Forty Chinese immigrants were charged thousands of dollars to be smuggled in yachts from the Bahamas into Florida, according to federal court documents that allege a scheme involving luxury liners ferrying passengers into the country without legal permission to enter the US.
Three men are facing human smuggling charges outlined in federal indictments filed this month.
Rocco Oppedisano is accused of piloting a 63-foot Sunseeker yacht named INXS Finally with 14 Chinese passengers and one Bahamian aboard during a December voyage, according to a federal indictment filed on 7 January, according to the Miami Herald.
In separate cases, the US Coast Guard stopped two ships from entering South Florida and arrested crew members who are accused of bringing 26 Chinese passengers and one Bahamian passenger aboard their ships, which contained more than $300,000 in cash.
Federal authorities discovered $118,000 behind one yacht's wall panelling in the master bedroom, according to court documents. That ship's captain, James Bradford, allegedly told investigators that he didn't check whether his passengers had travel documents that granted them legal permission to enter the US.
It's unclear in court documents why the Chinese passengers tried to enter the US through the Bahamas, but the archipelago has seen a spike in Chinese workers in recent years, many entering the country illegally, as Chinese investors funnel billions of dollars into hotels and resorts in the nation that sits just 50 nautical miles from Miami.
Among the passengers on Mr Oppedisano's yacht was Chinese national Ying Lian Li, who was deported from the US in 2019 and was attempting to re-enter the country, federal investigators allege.
Federal authorities confiscated more than $200,000 in US and Bahamian currency from aboard Mr Oppedisano's yacht.
He told a magistrate judge that he sold property as well as his Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Fiat cars to pay for the legal costs related to his immigration status.
He is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court on 22 January.
Robert McNeil has pleaded guilty to one count of alien smuggling to make a profit, and James Bradford is awaiting trial in federal court.