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Death, Scams, Abuse: The Plight of Cubans on the Colombia-Panama Border Continues

This is the story of Luis Alberto Ávila García and other emigrants who, with everything stacked against them, persevere in their quest to reach the United States.


In August of 2016, in the town of Turbo, Colombia, 86 Cuban emigrants thronged in front of the Migration offices to demand humane treatment. That protest shined a light on the drama suffered by nearly 6,000 Cubans who came to the region month ago to try to cross the perilous border with Panama on their journey to the U.S.

Strong international pressure and the press convinced Colombia and Panama to more flexible in dealing with those emigrants, and most achieved their dream of reaching the United States, but now the rules have grown tougher again.

According to data provided by the administration of the Waffe passenger port in Turbo, between January 1 and November 25, 2017 a total of 790 Cubans left legally from there to the Colombian town of Capurganá, on the border with Panama. Since November 26, however, the Panamanian authorities have redoubled their efforts to intercept Cubans at the border, and Migración Colombia has stopped issuing the safe conduct authorization that allowed Cubans into the neighboring country.

This change has spurred dozens of Cubans to place their lives in the hands human traffickers and venture onto routes even more dangerous than the "Mountain of Death" in the Darien jungle. Today no emigrants are sold tickets to travel legally to Capurganá due to the absence of safe conduct passes provided by Colombia.

The 80-km route between Capurganá and the Panamanian town of Metetí is known as the "Passage of Death." Dozens of emigrants have lost their lives on it. Cubans, more than Africans, Asians or Latin Americans, in addition to evading death, the dangers of the jungle, robberies and illegal armed groups, suffer the persecution of Panama's National Border Service  (SENAFRONT).

In flimsy vessels of wood, without any guarantees of safety whatsoever, and only after paying $250, Cubans brave the open sea, or try to evade immigration controls by taking dangerous paths through the Darién jungle. Some end up with nothing but an anonymous headstone marked with the acronym "NN", such as the 18-month-old baby and her father who died drowned on March 26 in Puerto Obaldía, Panama.

Luis Alberto Ávila's Three Attempts

On his first attempt, Luis Alberto Ávila García took only a month to cross nine countries. Arriving in Turbo, it was easy to acquire a safe conduct pass, which allowed him to buy a ticket to Capurganá for only $23. Thus, it was easy for him to get to Panama City, and continue his journey without any major setbacks.

In December of 2016 he was about to fulfill his American dream, as he approached the U.S. border. But in Tapachula, Mexico he was arrested and, after two weeks in the holding cells of the 21st-century immigrant detention center, he was deported to Cuba.

On that attempt Luis almost lost his life. When crossing the Tuira River, in Panama, it swelled. He swam hard and managed to reach the shore, but the two Ecuadorians behind him were "swallowed by the river." He sometimes suffers flashbacks of the incident at night.

Obsessed with arriving in the United States, Luis left Cuba again on November 11, 2017. This time he had strategies to evade controls in Mexico, but upon arriving in Turbo he found that Migración Colombia was longer issuing safe conduct passes, and learned that in Panama the authorities had set up border checkpoints to catch Cubans.

For two days Luis wandered through the streets of Turbo trying to find a coyote(human smuggler). A young man on a motorcycle picked him up at the park next to the Waffe port. Without even saying hello, he asked him for $20, and told him to get on. The bike took several turns through muddy streets and stopped on a dark corner. From the darkness came another young man, no older than 20, who, in a raspy voice, said "follow me".

Luis was taken to a small room made of wood, with a tin roof and no windows, in which other emigrants were crammed. It cost him $250 to be part of that group, set to leave for Capurganá at any time.

One morning, at 4:00, they were taken to a Turbo beach. In total silence, the coyote put the 28 emigrants on a fragile wooden boat, and they launched. After 30 minutes they turned off the small ship's engine and dropped anchor on the high sea. Luis saw the sun rise, and set, as he bailed water.

