BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Along the Mexican border, at the busy U.S. Port of Entry here, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers geared up recently for another long day of processing Cuban immigrants.
Waiting in the lobby were 11 exhausted Cuban men and women who had arrived overnight asking for political asylum in the United States. Included were two middle-aged Cuban doctors who are husband and wife.
Each of them would be questioned, photographed and fingerprinted before being paroled into the country under a Cold War-era provision that grants Cubans special immigration privileges and relatively easy entry into the U.S. The screening process typically takes less than an hour.
Authorities say in the last two years they have seen a dramatic rise in the number of Cubans entering the U.S. through the Southwest border, particularly between Laredo and Brownsville, Texas.
In fiscal year 2007, CBP officials said, more than 11,000 Cubans immigrants were cleared into the U.S. through Texas alone, much more than in any other state, including Florida.
Law enforcement officials suspect most of these Cubans did not arrive at the border on their own.
"What we've seen is that the majority of these people that are coming through are dealing with some type of smuggling operation," said Michael Freeman, the CBP's Brownsville Port Director. "This is definitely a coordinated effort."
A shift in smuggling routes
For years, Miami-based smugglers have used speed boats with GPS navigation systems, satellite phones and powerful, but quiet, four-stroke engines to sneak into Cuba under cover of darkness, pick up passengers, and bring them to South Florida, where many Cuban-American families finance these illegal and dangerous trips at a cost of $8,000 to $10,000 per person.
But, authorities said, increased patrols by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Florida Straits, and tougher federal prosecutions of smugglers have caused most of the human trafficking groups to shift their operations through Mexico, where there are fewer obstacles. Many boats now drop off their Cuban passengers at marinas and desolate beaches along the Yucatan Peninsula.
The 140-mile distance from Cuba to Mexico is only a little longer than the route to Florida.
The biggest difference is that Cuban passengers arriving in the Yucatan Peninsula must also endure a long voyage by land north toward the U.S. border.
Law enforcement officials believe most of the trips are still coordinated by arrangers in Miami, who often supply the speedboats, and pay Mexican traffickers to hire local boat drivers and to organize the trips through Mexico.
It's widely suspected that many of these smugglers use the same routes and personnel as the illicit drug trade.
"All they care about is the money. They don't care about the human cargo that they have," said Thomas Winkowski, CBP Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Field Operations. "It's a very, very dangerous business, and we do not encourage anyone to take to the high seas with this type of organization."
One woman's terrifying journey
Arriving in Miami recently, after a harrowing trip from Cuba through Mexico, was a young woman who said she would never recommend the trip for anyone. "It's a risk, you risk your life," she said.
The woman said she was recruited for the trip by fellow Cubans, and was instructed to go to a park in a town near Havana, where she and others were put on a bus.
From there they were driven west, and then walked for miles, she said, through thick underbrush and mangrove trees until they reached a deserted beach. In the middle of the night, she and 37 other people waded in water up to their chests and boarded a boat driven by Mexicans.
The trip to the Yucatan Peninsula was terrifying, she said, with water pouring into the boat, and gasoline containers spilling on the deck. After outrunning a Cuban Coast Guard patrol boat, she said, the smuggling boat sped west in rough seas. "That part is very ugly. Everybody's really scared, children, men and women, all scared." For most of the trip she suffered from extreme seasickness.
After arriving in Mexico, she said, she was held in a house in Cancun, while the smugglers repeatedly called her family in Miami demanding a $10,000 payment for the illegal trip. "They are calling your family constantly, trying to get more money out of them, basically creating a scare," she said.
After her family finally wired a partial payment to the smugglers, she said she was driven to the city of Merida, then put on a plane to Matamoros. "Our tickets were already taken care of. We were given a number, and with that number we boarded the plane. Nobody asked for our identification."
In Matamoros she had to pay a driver to take her to the border town of Reynosa. Along the way, she said, she was stopped twice by Mexican immigration authorities. "They started yelling at us that they were going to jail and deport us, and they scared us," she said.
With the little money she had left, the woman said she bribed the officers. "The first time they asked for money, we gave them $200." After the second stop, the cost of freedom was a bit higher. "They took $300, and let us go on" she said. From there, she walked to the port of entry at McAllen, Texas, and was admitted into the United States.
As bad as this smuggling trip was, she said, a previous unsuccessful attempt was worse.
After the boat she was on broke down in Mexican waters, she was turned over to authorities there, and was detained.
"We were held for three months, sleeping on the floor, without any contact with family," she said. "It was really ugly there. They would make us take off our clothes, they mistreated us a lot. It was ugly--they beat the men."
Finally, she said, she was taken to an airport without explanation, and was flown back to Cuba. A few months later, she would try again, this time successfully, but insists she would never allow a family member to take such a grueling trip. "Over my dead body," she said, "It's dangerous."
