- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

Organized and increasingly violent criminals are helping Cuban emigrants make their way into the United States through Mexico, prompting Havana and Mexico City to open negotiations on a treaty to try to control the human trafficking.

Those negotiations were given fresh impetus by an incident last month in which armed men intercepted a Mexican immigration service bus carrying 33 captured illegal Cuban immigrants in southern Mexico and made off with the Cubans.

Within days, 18 of the Cubans turned up at a U.S. Border Patrol station at Hidalgo, Texas, to apply for residency in the U.S.

Illegal immigration to the U.S. from Cuba has reached its highest level since a mass exodus of 35,000 Cubans in 1994. The land route to the U.S. through Mexico appears to be gaining popularity in the face of aggressive Coast Guard efforts to stop illegal immigration by sea.

“In the past years, we have observed increased smuggling and trafficking of undocumented Cubans transiting via Mexico into the United States,” said Ricardo Alday, a spokesman at the Mexican Embassy in Washington.

A total of 11,526 Cubans were intercepted trying to enter the United States through Mexico in fiscal 2007, almost twice as many as in fiscal 2005, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). By June 30, agents intercepted 8,114 Cubans by land in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Last year, 2,861 Cubans were intercepted crossing the Florida Strait, according to U.S. Coast Guard figures. Another 4,825 who crossed by boat reached land and applied for residency under the federal government’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy, under which Cubans intercepted at sea can be returned to the island’s communist dictatorship. If they make it to land, they can apply for legal residency.

“They are using [the land bridge through Mexico] to a greater degree than the coastal bridge,” said CBP spokesman Zachary Mann.

The Mexico-Cuba treaty to crack down on the trafficking could be signed as early as this fall, according to Mexican press reports, but details of the agreement are being held closely.

“Since the discussions are still in progress, I cannot share the contents of the negotiation,” Mr. Alday said. “Due to the nature of the challenge involved, we seek to conclude it as soon as possible.”

The bus hijacking occurred June 11 as 33 Cubans who had been intercepted by the Mexican navy near the Gulf Coast city of Cancun were being taken to an immigration station at Tapachula in southern Mexico. Mexico’s attorney general is investigating the incident, in which six suspects have been arrested.

Some Mexican news organizations quoted the Cuban ambassador to Mexico City and unnamed Mexican government sources as saying the masked commandos in the bus raid were supported by Cuban exiles in the United States - a “Miami mafia” that assists in trafficking of illegal immigrants. Corrupt Mexican immigration officers also may have been involved.

Asked about the role of U.S.-based Cuban exiles in the illegal trafficking, Mr. Alday said, “There is an ongoing investigation and as such [I] cannot comment.”

Late last month, the Mexican government fired two immigration officials who had contradicted themselves during questioning about involvement in the hijacking. Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino said criminal charges are being filed against “a significant number” of immigration officials and agents.

Mr. Mourino said that after the hijacking the Cubans used falsified immigration papers to pass Mexican army checkpoints. He said it is evidence that the hijackers were part of an organized human trafficking ring.

Mexican authorities said the Cubans were taken to a safe house at Veracruz, where fake documents that allowed them to enter the United States were made.

If the Cuban Embassy does not reclaim Cuban illegal immigrants captured in Mexico, the Mexican government frees them on the condition that they leave the country within 30 days. In most cases, that means a second illegal border crossing, this time into the United States.

The Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami-based advocacy group for Cuban exiles, said no Miami mafia is assisting the illegal immigrants. In most cases, the financial and relocation assistance they receive in the United States comes from family members and friends already living in the country, said group president Francisco J. Hernandez.

“We are on record over the years opposing these illegal immigrations,” Mr. Hernandez said.

He blames U.S. policy for inadvertently encouraging Cubans to seek illegal entry into the United States.

“We have told the Bush administration again and again and again,” Mr. Hernandez said. “Something proactive must be done in order to stop this [human] trafficking.”

He suggests that the federal government penalize anyone who encourages the illegal immigrants. For example, by making their family members ineligible for visas, “you are going to see very, very fast that most of that illegal trafficking is going to stop,” Mr. Hernandez said.

As with many disputes between the United States and Cuba, each side blames the other.

The U.S. government says more Cubans are leaving as they find that the presidency of Raul Castro will offer no less political repression than the administration of his brother, Fidel Castro.

The Cuban government says the U.S. government’s offers of asylum to Cubans create an incentive for them to immigrate illegally. Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans can become legal permanent residents a year and a day after arriving in the United States. In addition, Havana says, the U.S. government has issued only 15,000 visas for Cubans to enter legally despite a promise to issue 20,000 visas.

The June 11 bus hijacking was far from the only Mexican confrontation with illegal Cuban immigrants. During a July 1 raid, Mexican police found 20 other illegal Cuban immigrants at two safe houses in Cancun.

One of the Cubans said he paid a human trafficker $15,000 to be smuggled into the United States. He told police he wanted his money back as they removed him from the house.

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