For some of the U.S.-bound Cuban migrants who are now at the Siglo XXI detention center in the far southwest Mexican city of Tapachula — and their relatives in the United States — a journey once filled with hope is now overflowing with anguish.
“For weeks, we have been getting calls from somebody demanding money if we want to see our family members again,” said the mother of one of the stranded Cubans. She asked not to be identified for fear of retribution against her son.
The woman, who lives in Miami, recounted how half an hour after receiving a call from her son from the detention center, the telephone rang again and again from different numbers in Mexico.
The voice on the other side of the phone identified himself only as a lawyer by the name of Padilla.
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“He tried to find out the names of our relatives and told us that he could help us get them out of there for a sum of money,” said the Miami mother.
Yuniel, a Cuban migrant also stranded in Tapachula near the border with Guatemala but not in detention, blamed the calls on agents who work for the National Institute of Migration (INM).
“We all know that migration officials have some way of getting the numbers called to the United States. Somehow, they find out the numbers and then take advantage to extort the family,” he alleged.
The telephones at the Siglo XXI used for international calls are public so it is unclear how numbers dialed can be extracted. But at least three relatives of different migrants interviewed said they had received similar calls in which alleged officials asked them for money in exchange for their relatives’ freedom. None of the three agreed to pay, and the calls did not go on long enough to discuss specific dollar figures.
“We are afraid of what could happen to them; they are in the hands of mobsters,” said the Miami mother. “Last week, three Cubans disappeared from the same detention center. Nobody knows what happened to them.”
An official of the INM confirmed to el Nuevo Herald on Monday that there are 90 Cubans detained at the Siglo XXI. Of these, 59 requested protection from deportation before a judge, and 23 sought refuge in Mexico. The remaining eight are awaiting a decision from the Cuban Embassy in that country because they have been out of the island for less than two years. Under Cuban law, those who are out of the country for more than two years automatically lose their residency. If Havana deems the eight Cubans still as legal residents, they must be deported according to the migratory agreements between both nations.
Asked about the alleged disappearance of three migrants from the detention center — identified as Armando Daniel Tejeda, Daniel Benet Báez and Yosvany Leyva Velázquez — the Mexican immigration official said the three escaped and therefore were not considered “missing.”
“Two of them had sought refuge, and one had a hearing scheduled before a judge,” said the INM spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of not being named as per Mexican protocol. “They all fled and the corresponding authorities were informed.”
Other migrants at Siglo XXI, who realized that the three were missing and got no answers on their whereabouts, launched a short-lived protest inside the facility that was violently silenced by authorities, migrants said.
The INM official said violence was not used against those in detention. “Those are lies,” the official said. “Immigration agents don’t have guns or clubs. We are not police officers.
“They [the Cubans] are very desperate,” she said. “We do not want to justify ourselves, but we believe that is the cause” for their accusations.
Countered the Miami mother: “They were beaten; their blankets and mattresses were taken away, forcing them to sleep in cement bunks. They are being closely watched and held as if they were criminals. My son could disappear, just as the others.”
A week ago, a group of 11 Cubans were reportedly kidnapped by a criminal gang and later released under unclear conditions in Reynosa in northern Mexico.
Hope among migrants that President Donald Trump will reinstate the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy or declare an amnesty for the stranded Cubans is dwindling, said Yuniel, despite the fact that the number of Cubans making the trek across Central America to reach the U.S.-Mexico border has drastically decreased.
“The only option I have left is to surrender to authorities when I reach the United States and ask for political asylum,” he said. “I have nothing to lose because I have already lost everything.”
The only option I have left is to surrender to authorities when I reach the United States and ask for political asylum.
Yuniel, Cuban migrant stranded in Tapachula, Mexico
Some relatives in the United States who have hired lawyers in Tapachula to avoid having their relatives returned to Cuba, complain of the slowness of the processes and of alleged scams.
Karla Ramírez, the girlfriend of one of those detained in Tapachula, said that the attorney she hired, José Roberto Escobar Ross, supposedly filed a petition last month so that her boyfriend would not be returned to Cuba.
“He demanded payment of $120,” Ramírez said. “He is still detained.”
In a telephone interview, Escobar said that he is handling a total of 59 cases and is doing his best to get the Cubans released. He added that the judge issued a limited time to resolve the matter.
“But we haven’t gotten a response, and they have not been set free,” Escobar said.
“It is not the INM’s fault that they are detained,” said the immigration official. “By law, these people cannot be released until a hearing is held. It’s expensive for Mexico to have these migrants here. They have to be fed, taken care of and so on.”
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba