Fleeing To U.S., Cubans’ First Stop Is Often Mexico

Fleeing to U.S., Cubans First Stop Is Often Mexico

The escape from Cuba to the United States increasingly includes a trip by boat to a place like Isla Mujeres, a coastal Mexican island whose harbor is shown here.

The New York Times
Published: October 16, 2007

CORTS, Cuba Cubans are migrating to the United States in the greatest numbers in over a decade, and for most of them the new way to get north is first to head west to Mexico in a convoluted route that avoids the United States Coast Guard.

American officials say the migration, which has grown into a multimillion-dollar-a-year smuggling enterprise, has risen sharply because many Cubans have lost hope that Ral Castro, who took over as president from his brother Fidel in 2006, will make changes that will improve their lives. Cuban authorities contend that the migration is more economic than political and is fueled by Washingtons policy of rewarding Cubans who enter the United States illegally.

In fact, unlike Mexicans, Central Americans and others heading to the southwestern border of the United States, the Cubans do not have to sneak across. They just walk right up to United States authorities at the border, benefiting from lax Mexican enforcement and relying on Washingtons wet foot, dry foot policy, which gives them the ability to become permanent residents if they can reach United States soil.

That is what Jos Luis Savater, 45, a refrigerator repairman from Havana, did in early October to reach southern Florida, which remains the goal for most migrating Cubans.

It took Mr. Savater almost four days to reach Isla Mujeres, Mexico, a coastal island, in a rickety boat made of wood, fiberglass and aluminum and powered by a jury-rigged motor used for irrigating fields. The 15 men and one woman with him took turns bailing.

Its extremely dangerous, Mr. Savater said by telephone as he prepared to leave Cancn for the Mexican border. I saw myself dead. I suffered a lot.

But his next step was far easier: a flight to Matamoros, a border town just across from Brownsville, Tex., with the help of money wired from relatives in Florida. Some American officials are calling this new approach Cubans strolling up to border stations and seeking political asylum dusty foot.

Statistics make it clear that although the route is considerably longer, Cubans believe that traveling through Mexico from the tiny bayside village of Corts and other new launching spots on the western side of Cuba increases their odds of reaching Miami. Almost twice as many 11,487 took it in fiscal 2007, which ended in September, as in fiscal 2005.

By comparison, the Coast Guard intercepted just 2,861 Cubans crossing the Florida Straits in fiscal 2007, and 4,825 others eluded American authorities, reached United States soil and, under the wet foot, dry foot policy, applied for residency, according to the Coast Guard.

The figures show that in fiscal 2007, migration from the island reached its highest level since 35,000 Cubans left in a mass exodus in 1994.

The reason why people are willing to risk their lives to leave Cuba is the lack of hope and expectations, Sean Murphy, the United States consul general in Havana, told reporters in early October.

The new route is not just diverting migrants. Smugglers are shifting too, resulting in turf battles that are believed to be behind a string of killings over the summer of Cuban nationals in the Yucatn Peninsula, where many of the migrants come ashore. That area is also crisscrossed by narcotics traffickers, and there is fear that the two businesses could merge.

The new route has attracted the attention of officials throughout the region, since Cubans sometimes go off track and land on other Caribbean islands or farther south in Central America.

Manuel Aguilera de la Paz, Cubas ambassador to Mexico, told reporters in early October that migration is at the top of the agenda as Mexico and Cuba seek to improve strained relations that prompted the two countries to briefly withdraw their ambassadors in 2004.

In Washington, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, has expressed concern about both the migration and the killings in the Yucatn, which have been concentrated near the resort town of Cancn. There is some kind of struggle going on among gangs, he said of the violence. He called the new route a recent phenomenon.

The Coast Guards aggressive patrols in the Florida Straits prompted migrants to turn to the new route, most agree. Those patrols were increased after the 1994 exodus, which led the Clinton administration to adopt the wet foot, dry foot policy. The Coast Guard returns migrants who are caught at sea to Cuba, where authorities have said they will not face retribution.

Its practically Mission Impossible to go directly to Miami, said an American official who is tracking the issue but did not have approval to speak on the record about it.

In Mexico, however, the coast is far more loosely patrolled and, some say, local authorities are more likely to look the other way for a bribe.

The rocky eastern shore of Isla Mujeres, a speck of an island near Cancn, is a popular landing spot. Despite the presence of a Mexican Navy post, Cuban boats land regularly.

