Cuban Migration Part 10 – A Few Days in a Texas Jail and the Unknown Taste of Freedom

The author of this series of articles, with young Nicaraguans and Hondurans, minutes after crossing the Rio Grande to enter the US near McAllen, Texas. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 2 May 2022 — The conditions of the prison were not bad, as I was saying, and in addition you could also play Parcheesi, dominoes, chess, soccer or basketball. We turned into a huge, multinational family.

One of the Cubans who impressed me the most was a guy from Villa Clara who sold everything to be able to leave. He worked with the province’s Fund for Cultural Assets, but he was self-employed. He did restoration works in theaters, in houses of culture, and they paid him lots of dollars. He told me that the level of corruption in the Cultural Center, at least in the municipality of Santa Clara, is incalculable. But then things got bad and Covid was the last straw.

This man was never interested in politics or the situation in the country, because he says that there were months in which he earned thousands of dollars. He built a mansion for himself, houses for the whole family, established pig farms… He had a lot of money and sold it all, although he didn’t tell me a figure.

I also talked to a guy, Richard, who was a cook in Havana. He was interested in pastry and shops and bakeries, and he always wanted to set up his own business, despite being quite young, 25 years old. An aunt of his who lives in Houston told him: “Mi’jito, (Sonny) you’re never going to become anyone there. Come, I’m going to pay for everything so you can set up your own sweets and bread business.” He left a lot of family in Cuba and that hurt him. He had been in prison for 17 days (he was released from prison on March 14th). I only spent 3 days.

There was a Venezuelan who told me: “Maduro is a son of a bitch just like Fidel Castro and his entire generation.” This was one of those who went out to protest in Venezuela in 2017 against the regime there, but they harassed him so much that he ended up leaving and going to Peru. He spent four years there, and it did not go badly, but with the pandemic he lost his job and came to the United States, jumping borders from Peru.

This young man told me that the hardest part of the trip was the Darién jungle, very dangerous. In all the groups that go into the jungle, there is always a person who dies, he says, and in his group, it was a 14-year-old boy. The boy, who could have been from from India, according to what he told me, slipped down a rock, hit his head and was left there. The parents paid some natives 5,000 dollars to carry him to Panama, because the coyote didn’t care. They left them in Panama, the little dead boy and his parents. After that, he didn’t hear from them anymore. He says that if you look to the sides of the Darién trails, you’ll see decomposing bodies, because they cannot be carried. continue reading

You have to carry chlorine tablets to drink the river water, but he didn’t have any tablets and he drank it like that, untreated. Of course, then he had diarrhea and fatigue

Another thing he told me is that the water doesn’t even last a day. You have to carry chlorine tablets to drink the river water, but he didn’t have the tablets and he drank it like that, untreated. Of course, then he had diarrhea and fatigue. The coyote tried to rush them and threatened to leave them behind. In another instance, they made progress, paying about 275 dollars each to cross a river.  Paying was better, he said, because the danger of dying is much greater.

After all that, he went through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua… and when he got to Mexico, he said that he crossed it in three days. I told him that he had been extremely lucky, but he disagreed. They had put him in a truck with a false bottom –they had a wooden floor on top, where they placed crates with tomatoes, vegetables, and things like that – and they laid below the false floor, unable to move. Sometimes they stayed like that for 21 hours while they traveled, with stops of up to five hours at the edge of the road, waiting for a checkpoint to leave. They urinated in a bottle that they threw out as best they could, but sometimes it spilled on them.

To make things worse, it either was so hot that they suffocated or so cold that they froze. On one occasion, he says that he thought he was about to die because he was very sleepy and felt nothing.

There were also three Guatemalans there, a strange thing, because they are deported quickly, but they had arrived in December. Their group was caught and they were pointed out as witnesses against the coyote. After 90 days in a prison, they were transferred there, and two had an open expulsion order and the other was given the classification of parole, because it seems that he was the only one who spoke out.

One night, they came to do a PCR test on me and six others, and they told us to be on the lookout, in case they came looking for us. And so it happened: at 4:00 in the morning, they woke us up, they gave us breakfast in a cell and they returned the money we had when we arrived, in my case, 120 dollars. They also took away our prison uniforms and we put on the clothes we arrived in. You could imagine the stink of those clothes.

They took us by bus to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and once there, an officer had me sign the papers and told me to stay out of trouble. After that, another bus, and then they took us to a church that welcomed us in a courtyard, sitting on chairs, where they called us one by one.

On that portion of the trip, I met one Venezuelan and two Cuban women. The Venezuelan one left in December and was arrested in Guatemala. The coyotes paid to release her and she was arrested again in Mexico: 30 days in a Tapachula prison. When she was let out, she again looked for someone to help her get across. In total, her family spent thousands and thousands of dollars for her to reach the US. She told me that she was very depressed, that if she had known how things were, she would not have done this. She also told me that she would like to return to her country, but that as long as Maduro was still there, she would not return.

The man asked me what was happening in Cuba, he mentioned Fidel Castro, and I told him that it was his fault that we were not free

On our arrival at the church, where they gave us food and clothes, you can’t leave if you don’t have a plane ticket, so my family tried to buy me one from Laredo to Miami, but they were over $800. In normal times, I was told, that flight is about a hundred something dollars, so we found a solution through Houston. They took me to a bus station, where I bought a ticket to San Antonio for 59 dollars. Two older men who help immigrants were waiting for me there.

