Springbreakers party on a boat at the Bimini Resorts World Marina.
Credit: Luisa Colon / VICE World News

A Tiny Tourist Island Off the Coast of Florida Is a Human Smuggling Hub

Bimini, which is just over 50 miles from the Florida coast, is at the heart of the flow of undocumented migrants.

BIMINI, Bahamas — The captain landed his small boat under cover of night on the shore of Bimini, the tiny, 9-square-mile island that is part of the Bahamas. Four men boarded, and the captain guided them with his flashlight. As soon as they were seated, the light went off, pitching them into darkness. The boat pushed off into the open sea, heading west to Miami. They would be there in an hour and a half. The moonless night meant they would be invisible to the Border Patrol vessels and Coast Guard drones patrolling the Florida coast.


A few miles away, tourists at the Resorts World luxury complex were oblivious to the human smuggling taking place under their noses. Yet the two booming industries rely on each other. 

On weekends and holidays, thousands of young Floridians pour onto the tiny island to collect their colored wristbands, ready to enjoy the Bahamas’ low drinking age of 18. That Sunday night, the DJ flew in from Miami, and as college students partied on one end of the island, it provided the perfect distraction for the migrants to set off undetected. 

The number of undocumented migrants trying to enter the U.S. by sea has exploded in the past year, and Bimini is at the heart of that illicit flow of humans. Since Oct. 1, 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard has caught 5,392 Cubans trying to cross to the United States, a sixfold increase from the previous year. Over the same period, it also stopped 7,173 Haitians at sea, five times more than the year before. 


Four migrants and their captain board a boat on South Bimini, headed to Miami. Photo: Maeva Bambuck / VICE World News

The smuggling routes are well established, with towns like Port-au-Paix in Haiti and Mariel in Cuba serving as key departure points. But the post-COVID era has made people more desperate. In the past year, large-scale persecution of opponents to the Cuban regime, food shortages, and an economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic pushed more Cubans to flee, while a political crisis combined with spiking gang violence pushed people out of Haiti. The backlog of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and the growing complexities around entering via land have all contributed to a massive rise in migrants desperate enough to attempt the journey to the U.S. by boat. 


Some are crossing the Pacific from Mexico to California on the West Coast, but most use an old and treacherous route through the Florida Straits. In July this year, 17 Haitian migrants drowned off Nassau when their boat capsized; 25 more were rescued. In September, 17 Cuban migrants went missing and four survived when their boat sank off Key West, and in August another two migrants died and 15 went missing when their boat capsized off Key West. The list goes on. 

But Bimini is a route famous for getting migrants successfully to Florida. Situated only 52 miles from the Florida coast, it’s the shortest route as the crow flies.

Migrants from Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic come by chartered boat to the Bahamas, then work to earn enough money to afford the second leg of the journey to the U.S., for which smugglers charge around $5,000. Many of the island’s 2,000 residents benefit from this illegal trade. Restaurants feed them and residents house them. 


Just 52 miles from the Florida coast, the tiny island of Bimini is the shortest route as the crow flies to reach the U.S from the Bahamas.

Waiting migrants leave when their smugglers judge that the time is right in waters that are patrolled by both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bahamas Defense Force. But neither has a fleet large enough to detect every boat. “If you use a light, then they can see you, and if you use the GPS, they can still see you off of a satellite. They can track you down,” said Miles (not his real name), a smuggler who’s been taking migrants to Florida for over 20 years, told VICE World News. Smugglers are first and foremost experienced navigators with years at sea, people who can orient themselves off a compass alone or by looking at the stars on clear nights. 


On the other side, there’s usually a spotter who makes sure the coast is clear for landing. That person is already paid just to sit there and if something fucked-up looks like it is going to happen, they give you a call,” Miles told us. “Sometimes it's a woman, sometimes it's a guy, sometimes a woman with her kid.” 

Another way
But there’s another, more deluxe, way to get smuggled out of Bimini: on the boats bringing the American tourists to and from the party island. The route between Bimini and Miami sees hundreds of pleasure boats, yachts, and jet-skis on the water during weekends and holidays. 

When you look at the overall volume of boat traffic that's crossing the Florida Straits from Bimini to the U.S. and back and forth on any given weekend, it's easy to blend in with that traffic,” said Capt. Benjamin Golightly of the U.S. Coast Guard Seventh District. 

Smugglers even use yachts that look like American tourist boats to evade suspicion, while hiding migrants below deck, Miles said. White people, they're spending like 12 grand, 16 grand, sometimes almost 20 grand per person,” he explained. At that cost, well-heeded migrants expect a bespoke service. “When you get to that level, you're not just dropping off; somebody has to be there to pick them up [from the dropoff point in Florida],” he said.

This type of smuggling deal is popular with more well-off migrants from Asia or Russia, according to people we spoke with in the smuggling business. “You have to be funded to do these things, so other people in the U.S. buy the boats,” said a smuggler who asked us to call him Jay. He said he helps organize voyages, as well as feed and hide migrants in Bimini until the captain gives him a departure point and time. 


Springbreakers party at the "STFU Bimini Spring Break" pool party at Bimini's Resorts World. Photo: Luisa Colon / VICE World News.

The Bahamian authorities
It’s difficult to measure the level of collusion between the Bahamian authorities and the traffickers. Smugglers and human rights advocates told VICE World News that members of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force, Bahamas’ military, are paid to turn a blind eye. One Haitian smuggler operating in Nassau, the capital, who was in charge of shuttling migrants arriving from the airport to different embarkation points on behalf of a Haitian smuggling network, said his organization pays the Defense Force a cut for each migrant. Two human rights advocates told us that smugglers sometimes conspire with local authorities to abandon migrants on cayes, or small islands, letting the migrants believe they’ve made it to the U.S. Then the defense forces scoop them up.

The Bahamian economy is largely dependent on tourism for its survival, and any negative news can severely hurt. Several VICE World News requests for interviews with members of the government and the Bahamian Defense Forces went unanswered. 

But once in a while, the government feels forced to act on incidents too important to ignore. 

In January, a migrant boat capsized a few miles off the coast of Bimini on its way to Florida. The images of the lone survivor, a Colombian man, made headlines across the U.S. Five bodies were found by rescue teams, but 40 were believed to be on board.


For months afterwards, the smuggling business on the island ground to a halt. “There was too much heat,” said Jay. For him, Bimini has fallen victim to its own success. Less-experienced, aspiring smugglers on the islands get in on the business with more rudimentary operations, overloading boats to make more money per trip, which then capsize and draw attention.  

For smugglers, death by drowning is bad for business, but the risk comes with the journey. “I'm pretty sure everybody who goes in the boat has heard some really fucked-up story about somebody dying, the boat flipping over, et cetera,” Miles told us. “But you still want to go, right? So by you accepting that, accept the fact that that shit can happen to you, too.”

Trafficking, whether people or drugs, has been part of Bimini’s ecosystem for generations because of its proximity to the U.S. The smuggling trade is passed down through generations who started off smuggling cocaine before the human trafficking business took off. 

Everyone in the smuggling trade VICE World News spoke to on the island had another job:  fishermen, mechanics, and service-industry workers catering to the American tourists who flock to the island on weekends and holidays. 

But smuggling provides too much easy money for it to ever stop, said Miles. “As long as you get the money, you do what you got to do.”