Wednesday, June 18, 2008

More and More Cubans Entering US through Mexico

The number of Cuban migrants intercepted in Mexico climbed from 254 in 2002 to 1,359 in 2007. And nearly 1,000 were detained in the first four months of this year alone -- the visible face of a people smuggling business that apparently operates in collusion with the police and other corrupt authorities. The statistics came from the national migration institute (INM) which, however, estimates that many more undocumented Cuban migrants come through the country, because some of those who are seized simply disappear, along with the record of their detention, after they pay a bribe, while many others are never detected. The flow of Cubans seeking to reach the United States, without exit permits from the Cuban government or U.S. entry visas, remains steady. Regardless of their migration status, Cubans are eligible to apply for residency a year and a day after they set foot on U.S. soil, under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, although if they are intercepted at sea, they are sent back to Cuba, under what is known as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. On Jun. 12, a group of armed men hijacked an INM bus that was carrying 33 Cubans and four Guatemalan migrants to an immigration processing centre in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The masked men forced the immigration agents and bus drivers out of the vehicle at gunpoint and drove away. The empty bus was found later, but there is no information on the whereabouts of the migrants. The authorities are investigating several state agents suspected of taking part in the hijacking. According to unconfirmed press reports, several well-known Cuban dissidents were among those being transported in the bus. There are also rumours that the operation to "liberate" the migrants was carried out by an organised crime group with ties to the anti-Castro exile community in Miami, Florida. Cuban Ambassador to Mexico Manuel Aguilera de la Paz said the hijacking was no doubt organised by "the Miami mafia," a group that includes Cuban-American Republican legislators Mario and Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. But Eduardo Matías López, president of the Cuban Mexican Civic Association, questioned these allegations. "There are criminal groups here that smuggle people and drugs, carry out kidnappings and are involved in all kinds of activities, but they are only motivated by the interest in earning money and have nothing to do with politics," he told IPS. "Authorities in both Cuba and Mexico are involved in this case and in trafficking in general; we have abundant testimony to that effect," López added. His anti-Castro group, which was founded in 1996, provides legal advice and assistance to Cuban migrants intercepted in Mexico, to keep them from being sent back to Cuba. "There is total corruption, and the victims are people who leave Cuba with the hope of finding a better life. They aren't criminals," said López. The activist said Cuban authorities take bribes of around 5,000 dollars per person to allow a boat carrying migrants without exit permits to leave the island, on the way to Mexico. And when they make it to Mexico, he said, the migrants must fork over another 4,000 dollars for a tourist visa. Reports from the Mexican government indicate that the majority of the Cuban migrants arrange their journey with groups of traffickers who charge up to 7,000 dollars. The total cost of the trip thus runs 15,000 dollars or more. The traffickers pick up the migrants in Cuba or at sea and take them to different points along the coast of the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. From there, the migrants continue their journey to the United States by land or sea. According to reports last year by the Mexican navy, eight of every 10 undocumented migrants intercepted in Mexican waters were Cuban. Cuban president Fidel Castro complained in 2005 about a supposed people smuggling ring financed by the exile community in Miami, Florida, which he said landed Cuban migrants on Mexico's Caribbean coast, before taking them on to the United States. He said the network was tolerated by authorities in both Mexico and the United States. Mexico, which shares a 3,200-km border with the United States, refutes the allegation, and insists that it rigorously cracks down on people smugglers. But INM officials in Quintana Roo have denounced that some of their colleagues charge the Cuban migrants bribes to refrain from reporting them or to provide them with legal papers. "We have no ties with the Cuban groups in Miami, but it is clear to us that those who leave the island, via Mexico, are trying to reach that city, where they have family," he said. The governments of Mexico and Cuba are negotiating a migration agreement to curb the flow of migrants and regularise their passage through Mexico. Since he took office in December 2006, conservative President Felipe Calderón has worked at rebuilding relations with Havana, which were damaged under the administrations of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) and Vicente Fox (2000-2006). A number of contacts between the two governments have now been made, and there are no major tensions. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque is planning an official visit to Mexico in September, when an agreement may be signed. The Cuban government has long complained that the wet foot, dry foot policy encourages Cubans to attempt the dangerous ocean crossing to Florida or Mexico. But Washington insists that Cubans are merely fleeing political and social oppression. Cuba also complains that the U.S. law violates the migration accords signed by the two countries in 1994 and 1995, under which any Cubans intercepted at sea by the U.S. authorities must be returned to Cuba.

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