I was very moved by this, because they gave me food, toiletries, a mask, and even a small blanket to cover myself. I even told them to save it for someone who was more in need than I was, but in the end, I took it, because the trip was long and my flight didn’t leave until 7:30 in the morning.

The man asked me what was happening in Cuba, he mentioned Fidel Castro, and I told him that it was his fault that we were not free. He was very sympathetic. Also, I really liked San Antonio, with its huge buildings. It seemed incredible to me, to be seeing so much beauty before my eyes.

Arriving in Houston, a cousin of mine who lives there found out and said she wanted to come pick me up. She took me to her house, where I ate, showered, and they washed the clothes I had been wearing, and at 5 in the morning they took me to the airport.

I was a little embarrassed, because the treatment was not the same as for the rest of the passengers: they separated me from the line, they searched me more vehemently, they took photos of me… But I was also amazed at the sheer size of that place: a kilometer to my boarding gate, full of shops, people, life.

I entered the Miami airport through gate 21, and my cousin was waiting for me. I grew up with him but life separated us when he left Cuba and went to Spain, when we were 17 years old; then he ended up in the US. Well, here we are, together again.

At the moment of the embrace, of the uncontrollable tears, I began to remember how long I had spent to get to this country and I couldn’t believe that I had arrived safely, that I had arrived alive. After so much waiting I was with my buddy in this land of freedom.

Alejandro Mena Ortiz in the United States. (14ymedio)

I turned 34 years old on my last birthday, as you already know, in the dungeons of an ice-cooler while I was detained. My closest family – my children, my wife, my parents, my grandmother – are in Cuba.

I was a cook for many years in a private restaurant in Havana, but for a long time I have been working as a reporter for 14ymedio. I am so proud of this that I would need a whole chapter to talk about it.

My trip lasted 26 days from the time I left Havana until I arrived on US soil. It cost a total of 10,075 dollars, including plane tickets, payment to coyotes, cash to eat, etc. This money was put up by a relative, to whom in due course, and when I have it, I will begin to return everything “invested” in my trip.

My cousin is a truck driver here in the US, so in a few weeks by his side I have already crossed 20 states. I have seen many beautiful things. Also, other very ugly ones that I didn’t like, I suppose that happens in all countries.

Now I am discovering what it is like, seeing the lies that the official media in Cuba told us. This is a country with many objectionable things, yes, yes, yes, but it is a country where one can have freedom. I still haven’t adjusted to that. I still have the ghost of fear, of anxiety, when I see, for example, a police patrol or a police officer approaching, because it reminds me of the oppressors who do not allow us to live our lives.

Up to this point this is my story, and so, just: patria y vida. Patria y Vida [Homeland and Life].

Translated by Norma Whiting

With this chapter ends the series on ‘Cuba, the Island in March.’ A pdf version has been published in the original Spanish and an English pdf will also be prepared and linked to here, along with links to the other articles on this site.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Migration Part 9 — They Put 15 of Us on our Knees in a Raft to Cross the Rio Grande

Already very close to the river, three or four people arrived, one of them with a raft with capacity for six people. They told 15 of us to get in. (CBP/File)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 1 May 2022 — We were very afraid in that thicket. We didn’t know what was going to happen, we didn’t have phones, helicopters were flying overhead. If they saw us, we had to run, but… there was nowhere to run. We were there for three or four hours. I wrote with a toothpick on a nopal cactus plant patria y vida” [homeland and life] and drew a little Cuban flag. If a Cuban comes here tomorrow and sees this plant, he will know that another one of his compatriots was here.

After three or four hours, the truck came again and someone shouted the password to the code they had assigned to us and we had to come out running. At that time, we turned into a group of 40, at least, because they had brought others who had the same instructions, and that’s when the chaos started.

Everyone started running through the thorns to try to get a seat in the truck. Fortunately, my Nicaraguan friend was grasping me, because all the while it felt as if I was about to fall down, especially when the driver accelerated.

When we were very close to the river, three or four people arrived, one of them with a six-person capacity raft. They told fifteen of us to get in. I placed myself in the group with the first ones, because I thought that my female Honduran friend was part of that group. However, it didn’t turn out that way. When I looked back, my friend had already remained behind and I would never know what happened to her.

They explained to us what the crossing entailed: they were going to throw the raft into the river, we were going to have to get in and kneel down, so that the 15 of us and the man who was rowing could fit. And that’s what we did. We had to get wet, up to our ankles more or less, and the water was very, very cold. We got in, the man got in, the guide too, in the front, and all of us started to row with our hands so it would take less time. We rowed and rowed… until we reached the other shore.

We quickly walked a few meters. I threw myself to the ground, sank to my knees, pressed my forehead to the ground and was grateful for having arrived alive, not having been scammed, not having been kidnapped and many other things that many migrants unfortunately experience throughout their journey to the United States.

Tears came to my eyes and I called my cousin to tell him that I had already arrived, but I couldn’t even speak, because I had a lump in my throat. continue reading

If a Cuban comes here tomorrow and sees this plant, he will know that another compatriot was here. (14ymedio)

There were many emotions at that moment, but, returning to reality, the men who were helping us cross from the other side of the river yelled at us: “Run, run!” We thought that the immigration officers were coming and we started to run. We went up some hills, down some hills, until we reached a place and said: “Let’s stay here and see if the others come.” But they never did.