Were looking for Colombian drug dealers, not Cubans, said a Mexican Navy enlisted man who was on night watch on a bluff that is the islands highest point.

Mexican officials said that when the navy does intercept vessels with smuggled migrants, mostly those in distress, they are escorted ashore. The smugglers are arrested and their boats seized. But migrants are in most cases fined and then released. They have 30 days to leave the country, plenty of time to find their way north.

Some of the boats used by Cubans on their risky escape voyage lie in the harbor masters grounds on Isla Mujeres.

The smuggling networks themselves have become more sophisticated. The smugglers operate out of Miami, with representatives on the coasts of Cuba and Mexico, experts say. They carry satellite telephones so the transfers of the migrants are done with military precision.

Safe houses have been set up along the Mexican coast to help the Cubans elude Mexican authorities and avoid paying the fine. One Cuban who made it to Mexico said he was impressed by how well organized it all was.

Cuban rice and beans awaited him upon arrival in Mexico. Within days, he was off to the Texas border with instructions about what he should say to quickly enter the United States. Typically, the Cuban migrants are interviewed by agents who check their stories and whatever documentation they can produce, and listen closely for distinctive Cuban accents. Then, if no criminal records are found, the Cubans are generally allowed into the country. After a year, they gain permanent resident status.

The kinds of craft being used are often a step up from the vessels previously used. The boats leaving Cuba used to be the most ramshackle imaginable: inner tubes strung together, or rusted-out vessels powered by car engines or oars or even, in at least one case, a weed trimmer.

While many, like Mr. Savater, the Havana repairman, still travel that way, for the right price Cubans nowadays can climb aboard sleek, modern boats with three 275-horsepower outboard motors hanging from the back.

They look like they can fly, said a fisherman on Cubas southwestern coast who has spotted the vessels and spoke of them with a jealous look in his eye.

The boats swoop in to a prearranged spot on the Cuban coastline, quickly load and leave, with the price for the express service exceeding $10,000 in many cases. Some people mostly young men who know the coast well are allowed aboard without paying the full price, according to Cubans with knowledge of the business, but they have to promise to join the smuggling network and return to pick up more migrants.

Cuban authorities rarely stop the boats in time. They have set up military checkpoints along the coast and banned local residents from fishing along some stretches of beach to get a handle on the new escape routes. But the flow continues, mostly from remote beaches on the western half of the island.

Mexico is that way, said a fisherman near Corts, pulling his boat ashore in a popular smuggling spot and gesturing west. Thats the new way out.

When Cuban authorities see a boat leaving, they use loudspeakers to warn of the dangers of the voyage and urge everyone to come back. But the boats rarely, if ever, do. If a boat seems headed for Florida, they radio the United States Coast Guard. If it seems on course to Mexico, they throw up their arms.

Im on the lookout, said a young Cuban Coast Guard recruit outside Corts, who was on what looked like a lifeguard tower jacked up 30 feet for a better view. Though he had high-powered binoculars, the stretch of coast he had to watch was vast.

Farther west, at another migrant-smuggling center, Cabo Francs, the army has set up a base at the beach and strung a tree branch across the only entry point with a small cardboard sign declaring it a military zone. Local residents have been told not to fish there until the problem is under control.

Like so much else in United States-Cuban relations, the migration is mired in bad blood.

Havana blames Washington for the exodus, saying that allowing Cubans who arrive illegally in the United States to stay permanently provides an incentive for people to risk their lives at sea. Cuban authorities grumble as well that Washington has issued only 15,000 of the 20,000 visas it promised under a recent migration accord to allow Cubans to enter legally.

The United States has a different view. American officials say government repression is the reason people are willing to risk their lives at sea. And they say that Cuban officials have not permitted the United States Interests Section in Havana to hire enough people to handle all the paperwork for the visas.

In Mexico, there is an acceptance of the arriving Cubans among coastal residents, with a tinge of resentment. Its sad that a Mexican cant enter the U.S. if they reach the border and a Cuban can, said Alba Ros, a resident of Isla Mujeres who has noticed significant numbers of Miami Cubans arriving on the island to aid with the migrant flow.

Some Mexicans are even getting ideas from the Cubans. A trade is developing in Cuban identity documents, and some savvy Mexican migrants are now practicing Cuban accents and rehearsing dramatic stories they intend to tell United States Border Patrol agents about the horrors they have suffered in Havana.

Elisabeth Malkin contributed reporting from Mexico City.