Florida woman charged in Cuban migrant smuggling trip that ended with 16 drowning deaths

In November 2022, a Florida woman directed a Cuban migrant smuggling venture using a boat overloaded with passengers without life vests, according to U.S. authorities.

Sixteen of the Cuban passengers drowned when the vessel sank 30 miles off the coast of Cuba while it was heading towards South Florida, authorities said.

Four of the deceased migrants’ bodies were recovered by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Florida Straits. One of the two survivors told authorities that the vessel was not safe.

Yaqulelin Dominguez-Nieves, 25, is being held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami on migrant smuggling charges stemming from the tragic crossing after a magistrate judge on Friday found the Sebring woman to be a flight risk.

She also pleaded not guilty to a 10-count indictment accusing her of conspiring to bring the Cuban migrants to South Florida on Nov. 16, 2022, resulting in the 16 passenger deaths, and to related offenses.

Dominguez-Nieves, who is represented by the federal public defender’s office, faces a potential death penalty or up to life in prison as punishment for most of the counts in the indictment, which lists three migrant victims whose bodies were recovered at sea by the Coast Guard.

The Justice Department will have final say over whether to pursue the death penalty for Dominguez-Nieves, who was not on the boat during the illicit trip.

Her attorney with the public defender’s office, Victor Van Dyke, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

“Human smugglers prey on the migrants’ hopes for a better life,” U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe said in a statement after Friday’s arraignment in Miami federal court. “Tragically, the smugglers’ exploits pose a grave danger to migrants.”

Cuba, beset by a worsening economic and political crisis, has experienced historic migration in the past two fiscal years. Nearly 425,000 Cubans have sought coming to the United States, mainly through Mexico, according to U.S. border numbers released in October.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 200,287 encounters with Cubans at U.S. borders nationwide in fiscal year 2023, which ended in September. In fiscal year 2022, CBP had reported another 224,607 encounters with Cuban nationals.

In another deadly migrant case, a Bahamian man is awaiting extradition to Miami on charges of conspiring to bring a boat overloaded with Colombians, Jamaicans, Dominicans and Haitians to South Florida.

Vandrick Nelson Smith, also known as Muggy and Vans, 33, was arrested in March for his alleged role in organizing three maritime smuggling trips in 2021 and 2022 — including one that resulted in the deaths of five migrants.

On the evening of Jan. 22, 2022, according to an indictment, numerous migrants boarded a vessel in the Bahamas destined for South Florida for an illegal crossing organized by Smith. Soon after departing, the engines stopped functioning and the boat capsized.

Three days later, the indictment states that the Coast Guard rescued the sole surviving migrant, who was found clinging to the top of the overturned vessel. The Coast Guard also recovered the bodies of multiple passengers at sea.