When immigration agents arrived, they stopped about 50 meters from us. One, who sounded Mexican, says: “Come, come, come closer, don’t be afraid.” We started running again, because we thought it had to be the Mexicans, but in the end, we heard them speaking to the officers in English and we finally surrendered.

That was very emotional. There were soldiers with AR15 machine guns, but they made nice gestures, like welcoming us, just like the Border Patrol, who were very kind.

They took us to a baseball stadium, where they took our information. One of them, Officer Alvarado, distributed us in vans and, along the way, asked us about our situation, our countries, and we told him. He was very sympathetic.

At the stadium, they removed our belts and shoelaces and took us to a location in McAllen, Texas, where we were sorted, fingerprinted and photographed. They searched us and threw almost everything in the trash, except for the essentials. Then they placed more than 66 people in some cells they call ice coolers for about 24 hours. Horrible, very cramped.

Some Cubans tried to ask me to come closer, but we couldn’t, we didn’t fit. In the end, thanks to them, I was able to sit on a small bench and make room for my Nicaraguan friends. One of the Cubans was from Holguín and the other from Cienfuegos. They told me that one normally stays there for about three days and then goes out with a phone so you can be in contact every week with an immigration officer, to whom you have to send a current photo and the location of the device. In other words, as if you had an electronic ankle bracelet, because you cannot move away from the delimited area.

The food was pretty good, so I thought we could hold our own, but happiness in a poor man’s house is short-lived. They didn’t let us out with a phone, period.  They put us on a bus, almost 60 of us, back to another ice-cooler. And the Border Patrol officer intimidated us. In his rather broken Spanish, he said, “Who are the Cubans here?” Almost 20 of us raised our hands. Then he added: “Ok, just so you know, I don’t like Cubans and I’m the boss here. Cubans think that this is Disneyworld, so whoever cracks a joke with me, I’m going to put his face against the floor.”

There are cold or indifferent guards, but not one like this one, none. He had to check on me and even kicked me in the ankle so that I would separate my feet even more. I decided to shut up and suck it up, because, if I had protested, it would have been worse. But he had no right; he did ugly things to us and we felt afraid. He slammed a Nicaraguan into the ground and locked him up because he tried to ask him something. To an older man, who was not feeling well and asked to go to the infirmary, he said: “Drop dead.”

The day they took me out of that “ice-cooler” was my birthday. I felt very bad because they handcuffed us, and I had never been put in handcuffs, not even in Cuba

In this prison, in this cooler, we spent five days that traumatized me. The diet was meager: a burrito in the morning, juice and some cookies at noon, another juice and other cookies at six in the afternoon, another burrito at ten at night and that was it. I lost 17 pounds, but another guy, who stayed for nine days, lost 20. We know this because they weighed us at the next place when we arrived. The change was incredible.

In this other place there were quite a few Cubans, and one day, I heard one debating with a Venezuelan, to whom he said: “You can criticize anything in my country, but not its education, because it is the best in the world.” I slowly turned to where that young man was and faced him. I told him that that was a lie, that how could he say that after having fled from a dictatorship, he was so indoctrinated.

Many there supported me and, well, we had a discussion, just a debate, nothing violent.

The day they took me out of that cooler was my birthday. I felt very bad because they handcuffed us, and I had never been handcuffed, not even in Cuba. They put handcuffs on my hands, feet and waist: they chained us up and made us go out towards a bus where they took us to a closed prison. I did not understand that, I did not expect it. It seems they were doing this because there was such a large volume of migrants.

There, we feel imprisoned, but with better conditions. Much better. We had a dormitory with 80 bunk beds. Hot showers too, and 55-inch televisions in the bedroom. In addition, the guards treated us very well. Many hardly spoke Spanish, but I acted as an intermediary.

In that place, I was able to call my cousin and tell him: “Buddy, I’m in prison, buddy, I’m in prison,” and I couldn’t speak anymore, because I burst into tears.

Tomorrow:

Final chapter: A few days in jail in Texas and the unknown taste of freedom

Translated by Norma Whiting

Cuban Migration Part 8 – In Monterrey, Each Cartel Assigns a Code to its Migrants

They dropped us off at a gas station in mid-trip, and again they put us back in a minibus. (EFE/Juan Manuel Blanco)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 30 April 2022 — Three hours into the trip, on the way to Monterrey, I had cramps on my buttocks. Imagine eleven more hours. Luckily, I took a paracetamol which relieved the pain, but after a few hours the pain was back again. I asked them to please let me stretch out my foot but I couldn’t: there was no room.

There, I heard a very interesting story. There was a Nicaraguan who worked in a Managua restaurant, where President Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo love to eat. Although he did not like what the leaders were doing to the country, he was very happy when they came to the restaurant for dinner, because they left each one of the servers a 100-dollar tip, and according to what he told me, there were sometimes as many as 14 to 16 servers. The Ortegas went to eat at the restaurant as often as once a week, the Nicaraguan declared, and he told me that when Díaz-Canel was in Nicaragua for the inauguration, they asked them to close the place, because he was going to go with Ortega, although at the end, they changed plans and went somewhere else.

The individual I was talking to was also one of those who were not running away from the political situation. Only one of the ones I met was leaving for that reason. The rest were leaving to make some money and then return.

