The ashes from the recent Cuban migration crisis are still smoldering, and another mess is underway.
Less than a month after Costa Rica and Panama thought they had put an end to a crisis that exploded in 2015 and left more than 9,500 Cubans stranded in both countries until this March, the seeds of a new migration storm have sprouted and are prospering along the porous and fragile Costa Rica-Panama border.
Unlike the previous crunch, however, the migrants now are not only Cubans arriving from Ecuador via Colombia but also undocumented African and Asian migrants coming from Brazil and seeking to enter the United States. But Cubans make up the largest number of migrants in transit.
There are thousands of Cubans living in Ecuador who want to move on to the United States
Carmen Muñoz, Costa Rica’s deputy government minister
“There are thousands of Cubans living in Ecuador who want to move on to the United States,” Carmen Muñoz, Costa Rica’s deputy government minister, said in an interview with el Nuevo Herald. “We must not allow the Cubans to fall into the hands of smuggling gangs or networks,” she said.
Muñoz noted that human smugglers known as coyotes continue to take money from undocumented migrants to guide them past land and maritime borders from Ecuador to the Mexican border with the United States.
“The Cubans are still moving through the continent. All our countries have very porous borders that attract smugglers of souls and other illegal items. Of course, where any type of merchandise can slip through, people also can slip through,” Muñoz added.
According to a report by Panama’s Migration Service with updated data through April 6, at least 2,723 Cuban migrants have been detained in that country.
In Paso Canoas, the main border crossing with Costa Rica, at least 1,987 Cubans are stranded there, including: 53 girls, 48 boys, 714 women and 1,172 men. And in Puerto Obaldia, the point where Cuban migrants from the island arrive by sea from Colombia, there are 736, including: 30 boys, 27 girls, 419 men and 260 women.
The report said the number of migrants increased significantly over the past three years: from 1,154 in 2012 to 21,023 in 2015. The total from 2012 to March 2016 is 35,905.
The number of Cuban migrants crossing through Panama has increased from 1,154 in 2012 to 35,905 through March 2016
The government of Panama "is providing shelter and food for the islanders,” the report states, “the other needs they cover themselves with their own resources."
Facing a new rush of undocumented migrants from Cuba, Asia and Africa — with some of them already in Costa Rica or Panama — the Costa Rican government has called an urgent meeting Tuesday with officials from the United States, Central America, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia and Ecuador to search for a regional answer to a new chapter of the Cuban migrant crisis that erupted in November.
“We want to insist on our previous position: the Cuban migration in particular, and the migrations from outside the continent in general, must be urgently addressed along the entire region and not just specific points like Brazil and Venezuela, but also transit points like Central America and Mexico that are used by the migrants on their way to their final destination in the United States,” said Muñoz.
Costa Rican authorities broke up the local branch of a network that smuggled Cubans through Ecuador, Colombia and Central America, earning huge quantities of money, on Nov. 10, 2015, revealing a vast transnational organization of people smugglers.
That crackdown sparked the Cuban migrant crisis. Without their smuggling contacts, the Cubans continued arriving by land from Ecuador in November and December of 2015 and wound up stranded in Panama and Costa Rica. The problem worsened Nov. 13, when Nicaragua closed its border with Costa Rica to Cubans.
The Cuban migration issue dates back to 2008, when Ecuador lifted its requirement that Cubans obtain a visa before traveling there. Several Cubans were detected making the overland trip from neighboring Colombia to Mexico, but the flow increased significantly starting in 2012.
Costa Rica detected only about 50 Cubans entering its southern border with Panama in 2011, but the number rose to 1,600 in 2012, nearly 2,300 in 2013, nearly 5,400 in 2014 and 12,166 in just the first nine months of 2015, according to official figures.
About 50 Cubans entered Costa Rica through Panama in 2011, but the number has multiplied every year with 12,166 entering in just the first nine months of 2015
The accumulation of Cubans stranded when Costa Rica cracked down on the smugglers in November led to the establishment of an airlift to take them to El Salvador and Mexico between January and March of 2016, allowing them to resume their journey to United States. Once they reach U.S. soil, most are allowed to stay under the U.S. government's “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy.
Muñoz noted that even though Ecuador reestablished its visa requirement for Cubans on Dec. 1 and put on additional requirements, the problems never ended.
“Ecuador's measures slowed the flow somewhat, but did not stop it. They slow it because there are more controls, but Cubans are still traveling to Ecuador in order to start their trip to the United States,” she added.
The work of coyotes
Human smugglers have charged Cubans up to $15,000 to slip them from Ecuador to the United States, according to investigators from Costa Rica.
The networks also have been smuggling undocumented migrants from Syria, Nepal, Ghana, Somalia, Pakistan and a long list of other African and Asian countries, who fly to Brazil and move on to Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador or other countries from where they can start their trip north through Central America and Mexico to reach the United States.
One report by Colombian migration authorities in April 2015 noted that Asians pay from $25,000 to up to $60,000 to be smuggled from their home countries to South America and then the United States.
Red Dragon, a feared transnational organized crime network with close links in Central America, charges up to $60,000 per person for Chinese migrants who fly from Hong Kong to France and Colombia, and then travel by land to Central America and Mexico.
An alert last year by the Central American Commission on Migration, made up of the governments of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama, noted that the region is a “transit corridor” for Cubans, Africans and Asians and creates problems for “confronting irregular migration.”