KEY WEST, Fla. -- For love or money -- or a commitment to Fidel Castro's demise -- an unseemly mix of people have combined to bring Cuban refugees to the United States at a time when record numbers are fleeing their troubled homeland.
"It's an underground railroad," said Dante Capas, a pilot who searches for Cuban refugees with the newly formed Rafters Rescue Legion.
To those who consider it a humanitarian effort, the fact that Cubans escape is what's important -- not how they do it.
Mr. Capas did not ask who brought a group of Cubans out last month when he got a call to help search for them.
"I assume they were smugglers," he said.
To Mr. Capas, that question was less important than how, when and where the Cubans would land.
It would be up to the pilots to find the group and call the U.S. Coast Guard so the Cubans could be taken ashore safely.
Mr. Capas, retired from Wall Street, donates his time and money to search for rafters because "this is something I can do that others can't do."
There are some unwilling participants in this underground railroad.
Frank Dominguez, manager of Club Nautico boat rentals in Key West, is one.
Three times this year, expensive rental boats have been lost in smuggling ventures, he suspects. The risk of losing boats to smugglers is so great that Club Nautico does not rent larger boats capable of making the 180-mile round trip to Cuba, he said.
For someone with the money, hiring a smuggler is not that difficult. The word in the Key West boating community is that there are so many willing to smuggle Cubans that the price has fallen from $10,000 to $5,000 a person, Mr. Dominguez said.
Federal authorities concede Mr. Dominguez's assessment of the smugglers market is probably accurate. But they do not know for sure. Few smuggling cases are prosecuted because there rarely is evidence or Cuban passengers who know details about arrangements, prosecutors say.
Still, said Andres Rivero, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami: "It's illegal to smuggle aliens -- period."
Key to the success of the underground railroad are the people disseminating information about the rafters.
Besides being a place for refugees until they are united with Florida relatives, the Transit House for Cuban Refugees on Stock Island also serves as an unofficial clearinghouse for information about rafters.
Phones in the transit house rang constantly with calls about Cuban rafters one day last month, a record month with more than 500 rafters rescued.
When rafters are found, manager Arturo Cobo immediately calls a half-dozen area Spanish language radio stations so they can broadcast the news.
"This way, their families in Cuba know they are safe," said Mr. Cobo.