They dropped us off at a gas station in mid-trip, and again they put us back in a minibus. We spent an hour waiting for some guards to leave the area we had to cross, and from there, we went to a small desert town, with a sun so strong that it burned you, although it was not as hot as in Cuba.

They put us in a warehouse at that location, with a swimming pool; they call those rural houses in Mexico una quinta (a country house). They had divided us into two groups: we were going to Monterrey, and the rest, to another place. Then a woman told us: “Look, please, those who have swimming suits may change and go swimming; the rest, stay around here. Let’s put on a little music. In case inspectors come, you guys rented this property and are celebrating a birthday.

Those who went swimming had a nice day, but in the end, everything was so-so, because they told us that we could not drink the tap water, so we were not able to drink anything until around three in the afternoon, when they showed up with two 5-liter water bottles of water, but there were more than 60 of us! Then they brought two tacos per person and some weird beans, with a little bit of meat, but it was terrible. I looked at it and thought: “Well, I’ll have to eat it, who knows how long we will be here and if they will bring us food again.” Good thing, because we were there all day, all night, and until late the next dawn.

The vans that were to pick us up at 10 o’clock had to go to the other place, because half of the people in the other group had been put in a container and they didn’t want to go because they were suffocating. They started banging and banging, and, luckily, the driver stopped and about 20 or 25 got out: they complained that they had paid thousands of dollars and they didn’t want to continue in the container where they were suffocating. continue reading

“The others, stay around here. Let’s put on some music. In case inspectors come, you guys rented this and are celebrating a birthday

The vans finally appeared at our location at 5:00 in the morning. Only women and children slept in the house, the men had to mostly sleep outside. In the desert it is terribly sunny during the day, but at night it’s three times worse, because it turns very cold.

The vans, thank God, did have heating, and we were able to take off our coats for a little while. The trip turned out to be much longer than anticipated, because we had to avoid several control points, and the trip, supposed to be completed in five hours, took us about eight.

Upon arrival in Monterrey, we waited at a place in the city for some taxis, in which they divided us up to finally board a closed truck, which had openings on the roof, at another location. There were 42 people there, and we stayed together until the end. I was the only Cuban, the rest were Honduran, Nicaraguans and Guatemalan.  There was a warehouse where we stayed locked-up for a day and a half, and it was also very cold and the conditions were bad.  There weren’t enough sleeping matts for all of us, and we squeezed in as best we could.

At least they did bring us good food, and the things they sold us were cheaper than in Mexico City. However, I had another anxiety crisis, because everything was closed, and when I called my family, I exploded: “This can’t be real. I don’t understand what’s happening, they didn’t tell me it would be like this.” They always paint everything in rosy colors, that’s the hook, and, despite everything, I can’t complain, because there are people who have a worse time of it.

From there they took us to a small field where there were three or four trucks, in which we already knew there were some people, although not how many. We got the biggest truck, one like the ones used in Cuba to transport sugar cane, with high railings in the back. When we got on, there were already almost 200 people there. We were all pressed as tight as possible, without the possibility of holding on. It was a short but hard trip. There were several people who injured their ankles, including me, although nothing that prevented me from continuing.

At midnight we arrived at a point near Reynosa where we stopped, because there was a checkpoint with seven patrols. Apparently, a truck like ours, trafficking undocumented immigrants, had overturned. They allowed us to get out of the truck, the temperature was zero degrees, but we were able to smoke and eat some cookies, until we were able to continue at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.

Then we got to another place where we were divided into two groups. Each of us had a code that they gave us in Monterrey, which the cartels assign to you, and it is the one that you have to give the cartel, so that you are allowed to continue or to take you to the border. There were many, many of us, in several trucks. There had to be more than 400 people, because I was number 367. We looked like merchandise.

Forty-two of us were picked up at that warehouse, in two vans. That was the last warehouse before crossing, the one in Reynosa. In it, I met a Honduran who had been waiting three months for a supposedly special trip, because he was physically disabled, but his son, who was in the US and was paying for everything, was taken and sent back to Honduras. The guy had been there for three months, waiting for his son to have enough money again, because he couldn’t go around like the others to avoid controls.

It was extremely cold in that place too, although the coyote treated me very well. They were not used to Cubans and they asked me about many things, and they treated me differently because I was from Cuba. We stayed there for three or four days. The conditions were not the best, the food was not the best, but at least we were relaxed after so much travel.

When they came for us, they separated us into lists: Cubans, Nicaraguans, and women and children, one from El Salvador and the other women from Honduras. They are handed over because they are not rejected: if they are accompanied by small children, they are allowed entry. The Hondurans and Guatemalans had to stay and wait for another list to make their escape. They cross and begin to circle to avoid the migration guards; quite the opposite of what we do, those of us who are delivered. We cross and we have to look for the guards to turn ourselves in, so they can take us prisoner.

When they came for us, they separated us into lists: Cubans, Nicaraguans, and women and children, one from El Salvador and the other women from Honduras.

On the fourth day it was my group’s turn. They came for us in a van, we were nine adults and two children, and they took us to a place very close to the Rio Grande. They screened us through a person who gave us some numbered blue bracelets with the word “delivery” on them. For each migrant who crosses, the coyote has to pay the cartel, and that is carefully controlled, because sometimes they try to pay less, which has resulted in many deaths. That’s why now they do it like this, all square: person for money.

