant one thing: Get a team ready.
He summoned Colin Burr, who had just qualified to drive the Coast Guard's Over the Horizon-IV boats that hunt bogeys in open water space. Before boarding, Burr and four others mounted up: body armor, gun belts and a cache of guns in case it was drug smugglers, which everyone figured because go-fast boats tend to traffic product instead of humans.
The chase didn't last long. Maybe five or 10 minutes. Turned out the boat wasn't all that fast. Still, when it stopped, Burr approached with caution. Their assumption was wrong. There were no drugs. Just people, a dozen or so, attempting a defection from Cuba. The driver was an American. So was his partner. An older man was onboard. He was the leader of the passengers, most of whom looked in their early 20s, including another man who drew special attention. He was much bigger than the rest, dressed in a raggedy shirt, shorts and flip-flops.
Burr drove the group back to the Vigilant, three or four at a time. They ascended a 20-foot ladder, where Hoschak and others awaited to start processing them. The standard procedure for all migrants, as the Coast Guard refers to them, is to move to the stern of the boat, where they're frisked, given wristbands, white jumpsuits, a shower and some food. Some migrants are combative, knowing the Coast Guard almost always returns them to the place from which they so desperately want to escape, and others say nothing. This group was cordial and cooperative. When a processing officer approached the big man, the first thing he asked was for his name.
"Yasiel," he said.