The Barker Family story continues. Click here to read Chapter 8.
Expansion to Alien Smuggling
In late 1993, a confidential informant reported that the Barker Family was expanding its smuggling operations from the Bahamas to increase the number of illegal aliens due to the immediate profits and lesser exposure to prison time than narcotics. The Barker Family had reportedly been involved in alien smuggling for approximately three years. During this same time period, there appeared to be a significant increase in alien landings on the beaches of Palm Beach County and around south Florida.
Before the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003, U.S. Customs Service (USCS) primarily focused on the smuggling of contraband and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) principally focused on the smuggling and trafficking of humans. Due to the separation of enforcement priorities, USCS special agents met with INS and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) personnel in late 1993 to coordinate investigative and enforcement activities. INS and USCG had recently created a joint task force targeting illegal alien smuggling into the United States. The task force received information that the Barker Family was heavily involved in illegal alien smuggling via motor vessel.
Further confidential informant information in late 1993 alleged that the Barkers had increased their involvement in alien smuggling, often Haitian nationals, in the past due to its immediate profits and the increased interdiction of their narcotic smuggling ventures by USCS. They reportedly charged $1,500 for the transportation of each Haitian national alien and $5,000 for each Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani national alien to the shoreline of the United States. The Barkers also reportedly smuggled narcotics during the alien smuggling ventures often known as commingled loads.
According to later media interviews of illegal aliens smuggled into the United States, Richard Barker charged between $1,000 and $2,000 a person to be smuggled from the Bahamas to Florida. Barker was reportedly a well-known drug and alien smuggler in the Bahamas.
Confidential informant information indicated that three motor vessels were often utilized to transport the higher paying Asian aliens from the Bahamas to Florida. The first vessel transported the aliens with a U.S. citizen functioning as the captain of the vessel. A second vessel met the first vessel approximately 15 miles off the U.S. coast in international waters to retrieve the captain of the first vessel. The third vessel would then tow the first vessel into the United States. If the first and third vessels were encountered by law enforcement officials, the captain of the third vessel would state that he located the first vessel with the aliens adrift at sea and was in the process of towing it to the first port of entry to contact U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) or local police. If the two vessels were not interdicted, the aliens were provided fishing poles as a cover for being on the boat and fraudulent U.S. identification immediately prior to their delivery on shore somewhere between West Palm Beach and Vero Beach, Florida to pose as citizens.
The Barkers reportedly believed that USCS was not concerned about alien smuggling and that USBP, a division of INS, would not be frequently encountered during their alien smuggling ventures. Unfortunately, at the time, both assumptions were all too accurate from their experience and agency priorities.
Aliens in the Bahamas
In the early 1990s, the departure of citizens from Haiti extensively increased due to the civil and economic unrest stemming from the Haitian military coup in September 1991. Because of the instability, Haitian nationals accounted for a significant portion of the aliens interdicted at sea by USCG in U.S., Bahamian, and international waters. Many of the overloaded sailing and motor vessels were located in the Bahamas’ 700-island chain on the way to the northern Bahamas and United States.
USCG interdiction statistics in 1990 reported the interdiction of a few hundred Haitians by their agency. Their interdiction numbers skyrocketed to 37,618 in 1992 and 25,302 in 1994. By 1995, the numbers were tracking back down to the hundreds. Haitian nationals accounted for a significant portion of the illegal aliens interdicted and arrested near the shoreline in the mid-1990s in south Florida once they evaded maritime patrols.
The majority of the Haitians traveled to Grand Bahama or the Abaco Islands in search of their final transportation to Florida. The movement of aliens appeared to be the worst kept secret due to numerous deaths at sea and interdictions along the island chain. If the bodies were not recovered from the sunken overloaded vessels located at sea, the reports from their family members painted the enormity of the tragic picture. The large number of Haitians in the Bahamas placed an obvious stress on the limited island land and resources. The Bahamians, and their government, often did not encourage their stay or hinder their pass-through travel to relieve the added stress to their islands.
Surprisingly, the Bahamian chief of immigration for the Abacos admitted in early 1994 that he knew little about alien smuggling in the Abacos. There was no shortage of Haitian aliens staging on the Abacos. The official stated that it was hush-hush and that he may hear a whisper now and then. With the amount of boat traffic and Haitians living on the islands, it would be difficult to not have a better understanding of the issues and enforcement challenges.
The Abaco police commander had a different observation of the issue. He stated that Haitian alien smuggling was a very lucrative business with the boat captains earning $500 to $1,000 for each alien in early 1994. The commander believed that the smugglers saw it as an alternative to transporting drugs. The police commander admitted that he really did not know how the alien smuggling worked since so few smugglers were arrested in the Bahamas at that time.
The Abaco police and immigration officials may have not been up to speed, but many Bahamians at the ports, marinas, and docks were well versed on the numbers and needs. There was a constant flow of Haitians looking for transportation options via motor vessel, cargo ship, or any other viable method. They wanted to be in the United States.
Media reported on the use of boats without registration numbers abandoned on the Florida beaches to offload the aliens with little or no fuel to spare. Other smuggling operations employed additional boats as lookouts and to carry extra fuel tanks to ensure that the smuggling motor vessels made it safely to Florida and back for the next load. Smugglers have been known to enter an inlet and travel directly to a boat ramp, dock, or marina, but this door-to-door service greatly increased the possibility of observation and interdiction. Some of the most sophisticated organizations would have vehicles waiting to retrieve the aliens upon arrival. Having vehicles waiting on lonely streets in the middle of the night could draw unwanted attention, but so would 30 aliens walking down the same quiet road with no immediate transportation plans.
If the aliens were caught by local, state, or federal law enforcement and turned over to USBP for processing, they would often be released to family, friends, or sponsors with a court date for which they may or may not ever appear. The odds of being returned to Haiti were low. Their trips were complete.
The Alien Load He Got Away With
In October 1993, USBP and USCS arrested Bahamian national Vernon Lockhardt and seized a 35-foot motor vessel in Lantana for the smuggling of illegal aliens from the Bahamas to the United States. The arrest and seizure were the result of the apprehension of approximately 56 Haitian illegal aliens located in Palm Beach County days before the arrest. The aliens were from two different smuggling loads.
Confidential informant information alleged that Richard Barker, Ronald Barker, and Lockhardt were involved in the illegal transportation of the Haitian nationals into the United States. The three were observed talking together by USCS investigators just prior to Lockhardt’s arrest.
During Lockhardt’s federal bail hearing, a second smuggler was reported to be on the motor vessel with him functioning as the captain. The second person was identified only as a white male. Lockhardt would be associated with Richard Barker, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, during the future prosecution of Barker for smuggling illegal aliens from the Bahamas to the United States.
Alien interviews and court documents from Lockhardt’s trial would identify Barker as the captain of a motor vessel that smuggled 31 Haitian aliens from Freeport to Palm Beach County in March 1993. The Haitian aliens were instructed to jump into the deep surf at the shoreline during the offloading; the aliens that refused to enter the ocean were dropped off on Beer Can Island immediately inside the Boynton Inlet.
Lockhardt was found guilty of 31 counts of alien smuggling. During his sentencing to one year in federal prison in April 1994, Lockhardt stated that the captain and organizer of the alien smuggling venture was Richard Barker. Prosecution and defense motions during the case linked Barker to the October 1993 alien smuggling venture. However, Barker was not charged for his alleged involvement in the alien smuggling load because no alien fully identified him from the photographic array (lineup). This was another missed opportunity to discourage the expanding Barker Family smuggling activities.
Information from various sources continued to allege that the Barker Family remained extraordinarily active in narcotic and alien smuggling via motor vessel. This information continued to be shared with domestic and international partners that may have both assisted and hindered operations and investigations with possible leaks to the criminal organization.
In the next chapter, read about one of the many alien smuggling ventures by the Barker Family and its tragic consequences.
Robert C. Hutchinson
Robert C. Hutchinson was a former police chief and deputy special agent in charge with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, Florida. He retired in 2016 after more than 28 years as a special agent with DHS and the legacy U.S. Customs Service. He was previously the deputy director of the agency’s national emergency preparedness division and assistant director for its national firearms and tactical training division. His numerous writings and presentations often address the critical need for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between public health, emergency management, and law enforcement, especially in the area of pandemic preparedness. He received his graduate degrees at the University of Delaware in public administration and Naval Postgraduate School in homeland security studies. He is a long-time contributor to Domestic Preparedness and serves on the Advisory Board.