I was lucky, because a few days ago I was able to talk to the guy who used to be my barber in Havana, who now lives in the US, and I noticed he acted very strange. This is not the David I know, I thought. The point is that he crossed through Piedras Negras, Coahuila, with about 120 others, at 3:00 in the morning. He says that they threw a small raft for the children and a rope from one side to the other. That’s where adults had to go. The deepest part of the river covered his nose, and he is about five-and-a-half feet tall. He was helping a girl who, at one point, became very nervous, but she was holding on well to the bottom and they managed to cross about 70 meters of river. Ahead of them was a Nicaraguan woman who started to say: “I’m drowning, I’m drowning”… And before they could see her, she was gone. She vanished.

He was traumatized, and, at that moment, his legs did not respond, he could not cross, he lost consciousness. Luckily, the immigration officers caught him and wrapped him in blankets, but he told me that he thought he was going to die. His journey was shorter than mine, but it was less safe: they took him prisoner in Honduras, they had a bus accident, then this last thing on the river… Everything was quite ugly.

Then they made us hide in a bush and wait for them to come and give us the signal. 

Tomorrow

They put 15 of us on our knees on a raft to cross the Rio Grande

Translated by Norma Whiting

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Migration Part 7 – To Mexico City, a 17-hour Trip, Standing on a Bus

We had to make the trip to Mexico City like animals. Among us there were two pregnant women. (El Sol de Cuernavaca)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 29 April 2022 — On the third day in Villahermosa, in the state of Tabasco, they prepared a bag for us with a snack and explained that the bus trip to Mexico City was going to be a bit long. We would have between 15 and 24 hours ahead of us, depending on how many checkpoints we had to clear. We carried sandwiches in bags, plus fruit, an energy drink and water, in addition to what we bought ourselves: cookies, Doritos, energy bars, chocolates, things like that, to stave off hunger.

At around 7, they had us say goodbye to the family, turn off our cell phones and hand them over. They took us out of the house in several vehicles, because there were about 50 of us, and transported us to a place on the outskirts of Villahermosa, in the middle of a grass field, where they put us against a concrete wall in an abandoned building. There were three buses: the first two were full of people who came from other warehouses, and we would occupy the last bus.

Added to the uncertainty of being incommunicado was the Mexicans’ lack of friendliness. “Get down, get down! Get close to the wall, closer!” they shouted. This was because if a drone flew by, we could be seen. According to what they told us, the authorities manage to know how many people are in a vehicle by the number of turned-on cell phones they detect, and that is why they took them away from us.

We were there for about 15 or 20 minutes in total darkness, until they put the women and children on the bus. While we men waited on the ground, other vehicles kept arriving with more people, up to two or three cars, with 18 or 20 people. In the end, there were a lot of people on that bus. Three women sat in seats for two (because they had to be seated) and the men sat on the floor, some wedged into each other’s legs. After 20 minutes, my butt was already hurting and I thought: how am I going to last 20 or 30 hours like this!

Suddenly, the alarm went off because the air conditioning was broken. Although they tried to fix it, they couldn’t, so after being idle and ready to get started, it couldn’t be done. The cars that had dropped us off came back and picked us up, and the next day the story repeated itself.

When I got off, I felt as if my legs, my spine and my neck had been hit with a bat, and my eyes were swollen

Except that we were the last ones that time, and, when we were going to get on the bus we didn’t fit. Half of us were put in the suitcase compartment with others who were already there, about 15 people packed down there, and they put me on the bus with another four guys. They managed to get us in and close the door while pushing, shoving and screaming.

That’s how we had to make the 17-hour trip to Mexico City, like animals. Among us, there were two pregnant women. continue reading

We had no phones; we didn’t know what time it was and we couldn’t open the curtains. I was trying to joke and some people laughed, but we had 17 hours standing ahead of us, tightly packed, with leg cramps and sleepy.

Around 10 in the morning we arrived at the Mexican capital, which is a very impressive city. I was surprised by its sheer size. They took us to a warehouse on the outskirts that did not have even the slightest facilities. There were not only the 130 or 140 who came on that bus, but an additional 60 others arrived.

When I got off, I felt as if I had been hit with a wooden pole on my legs, my spine, my neck, plus my eyes were swollen. I ordered coffee, but they only had what they call “American,” not espresso, which is what I wanted, so I had to settle.

They gave us back our phones and I was able to talk to my family. On the other end of the call, they were crying and getting emotional, but I just told them: “I need to rest, let me rest.” When we got to the bedrooms, we got hit with another bucket of cold water (another nasty surprise): there was a large space and they had thin, dirty, very dirty mattresses on the floor. So much so that I wondered how I was going to sleep there. I was so tired that I finally slept four hours, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I thought then that it was time for a bath, but there were only three bathrooms for more than two hundred people. There were lines for everything: to use the toilets, to bathe with freezing cold water. I was afraid of getting sick, because the children began to run fevers and get diarrhea, and many adults too, so I decided not to bathe. I bought wet wipes and with that, I scoured myself.

I would tell myself: “OK, that’s it, it is what it is, this is not a tourist trip.”

I slept with a sweater on, with the coat that I had bought in Guatemala with a hood, pants with socks, and I covered myself with the blankets that they had given us, but even so, it was not enough and I woke up with cramps. It was extremely cold in that place.

