Homeland Security in Absentia: Policing Miami in the Era of the New U.S.-Cuba Relationship

Manuel Morales


The United States and Cuba are separated by 90 miles across the Florida Straits, but are worlds apart in political ideology. In 2014, President Barack Obama announced his administration’s intention to renew diplomatic relations with this nation’s island neighbor.[1] The detente marked a stark departure from previous U.S. policy of isolation that has maintained an embargo against Cuba for half a century. The renewed relations have the potential to impact Miami greatly. This thesis explores the modifications the Miami Police Department (MPD) needs to make to prepare the organization to local changes prompted by the changes in U.S. policy. The MPD response to the events of mass celebration and civil disturbances, as a result of Fidel Castro’s death in November 2016, demonstrated the MPD is prepared to address effectively the short-term impact of changes in the relationship between the United States and Cuba. However, to prepare Miami for the long-term impact, the department must establish lines of communication with Cuban authorities.

Miami and Cuba are connected by shared family and cultural bonds that make any changes on the island nation manifest in local reaction. The deep connection is a result of various periods of mass migration that saw large groups of Cubans settled in Miami. The bond is contrasted by the artificial separation created by political groups that share a common hatred for the Castro regime in Cuba.

The thesis examined the most notable periods of Cuban mass migration, the golden exiles and the Mariel boatlift, as well as their impact on Miami and its police department’s ability to provide public safety services. As an example, the research examines the Mariel boatlift of 1980. The episode of mass migration brought 125,000 Cuban refugees to the United States and impacted the ability of the Miami Police to address public safety effectively in the city. Unbeknown to local officials, the Castro regime had used the migration episode to empty its mental health and detention facilities of an estimated 25,000 inmates.[2] The move is considered by law enforcement professionals as one of the main factors that lead to a historic crime spike in Miami in the 1980s.[3]

The research identified different models of police cooperation across national borders. The thesis conducted a case study analysis of models of police cooperation by municipal governments with international partners to identify possible working templates for the MPD and the Cuban police. The research looked at three models: the agreements between China and Taiwan, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD’s) International Liaison Program (ILP), and the sister city agreements between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

The first case study involves police relations between authorities in the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, known as Taiwan. China and Taiwan share a long history of political hostility that extends to federal and local law enforcement.[4] The two countries shared limited diplomatic contact and had no ability for police cooperation until the 1990s when officials in both nations initiated direct contact to work on several high-profile investigations.[5] The case offers insight into the potential of informal relations between individuals on both sides of the border. However, the model is heavily dependent on the personal relationships and offers no evidence that the political environment in Miami and Havana would not impact those relationships.

The events of 9/11 brought to the forefront of homeland security experts the undeniable fact that “all terrorism is local” and the NYPD realized the ineffectiveness of their counterterrorism strategies that relied on the federal and state officials as their suppliers of intelligence.[6] In 2002, the NYPD leadership recognized the need to change the role of its municipal policing model in the face of increased international threats and created the ILP. The program offered an opportunity to take their policing efforts abroad and become the “most global of local police forces.”[7] The model demonstrated an effective way to integrate personnel from two departments in different countries to maximize information sharing. However, the program is expensive and could alienate federal officials that see the local officers abroad as interfering in diplomatic exchanges.

Sister city agreements have been in existence since the early part of the 20th century and have been widely used by neighboring cities along the U.S. and Mexican border. The agreements were intended to “increase international understanding and foster world peace by furthering international communication and exchange at the person to person level through city-to-city affiliations.”[8] Despite their traditional role, the increase in concerns about national security brought about by the globalization of terrorism and the impact of transnational organized crime has prompted the focus of such agreements to shift towards law enforcement purposes.[9] Agreements, such as the El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, have demonstrated their ability to address regional security and interoperability concerns effectively with the creation of task forces. Participation in those task forces promotes informal relationships amongst members of law enforcement on both countries that aids in the sharing of intelligence in the fight against trans-border crimes.[10]

In January 2017, during the last days of the Obama administration, the two countries signed a bilateral law enforcement memorandum of understanding (MOU). The MOU recognizes the mutual need of both governments to “collaborate in the prevention, interdiction, monitoring, investigation and prosecution” of crimes impacting both nations.[11] It also allows for the participation of “all appointed and/or elected officials who exercise police functions or provide police services, and are entitled to make arrests or detentions under the respective jurisdiction” in working groups that will meet bi-annually.[12] The MPD could use its long-standing practice of liaising with federal law enforcement task forces to participate in the U.S.-Cuban working groups.[13] The involvement in the taskforce will allow the MPD to engage Cuban officials in a formal setting to forge relationships that will lead to informal exchanges of information that benefit both agencies related to local matters outside the MOU’s scope.

The research also revealed that all models examined, despite their formal arrangements, shared a commonality in the fostering of informal relationships. The key to success was related to the ability of individuals in their respective agencies to shift from formal arrangement to informal relationships to affect positive change. The MPD can benefit from the creation of a committee to explore the need for departmental modifications to adjust for a relationship with Cuban authorities. This relationship can aid in the prevention of terrorism, the interdiction of narcotics, the return of fugitives wanted on both sides of the border, and the timely exchange of law enforcement information. Perhaps, the best modification the MPD can make to foster a relationship with their Cuban counterparts on the island is not operational but philosophical.



[1] “Charting a New Course on Cuba,” accessed September 15, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/ issues/foreign-policy/cuba.

[2] Alex Larzelere, Castro’s Ploy-America’s Dilemma: The 1980 Cuban Boatlift (Ft. Belvoir, VA: Defense Technical Information Center, 1988), 225.

[3] Michael Palmiotto, Police Misconduct: A Reader for the 21st Century (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001), 120.

[4] Yungnane Yang and Frédéric Lemieux, Cross-strait Police Cooperation between Taiwan and China, ed. F. Lemieux (Portland, OR: Willan, 2010), 202.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Erik J. Dahl, “Local Approaches to Counterterrorism: the New York Police Department Model,” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism 9, no. 2 (2014): 81.

[7] Dahl, “Local Approaches to Counterterrorism: the New York Police Department Model,” 86.

[8] “Our Mission,” May 2012, www.taoti.com; “What is a Sister City?,” accessed January 8, 2017, www.sister-cities.org/what-sister-city.

[9] Calvin D. Shanks, “Beyond Sister City Agreements: Exploring the Challenges of Full International Interoperability” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2016).

[10] Ibid.

[11] “United States and Cuba to Sign Law Enforcement Memorandum of Understanding,” January 17, 2017, cu.usembassy.gov/united-states-cuba-sign-law-enforcement-memorandum-understanding/.

[12] “United States and Cuba to Sign Law Enforcement Memorandum of Understanding.”

[13] U.S. Marshall Service, Memorandum of Understanding District Fugitive Task Force (DFT) South Florida Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team (S/FL-FAST) Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force (RFTF) and the City of Miami Police Department (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2014), egov.ci.miami. fl.us/Legistarweb/Attachments/79026.pdf.

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