Panama prepares to transfer some 3,000 U.S.-bound Cuban migrants to Mexico

A group of Cuban migrants trek through Costa Rica en route to the U.S.-Mexico border.
A group of Cuban migrants trek through Costa Rica en route to the U.S.-Mexico border. Courtesy

Panama's Foreign Ministry has started a census count of the more than 670 Cuban migrants currently housed in the Los Planes shelter in northern Chiriquí province, in anticipation for their expected transfer to Mexico in coming days.

Another 3,000 Cubans, most of whom are stranded on the border with Costa Rica, also will be allowed into the Los Planes shelter, counted and then transferred to Mexico — the final such airlift for Cuban migrants on trek to the United States, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said last week.

“Once the transfer of those Cubans included in the census is completed, those who arrive later will have to decide which country they want to return to,” Varela told local media as the country’s borders shut down to migrants in transit to the U.S. “We cannot become the logistical support for an irregular migration route.

At least 100 Cubans making the trek are now in detention in Puerto Obaldía, on the border with Colombia, awaiting for immigration authorities to determine their fate. Many more Cuban migrants are likely to face detention as they continue to travel from third countries through Central America as part of their route to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

The census and relocation of migrants from hotels to the Los Planes shelter began last week.

“This is mostly pregnant women and families with children, who should be taken to a place that has the services they deserve,” Regional Migration Director Alfredo Cordoba said in a telephone interview, adding that the goal is “to concentrate all the migrants in an area where their basic necessities can be met.”

Cordoba added that the more than 3,000 Cuban migrants currently in Panama will be transferred by groups to Los Planes, where the government has mobilized a joint task force to handle the humanitarian crisis. The task force is made up of officials from the agencies in charge of civil emergencies, migration, border controls and the national police.

Angel Chale, one of the stranded Cubans, said he was hopeful he would soon resume his journey to the United States.

“I think we're at the end of the process. At least they're not still making photocopies of our passports. That's something,” said Chale, who moved to Los Planes from an old warehouse about one mile from the border with Costa Rica, where he slept on the floor with another 400 Cubans.

“This new place is kind of fun. We usually play baseball or dominoes or we dance,” said Leslie Jesús Barrera, who arrived with Chale to Los Planes and said he was grateful for the treatment provided by Panama, including medical care. “We help out when we're asked to help with some task, but otherwise it's like camping.”


Ángela Buendía is the director of the National Civil Defense System (Sinaproc), but the migrants at Los Planes have nicknamed her “the godmother.”

“They call me that because I identify with their needs and all of the pain they suffered,” she said.

Buendia said she learned to deal with the Cuban migrants during the crisis that erupted in November, and since then she has sympathized with the drama lived “by these thousands of people who have to leave their country and often suffer intense traumas.”

Although official statistics indicate that the numbers of migrants traveling through have dropped, Buendia said the flow continues: “Each day we receive 20 to 60 Cuban migrants in Chiriquí. That's why we decided to prepare this shelter,” she said.

Los Planes was originally built to house Swiss workers who worked on a nearby dam.

“It's about 10 acres, with nice landscaping and all kinds of amenities,” Buendia said. “The only prohibition is that they cannot go out at night, for their own security.”

The complex will soon offer free Wifi, but for now the migrants must connect on a local data network.

“The biggest problem I've had with the Cubans is that when they get here, because they come from a place without freedom, they feel completely free. And of course they sometimes confuse freedom with debauchery,” she added.

But not all the undocumented Cuban migrants want to move to Los Planes.

“The problem I see with that place is that it's too remote. From the Milenium Hotel, you can at least work under the table and earn a few pesos,” said Dariel, who declined to give his full name for fear of losing his job. His work as a carpenter, a skill he learned in Cuba, allows him to survive and, he confessed, to “save something, in case I can continue the trip north.”

“We even had Cuban prostitutes here, and they’re services were cheaper than the Panamanians’. They were smart, because in the end, they managed to save some money and today they are in the Yuma,” he said, using Cuban slang for the United States.

Even though they sleep jammed in hallways, or in tents put up in private homes as night falls, hundreds of Cubans have preferred to remain close to the border with Costa Rica.

“It is a problem that affects communities that many times are overcome by the numbers of migrants who arrive,” said Cordoba.

Many of the local residents have seen an opportunity for profit with the Cubans. Along with the increase in the flow of migrants, there's been increases in the number of hostels and restaurants, usually at prices double what Panamanians would pay.

“I don't want to go to the (Los Planes) shelter … because that's too far. I prefer to stay here because I am in a town and at least I can take care of myself,” said Yanieris, a 35-year-old Cuban woman who arrived from Guyana. “That's difficult, of course. But if tomorrow I want to go off with a

coyote (people smuggler), there will be no one to keep me from doing it.”


Juan Ramón is one of the Cubans in Panama who decided he did not want to wait. He gathered $1,400 from friends and relatives in Miami and crossed the border with Costa Rica one night, with six other Cubans and a

coyote as guide.

“In each country one coyote handed us over to another. We went through all kinds of things on the road — jungles, rivers, lakes … It's very hard,” Juan Ramón said.

The worst part of the trip, he said, came as they tried to walk around a military outpost in Nicaragua. “A thug sent by the smuggler himself robbed us, took everything we had. He took even the cellular phone. It was a terrible experience, because we could have lost our lives and no one would have known,” he recalled.

After more than 12 days on the road, Juan Ramón reached a U.S. immigration station in El Paso, Texas, where he waited for documents allowing him to remain in the United States under parole.

Trying to evade the controls on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the Cuban migrants have used unique methods such as hiding in water trucks or in boats for short hops on the Pacific ocean.

After Costa Rican authorities cracked down in November on a crime ring that was smuggling undocumented Cuban migrants on their way to the United States, the Sandinista government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega closed its borders to the Cubans.

The two measures cut the flow of migrants and left at least 8,000 Cubans stranded in Costa Rica, which in turn closed its border with Panama and left thousands of other Cubans stranded in Panama. Mexico eventually agreed to a humanitarian airlift and allowed most of the migrants to fly to Mexico and move by land to the United States.

People smugglers have turned the northward flow of migrants into a business that generates millions of dollars in profits. Since October of 2014, nearly 132,000 Central Americans and about 75,000 Cubans have crossed the U.S. border, according to immigration data.