PERICO, Cuba – This tiny town is in mourning this holiday season.
Forty residents of Perico, some 100 miles southeast of Havana, are believed dead, drowned at sea on a failed smuggling operation.
The group, which included somewhere between nine and 12 children, set off in the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, Nov. 24, and was expected to be dropped off in the Florida Keys by Sunday.
No one has heard from them since.
"People leave here all the time but they always make it to land, somewhere," said Maria Galban, waiting for some word about the fate of her brother Jorge, his wife and two children, aged 10 and 19.
|Roberto León / NBC News|
|Maria Galban looks despondent while explaining that she doesn't know the fate of her brother, sister-in-law, and their two children since they set off in a boat for the U.S.|
This was Jorge's fourth attempt to leave the island. Twice he ended up in the Bahamas, only to be extradited back to Cuba. On one of those occasions, he spent four months in a Bahamian immigration detention center. Another time, Cuban Border Guards stopped him in local waters.
"He always came back to us. We always heard something," Galban said, as she wept.
Her only consolation comes from living in a relatively small town of approximately 31,000 residents where neighbors treat everyone like family. People say the entire town shares in the collective grief of losing so many people at one time.
'Where is my son?'
Maria Mirna Gutierrez is devastated over the disappearance of her son, Jorge Luis, a supervisor on a state farm. "He left for work that morning and never came home," she said. "Where is my son? I cannot be consoled. I don't know if I can survive this."
She too is not alone in her grief. The night she spoke with NBC News, a large crowd of neighbors gathered silently outside her home, mistakenly thinking that someone in authority had come to give the grieving mother news on her son.
In the middle of the interview with Gutierrez, a younger woman, Aranelis Cabrera, barged in, clutching a photo of her missing relatives. Cabrera is searching for her brother Renier and wife Idania. She still has not worked up the courage to tell her ailing parents that the couple is missing. "This would kill them," she said. Her only hope is that her brother, who had a job as a night watchman, turns up alive before too long.
Cuban authorities think that's a long shot.
|VIDEO: Dangerous passage from Cuba|
No sign of boat or passengers
Acting on Missing Person's Reports filed by the families here, the Cuban Border Guards sent out patrols to search local waters and deserted keys for either survivors or evidence of an accident.
Nothing has been found of either the black 32-foot Wellcraft speedboat with its twin engines or the human cargo. The families report they also have been assured that the missing passengers are not in police custody. No one is being held on charges that could include trying to leave the country by illegal means.
|Roberto León / NBC News|
|Maria Mirna Gutierrez weeps while discussing the disappearance of her son.|
At the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted its own extensive air-and-sea search, also coming up empty-handed.
While both countries remain on alert for this craft, few hold out hope for finding anyone alive after almost a month. Too much time has passed.
The long time lapse itself may have been the biggest hindrance to the initial rescue efforts.
Even after the boat failed to arrive on schedule, anxious relatives on both sides of the Florida Straits waited almost two weeks before reporting the incident to either U.S. or Cuban authorities.
If indeed all the passengers perished in the journey, it will be noted as the single worst smuggling tragedy from Cuba.
While more Cubans over recent years have taken to the sea aboard smuggling speedboats, chiefly originating from south Florida, they are both illegal and dangerous operations.
Fear delayed search
According to the families in Perico, fear was one reason why people waited so long – fear from breaking the law in both countries, but also fear of reprisals from the smugglers.
"This is all very dangerous," said Judy Carvajal, whose only sister and 10-year-old niece were on board the boat.
The smugglers charge up to $12,000 a head, far beyond the reach of most Cubans living on the island. So, relatives already residing in the U.S. usually make the arrangements and pay the fee –even going into debt to do so. While they know smuggling is illegal, they are also desperate to be reunited with their families.
Both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guards seem frustrated by the steady upswing in smuggling despite their separate efforts at stopping the illegal trade.
The Cuban authorities complain that the speedboats that come into isolated beachheads to pick up their passengers under cover of night are just too fast to apprehend. Using local guides and sophisticated GPS navigators, a smuggling boat can land on shore, board its passengers and leave in under three minutes.
Speed also thwarts U.S. Coast Guard efforts, which reports that over 60 percent of the Cubans known to have illegally set off to sea last fiscal year slipped past American radars and made it to U.S. shores. There, the Cubans become political refugees, classified under the so-called "wet foot/dry foot" policy – the special immigration status that allows any Cuban touching U.S. soil to stay and become eligible for residency.
The Cuban government points to this policy of privilege as the impetus for people to risk their lives in these dangerous and costly crossings while the Bush administration insists its Cuba's failed economy and repressive political system driving people to the perilous sea.