Increased violence draws attention
Recently, news of four murders near Cancun, the international resort destination, filled the headlines and cast a spotlight on the lucrative business of trafficking Cuban immigrants.
In August, the bodies of three men and a woman were discovered bound and shot to death. Mexican authorities said they suspected the victims were linked to a Cuban-American smuggling ring, and had been executed in a dispute.
Three of the bodies were found in a natural well known as a "cenote." A Mexican prosecutor said the killers had painted a red arrow along a highway so the bodies could be located.
From the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, another man, who allowed us to only use his first name--Mario--claimed his brother is also missing after being lured by a promise of lots of money to work on a smugglers boat. Mario feared his brother is either dead, or languishing in a Cuban prison.
In an attempt to find his brother, who was a deep-sea fisherman, Mario said he has spent the last two years investigating the Cuban smuggling business in Mexico. "It's a massive operation within the Yucatan Peninsula and Miami, Florida, that's sponsored by people who have money, who are interested in getting people out," he said.
Mexican fishermen can make as much money in one successful smuggling trip to and from Cuba, he said, as they could earn in six months of legitimate work on the water. "They're aware of what they're going out there to do," he added. "Nobody's going to offer you that kind of money for a smooth easy job that isn't dangerous."
Mexican government refuses to comment
Despite repeated requests for an interview by NBC News and the Spanish-language network Telemundo, Mexican government officials refused to comment publicly about the smuggling trade, saying they didn't want to hamper improving relations with Cuba.
Other authorities and experts, though, in Mexico and the U.S. said that while Mexico will repatriate Cuban migrants intercepted at sea, they rarely return those who arrive on Mexican soil--a policy that closely resembles the so-called "wet-foot/dry-foot" procedure in the United States.
Cuban immigrants who are arrested for entering the country illegally can often pay their way out of detention, informed sources say, and are then free to head north to the American border, the ultimate destination for most of the Cuban arrivals.
With the number of Cuban immigrants headed for the southwest border increasing each year now, FBI officials are concerned about who else might be carried aboard the speedboats.
Sources say agents have interviewed some of the passengers, and are concerned that Cuban intelligence agents could use the illegal routes to slip into the United States.
Ricardo Pascoe, Mexico's former Ambassador to Cuba, said Mexico is trapped in the middle of a decades-long dispute betwen the United States and Cuba. Complicating the problem is that Mexico does not have a migratory agreement with Cuba, and is officially unable to repatriate Cuban immgrants after they arrive in Mexico.
"It's a real dilemma," he said. "It's a dilemma that's not been solved, and that needs to be solved."
A special immigration privilege
At the secondary inspection office at the Brownsville Port of Entry, CBP officers are suspicious of many of the stories they hear from the Cuban asylum applicants.
Some of them say they flew legally from Cuba to Mexico or Honduras. While in many cases that is likely true, some immigrants when asked for their Cuban passports either say they lost them, or claim the pages with the appropriate immigration stamps that would have proved they took the legal trip were ripped out.
Officers believe the Cubans are fearful of exposing the smugglers, and lie to protect them. Despite that, the likelihood is the passengers will still be cleared into the U.S. during a procedure that usually takes less than an hour.
Because of a federal law passed during the Cold War--the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966--Cubans enjoy a unique immigration status in the United States. If they can make it to U.S. soil, they're almost always allowed to stay in the country, even if they were smuggled.
After a year, they can apply for U.S. residency.
With reference to the well-known "wet-foot/dry foot" policy that requires Cubans caught at sea to be repatriated, but lets those who step on land stay in the country, officials joke that the many Cubans walking across the arid Texas border have a "dusty foot."
A passionate argument
Aside from their concerns, CBP officers working at that border crossing can't help but note the relief expressed by the Cubans who have just been cleared for entry. "When you see the excitement on their face, that's something that you do understand," said Michael Freeman, the Port Director. "Some of them kiss the ground, they say thank you very much."
The method by which most of them arrived, though, is increasingly controversial, and is the subject of passionate arguments. Some see the smugglers as a necessary evil for family reunification and escape from the social and political hardships of Cuba. A U.S. Coast Guard official conceded that most of the Cuban-American family members who pay for the illegal trips have never committed any other crime, but feel this is the only way to bring in their relatives.
Others argue the smugglers are vile opportunists, interested only in money, with little concern for the safety of their passengers. Federal prosecutors have targeted some of the smugglers, and have won numerous convictions leading to years of prison time.
By shifting many of their operations through Mexico, the smuggling organizations have made it more difficult now for the authorities to stop them. Unfortunately for the Cuban passengers, it's also more trying and dangerous.
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