When night fell they were transferred to another boat, with a 200-hp engine. On a rough sea, and under rain, they navigated the Gulf of Uraba for over four hours. When Luis thought that things could not get any worse, the captain shouted "we're out of fuel. I'll go to town and buy gas."

With his hand he gestured towards the beach and ordered them to swim, but not before promising them that they would be rescued in the morning.

When they all jumped into the sea, the engine roared again and Luis, bewildered, saw the boat disappear on the horizon. It took them 15 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, to reach the beach. When noon rolled around, and they were not rescued, the emigrants decided to head for the town of Capurganá.

According to data from the Harbor Master's Office in Turbo, thus far in 2018 the Colombian National Navy has rescued 433 migrants at sea or abandoned on beaches. It has also made 24 arrests and seized 12 vessels.

After the rescue, the migrants receive medical attention, water, food, and, in some cases, clothing. They are then handed over to Migración Colombia, which releases them after signing a "voluntary deportation" document obliging them to leave the country within 10 days.

DIARIO DE CUBA accompanied a marine interdiction unit of the Colombian Navy on an operation and spoke with rescued migrants. This allowed them to verify their proper treatment by the authorities, in accordance with the international treaties Colombia has signed.

As soon as he reached Capurganá, Luis contacted the "guide", as he calls the coyote, who took him to the border on his first attempt. In his view, he is a man of his word, does not cheat the immigrants, and has even helped some to cross without paying.

"Who told you to come to Panama? You Cuban shits"

It took them three days to reach the foot of the "Mountain of Death," always walking at night and in six-hour shifts, to evade the patrols. On the fifth day, when he arrived in Metetí, in Panama, his irrepressible desire to communicate with his family and tell him that he had made it across the Darién Gap gave him away. A farmer who had helped him to buy a phone card told Panamanian forces where they were.

Luis was taken to the SENAFRONT center in Metetí, where he received medical attention and food. That night, one by one, 12 emigrants were called to sign a document certifying their proper treatment by the Panamanian authorities. After everyone did so, they were ordered to follow a guard, "and that's when the hell started."

The group was locked in a two-by-two meter cell. Luis sat there for five days, without even being able to stretch his legs. "They only gave us water and, when we asked them for food, their answer was: 'Who told you to come to Panama? You Cuban shits. We don't want you here.’”

Luis says he remembers little of those five days. He mentions the heat, and chills from of a virus that infected several of the immigrants. Tired of the abuse, one night a protest broke out.

According to his account, in the morning they were all dragged out, violently, including a pregnant woman. "Why did the Panamanian authorities treat me so badly? I'm no bandit," said Luis, breaking into tears.

A seasoned migrant

It's Sunday morning and Luis walks down the narrow cobbled streets of Capurganá. In the distance he sees a familiar figure approaching, and thinks that his mind is playing a trick on him. But the cry "cousin!" clears his head. It was Damian, his cousin, who had just arrived.

On Monday Damián was going to try to get to Panama by water. He invited his cousin to go with him, but Luis did not accept. For him it was impossible to continue his journey without Yoilis, the companion with whom he had been through many hardships for five months.

They spent the day in a small hotel room, Luis giving Damian advice and helping him with his backpack. In a notebook, the "experienced" emigrant had drawn a map and, in the margin, written instructions: "right after you get down the mountain, you will find a large trunk, turn right; walk about 200 meters, and you will reach the road." Damian kept the paper in a small plastic wallet that hung around his neck.

With rough chop and under the cover of darkness, the small boat began its journey. For three hours the emigrants tried to evade the Panamanian and the Colombian authorities. A second before the boat was lost on the horizon, Luis shouted to Damien: "May your orishas protect you."

Luis now has been in Capurganá for a month. There, along with 10 other Cubans, he has found assistance from humble people. In exchange for help in daily tasks, the Cuban emigrants have not lacked for a plate of food and a roof to spend the night, shielded from the elements. But the plan is still to cross the border or "die trying", Luis says.

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