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From 'coyotes' to 'maras': the dangers facing Cubans fleeing through Central America

According to data supplied by Costa Rica's Immigration Department, an average of some 200 Cubans enter the country, escorted by 'coyotes,' every day.

San José

Placing their lives in the hands of a “coyote” (human trafficker). This is the intention of many Cubans on Costa Rican soil.

Their unfamiliarity with the place, coupled with their economic limitations and desperation to reach the United States, spurs them to engage the services of human traffickers.

Lázaro Pérez, a Cuban currently in the town of La Cruz, says he knows about some fellow travelers who chose this option to cross into Nicaragua. "They know it's very risky, but they'd rather die in a foreign land than return to Cuba," he explained.

Gerardo Castaing, a specialist in Criminology and a former official at the Judicial Investigation Agency explained that "these guys know unusual routes, primarily used for drug trafficking, which they use to move people."

The Nicaraguan Army reported the capture of about 25 people in mountains along the border who had gone at least three days without food or water, due to the trickery of a coyote who contacted them, according to a report by Nicaragua's Channel 13.

In Castaing's view, this situation should surprise nobody, as this is the danger faced by those who pay these types of men. "Apart from the many dangers involved, in risky situations the coyotes will not hesitate to abandon them and leave them to their fate; this is how they operate."

Talking about "security" on the Costa Rican border is complicated. This country has 173 km of border territory with Panama, to the south, and 220 kilometers with Nicaragua, to the north. According to a security specialist, there are three ways to get into Panama. First, Paso Canoas, the site of the largest border and customs checkpoint. This location is obviously avoided by the coyotes, as the security measures there are considerable.

However, there are two more areas: the towns of San Vito de Coto Brus and Sixaola. Both feature many "blind spots" where security is almost nil, as they are overgrown with dense mountain vegetation.

In the case of the border with Nicaragua, the situation is similar: the main border crossing is located at Peñas Blancas, while the rest is almost totally exposed to human trafficking. Those who dare to risk their lives do so through the towns of Los Chiles and Upala, sites where for miles the only thing on the border is a fence or a mountain.

The immediate challenge is to get to Nicaragua, but it's not the only one. Once there the dangers of their journey may have only just begun.

Castaing said that Costa Rica does not have organized crime groups of the type that exist in other Central American countries, and many of them see the migrants as a clear target.

"Crossing the mountains is very dangerous, with the dangers posed by the wild animals and the cliffs, but, once they have crossed our country, in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador they are going to run into gangs, known as maras, which are terribly dangerous. Some of them are already organized and located in the mountains, just waiting for these groups of migrants."

According to data supplied by Costa Rica's Immigration Department, an average of some 200 Cubans enter the country, escorted by "coyotes," every day.

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