Also, the food was no longer so generous. I didn’t like the Mexican tortillas, which is what they gave us. A little chicken with a tortilla, a little meat with a tortilla, some spaghetti… with a tortilla. And I couldn’t even eat. Luckily, they also had things for sale, so one day I sent for a Burger King Whopper. It was the first time I was going to try the famous Whooper, and when I did, I thought: Wow, incredibly delicious. It’s like the TV commercials or the series on  El Paquete*. I ate it with great pleasure, it settled in my stomach and, at least that day, I ate well.

While we waited to leave, I met a man who lived in Nicaragua, not too bad, but he believed that because of Ortega the whole country was being destroyed and that there was no way back from that situation, so his wife, who spent three months in prison at the border, went first. And now he was going.

I also struck up a conversation with two brothers from Ocotal, although one lived in Managua, who left because one of them got into drug problems and they no longer had anything to do there. One had taken part in the 2018 demonstrations, something similar to what happened in Cuba on July 11th, and he told me that many people were hoping that Ortega would eventually leave. Since in the end there was no change, he decided to leave because he did not want to live in a dictatorship. And that was the only Nicaraguan I met on the road who said something like that to me. The others didn’t make mention of politics at all. 

I didn’t want to say that I had a fever, because in that case, they would not allow me to leave, but a Honduran noticed: “Hey, are you feeling sick? Do you need something, can I help you?”

I started to feel very sick: I had trouble breathing, I felt pain in my chest. They told us it would be two days, but we had already been there four or five. I even called my cousin in the United States and told him: “I can’t, I don’t think I’ll be able to. This is not normal. There are a lot of people here, it’s very crowded.”

One day I started with a fever and had to buy medicine. We were very afraid that it was COVID, in very crowded conditions, with more than 200 people together, but it turned out to be a stomach infection.

I didn’t want to say that I had a fever, because in that case, they would not allow me to leave, but a Honduran noticed: “Hey, are you feeling sick? Do you need something, can I help you?” I explained to him what was happening to me, but the worst thing was that I was beginning to have a panic attack, and he told me: “Hey, pal, don’t… don’t feel that way, come on right here,” sit like that, lie down here.” And that gave me great encouragement. My attack began to subside – your mind plays tricks on you – and all thanks to this Honduran friend, who I continue to be in touch with today.

One fine day they came and told us that, at dawn, we would leave for Monterrey, without explanations of how it was going to be or anything. I took out the last 250 Mexican pesos I had left and bought medicine, cookies and Electrolytes. They woke us up at 10 that night and took us out in some vans, one of those little buses that can carry around 18 or 20 people. In a place quite close by, on a very dark street, they quickly allowed us to get off, we threw our backpacks in the trunk of the bus and, running, we got in.

That time, I thought we weren’t going to be overcrowded, but I was wrong. More and more people kept coming in, too many. And it was that way the whole trip to Monterrey, 15 horrible hours of travel.

Tomorrow

In Monterrey, each cartel assigns a code to its migrants

*Translator’s note: El Paquete, or The Packet, delivered once a week for $6.50, has become the primary way Cubans receive illegally recorded American media, news and entertainment.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Migration Part 6 – Encounter with Angel, the Gang Member Who Fled from Crime

Río Usumacinta, que divide Guatemala de México. (14ymedio)
Usumacinta River, which divides Guatemala from Mexico. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 28 April 2022 — The entrance to Mexico was incredibly calm, it was as if we were arriving home. There was also one of these mobsters there, I guess waiting for a payment. After a while, the guide returned with a very modern Nissan and took us to a warehouse to wait.

I met some Nicaraguans there and we started a conversation.  They began to tell me about the atrocities that Ortega was doing with the elections. That if the country was screwing up, that if it was soon going to be the new Venezuela, that if they were afraid and decided to go out to try their fortune in the United States… They left with the intention of earning money for two or three years and coming back… which I don’t understand, because if they think that their country is a mess…

We spent a couple of hours until they came to pick us up and took us to Palenque along an incredibly long highway, where there were many túmulos (grave mounds), which is what we call in Cuba police officers acostados (lying down), in other words, ‘speed bumps.’

The man accelerated and I thought: “My God, we’re going to die!” Nobody in the car was wearing a seatbelt: the driver in front, two women next to him, one sitting on top of the other, and four in the back, three Nicaraguans and me, very uncomfortable. At 180 kilometers per hour, if the car hits a stone on the road I would have died, just like that, without saying a word.

After four hours, we arrived at Palenque, which is where we changed trucks again. They kept us parked for about an hour and twenty minutes, the seven of us squeezed together. I was desperate to get off and because of the uncertainty, because the cartels already operate directly over us.

Finally, the truck left and suddenly we went from being alone to joining an immense caravan, so huge that I could not see neither tip nor tail of it: they were all nine-seater trucks, all loaded with migrants.

In Palenque they took us to a warehouse, which is what they call the places where they leave migrants, a three-story, though very narrow house. That place was just horrible, and it disturbed me. There were many Cubans inside. It was drizzling and we went in there, all wet and muddy from the coming and going of shoes, very dirty, very dark, with many children. continue reading

It was drizzling and we went in there, all wet and muddy from the coming and going of shoes, very dirty, very dark, with very many children

The children played with each other on very thin foam mats and the mothers were desperate. One approached us and told us: “Hey, you have to go in, you can’t stay there” because according to what they said, the migra (Immigration agents) and the Federals were constantly passing by and shouldn’t see anyone outside. But in reality, everyone knows what happens there. Everything I saw in Mexico was too much.

