The Costa Rican branch of a Cuban-smuggling ring that handled large quantities of money was broken up Tuesday with the arrest of 12 people, the detention of 14 Cubans and the discovery of a vast international criminal organization.
The 14 Cubans, found along with 12 undocumented Nicaraguans, will be deported to Nicaragua in the next week and will then be able to continue their trip through Central America to the Mexican border with the United States.
The Costa Ricans involved in the people-smuggling ring, which has contacts in Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and the United States, were arrested on suspicion of transporting and housing the undocumented migrants.
“We have dealt an important blow to … one of the more infamous aspects of organized crime, people-smuggling,” said Kattia Rodriguez, general director of Costa Rica's migration agency. She lamented that so many Cubans are using “this irregular migration mechanism, because they are basically nourishing these types of … criminal networks.”
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“This is a migration phenomenon made worse today by the changes and the … possible changes in U.S. migration policies on Cubans, and that's a fact,” she told El Nuevo Herald. Rodriguez said she was referring to the Cuban Adjustment Act, a 1966 U.S. law that allows Cubans to obtain U.S. residency just 366 days after their arrival.
The official noted that during the investigation of the ring, which began in January with help from prosecutors in Colombia, authorities detected constant telephone calls between that country, Guatemala, Miami, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
“It's a pretty strong blow to this ring because we hit not only the leaders but also the entire support network, for transporting and housing” the migrants, Rodriguez said.
She added that the ring charged $400 to smuggle each Cuban through Costa Rica. The money was transferred using remittance agencies, usually in small amounts.
In a joint operation Tuesday, 90 officers from the Migration Police, backed by air assets and elite units of the national police and the prosecution office that handles people-smuggling cases, raided four homes and two hotels in San Jose where the Cubans were hiding while waiting for transportation to Peñas Blancas, on the northern border with Nicaragua. One house in Cartago province, east of the capital, was also raided.
The main raid took place in five houses in one lot in Peñas Blancas, authorities said. In a document provided to El Nuevo Herald, Costa Rican migration officials said the property was owned by the leader of the smuggling ring, a Costa Rican woman identified only with the surnames Rodríguez Torres.
“The property is on the Interamerican North (highway) near the Peñas Blancas border crossing, (and) has five houses were the people smuggled were hidden and later were taken illegally through the mountains to Nicaragua,” the document said.
In a statement sent to el Nuevo Herald, prosecutors said that the criminal organization “had the capacity to move up to 17 illegal migrants per trip … and up to 40 per day.” The cost of the trip from Ecuador to the United States ranged from $7,500 to $15,000, the statement added.
Rodríguez described the Cubans as economic migrants and said they fly to Ecuador, which has not required visas since 2008. From there they travel by land to Colombia and then through Central America in hopes of reaching the Mexican border with the United States.
“To migrate is not a crime. What is a crime is to take advantage of a human need, to accept payment in order to get around migration controls. Costa Rica moved against this gang that was transporting these people illegally,” she added. “We will be very tough with people who are profiting, using this human need to earn easy money.”
Despite the recent warming in U.S.-Cuba relations, 2015 has seen a sharp increase in the number of undocumented Cuban migrants moving north through Central America. The Cubans can declare in each country that they plan to seek asylum there, but authorities know they are heading to the United States and do not plan to stay in the region.
Rodríguez told el Nuevo Herald that about 50 undocumented Cuban migrants entered southern Costa Rica in 2011, compared to 1,600 in 2012, about 2,300 in 2013, nearly 5,400 in 2014 and 12,166 in the first nine months of this year alone.