Luckily, the driver took us to his house, which was on the outskirts, and had one of these empty warehouses, so we were the only ones there. His wife was very friendly, she treated us very well. She made us some fried fish and she gave us a drink. They would say to me: “Look, Cuban, try this fruit.” On the farm they had pigs, birds, rabbits, everything. There, I ate fruits that I had never eaten in my life, fruits I didn’t even know existed.

We slept in a bed each, with air conditioning, though I was already beginning to feel the Mexican cold.

The next day was February 14th, the Day of Love and Friendship, and they had a celebration with streamers and tequila. They gave me beers from Mexico to try and they asked me about Cuba. I wanted to be more discreet there, but I told them a few things. That man belonged to a cartel, according to other migrants, of the Zetas, and God knows what things he must have done, because he had a good position within the cartel. All in all, that man was very sympathetic to the Cuban situation that I was telling him about: he didn’t know anything and he told me that he hoped everything would happen soon, because Cuba must be a beautiful country.

They were planning the route to go to Cancun, because from Palenque they distribute migrants to Villahermosa and to Cancun

That night, three Cubans arrived, two young girls and a young man, who were surprised to find out how quickly I had gotten there. They were planning the route to Cancun, because from Palenque they distribute migrants to Villahermosa and to Cancun. There, they had to board these famous Mexicali flights, from where you cross the border on foot. In other words, there is no river there, they open a small door for you, you cross and you are already in the United States.

The next day, the man calls and tells his wife to get ready, because there are 80 Cubans on the way to the house. And I couldn’t believe it, there was hardly room for 30! But I started organizing with her and I even helped make food for everyone, and they thought I was one of them, and I had to tell them that no, I was just another Cuban.

There, because the world is as small as a handkerchief, I found a person who stood in line at Trimagen, a store in my Havana neighborhood. The man started talking to me.  He used to stand in line holding places for others, for a fee, but that the pandemic… “you know,” and the son was in the US, so he and his wife managed to get money to get out. That entire group, all 80 of them, went by way of the Cancun visa. They protested a lot, because they said that they were treated like cattle and they had paid a lot of money: some about 5,000 dollars, others 7,000 dollars. Each one is different.

Among the 80, there was one who turned out to be Uruguayan, with his heavy accent. So I asked him. This guy traveled to Cuba in 2021, and while he was there, he decided to get a Cuban identity. He did not want to explain to me how he did it, only that it cost him 11,000 dollars, and he told me that in this way, he could get the benefits that we Cubans get, to stay in the United States. He had gone out into the streets on July 11th, but not to protest, just to watch. That’s what the Uruguayan said, but Alison and I speculated that he had some problem in his country, or that he was a fugitive. He seemed like a nice person, but you never know.

That afternoon they finally took us to Villahermosa. The caravan was composed of about eight vehicles and we were evading some controls, but the truth is that everything went great, everyone was talking: the driver, Alison and the three Cubans.

There were two Nicaraguans who were indeed quieter. The driver also thought that Cuba was the pearl of the Caribbean, but one of the girls told him that she was from Las Tunas, where she worked as a teacher, and her income was not enough to feed her son. The driver said: “Well, but if they live on an island, they must have fish, they have to have fish.” I laughed.

We told him that there was a dictatorship in Cuba, and he said that he had lived through hard times in Mexico, but he had never had to worry about what he was going to eat tomorrow.

I left that car quite depressed, after remembering so many things about my country, but I arrived in Villahermosa at a warehouse and since then I haven’t seen any more Cubans. It was a very large and very nice house, very modern, in which I spent four days with 50 or 60 Hondurans. Every morning, the managers brought us food and we distributed the housework to each other: some cleaned, others cooked, others tidied up… The only thing we couldn’t do was be on the porch, in case they saw us.

The driver kept saying: “Well, but if they live on an island at least they must have fish, they have to have fish” I laughed

In one of the rooms where I had to sleep in that house, we had some of these mats that have a blue lining, like a swimming pool, with a quilt, and in each room, for example, 12 or 13 people slept in mine, the men below and the women above, separated.

I thought, since there were no Cubans, who was I going to talk to? but it was very nice. “Look, a Cuban,” many said, because they had never seen a Cuban. In fact, I think not one of them had. Then they began to ask me things and we talked and we had a lot in common. That group arrived at the border together and we helped each other a lot, all the time.

I made a lot of friends with Ángel. He was 21 years old and had two small children, that’s why he identified with me, because I also have two. He told me that he was from northern Honduras, a large area of San Pedro Sula and its surrounding towns, where a lot of gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, operate. Ángel became acquainted with the wrong people and ended up being a hitman. He made it clear to me that he did not kill, that he was a driver.

Then he told me that he had to lead the hit men to kill people and once they had to kidnap one on the orders of his brother, apparently because of a drug problem. The brother paid about 10,000 dollars not only to have his brother killed, but to be tortured. He wanted the brother to be hung in one place and skinned alive. When he saw that, he couldn’t stand it and had to leave so he could vomit.

Then they began to ask me things and we talked and we had a lot in common. We and that team got to the border together and we helped each other a lot, all the time.

He saw horrible things, one of the other rival gangs had problems with him and, in the end, he ended up talking to his hitmen friends to go kill all those who were threatening him. So he finally did, he ended up firing a gun and killing, killing people. And for that reason, he left. He first went into hiding, and left after a month.

Ángel has a brother who lives in California who was helping him get out of that movie set environment. As much as they tell me, I can’t imagine something like that in real life.

The thing about the gangs in Honduras is terrible. I heard horrible things about that country, like if you wear a specific shoe worn by Gang 18, without being a member, they will shoot you, or that you can’t drive by with tinted car windows… Alison, the girl who travels with me, is 17 years old and has lived there all her life, but someone who was involved in a gang took an interest in her and ‘made her life a yogurt’, as we say in Cuba [made her life impossible]. He chased her, tried to rape her… Then she told her father, who has lived in the US for 13 years: “Daddy, I need you to get me out of here, because they are going to rape me.” And he, of course, did the impossible to get the money.

Tomorrow

To Mexico City, a 17-hour bus ride, standing.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Migration Part 5 – At the Border with Mexico, if You Don’t Pay the ‘Tax’, You Get Shot

We got on a little bus that took us down a rather ugly road, through which we arrived at La Técnica. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 27 April 2022 — In that motel there were rooms and hammocks, which were outside, in the yard, and those with the fewest resources stayed there, sometimes women with children. Juan, the trafficker, would then say: “Come to the room, even if you don’t pay me, it doesn’t matter. Give them food, get milk for the children, I’ll pay for it.” The man showed his gentle side from time to time.

There, I also met three Hondurans, to whom I told the story of Cuba, emphasizing what had happened last year and since Díaz-Canel became president, and they said: “But how can it be? Why don’t you go to the streets?” And I explained to them: “You don’t know what a dictatorship is.” When I finished telling them the story, they felt very sad and identified with the cause. They gave me a lot of support and strength. They were very Christian, they told me: “God is going to help the Cuban people. God is going to liberate them.”

These boys were between 20 and 25 years old and were police officers in southern Honduras, and said that there are no gangs in that area and the agents do not accept bribes. In their case, they left because, like everywhere, there is a lot of inflation and their income was not enough. Their intention was to work for a few years in the US and return to Honduras with money because, according to them, you can live there in peace and tranquility. The North is bad.

I also met another Honduran and we conversed, although he ended up stealing some cigarettes from me. He didn’t even know Cuba existed. They assaulted him in Guatemala and they took everything from him. He had to spend three days there, sleeping on a hammock, waiting for his brother, who lived in California, to send the coyote some money so he could continue. continue reading

I also met three Hondurans there, and I told them the story of Cuba, emphasizing what had happened last year and since Díaz-Canel took over the presidency

I spent four days living practically like a king. Juana took care of me perfectly. I requested what I wanted to eat, and then I told her that I needed a coat, a hat, and gloves, because they had told me that it was very cold further north, especially in Mexico. I gave her 27 bucks and she bought me all of that. I gave her a white shirt, the shirt I left Cuba with. I told her: “Look, I wore this shirt when I left Cuba and I don’t think I’m going to wear it anymore, give it to one of your grandsons.” And she, very grateful, gave me a chocolate and an orange that her son sent.

While I was there, like on the third day, two young women in nurses’ attire came with portable coolers and clipboards and papers, asking who was not vaccinated. They had Moderna vaccines, and Juana was missing the third dose, that is, the booster. “I’m missing the third, can I get it?” she asked them. “Yes, come this way, please sit over there.” And in less than a minute they gave her the dose, and filled out her data… and I kept thinking: “Well, in Cuba, even to get vaccinated you have to stand in line.” She told me that the first few days there was a waiting line to get in, but not anymore. There are many people who have not wanted to be vaccinated, for example Juan and the coyote.

On the fourth day I met two other people: the one who would be my guide, who was called El Gordo (Fatso), and a 17-year-old Honduran girl, Alison, who would come with me to the very border, to the Rio Grande.

At four in the morning, they woke me up and, after cleaning up to leave, they told me that, since I was Cuban, I had to separate myself from the group, to go around a border point before reaching a place called La Técnica, where the Usumacinta River is located, which divides Guatemala from Mexico. Of course, getting charged a lot more than the others. So they put 30 people on a wagon and I went in a car.

They took me to a house about three blocks away, where there was a Cuban in a hammock, and told me to wait with him. I got scared and told myself that something strange was happening, because the guy was a bit mysterious.

According to what he told me, he had lived in Russia for three years and, after falling on bad times, with only the 50 euros that he had arrived with, he began to pick up Cuban tourists at the airport, or those who went there to shop, and set them up in apartments. But then the pandemic came and, since his sister lived in the US, he decided to come here. He explained to me that a Cuban cannot go directly to Nicaragua from Russia, but that he had to return to Cuba. From the same airport in Managua, he had gone directly to Santa Elena, without stopping. He was exhausted.

We were there, talking, when a car came to take us both. The driver also talked a lot with us about Cuba, and he too could not understand how people put up with so much, with so much ruthlessness. The man asked us to carry 20 dollars in our pocket in case the police came, and the trip was very tense. I had to lend the Cuban-Russian the 20 dollars, which he did not have, in case they asked us, because we are Cubans and we have to help each other.

There was a huge number of Cubans, at least 40 or 50, with two or three guides who seemed to be bull-fighting Cubans, because as someone in Palenque told me, we are a bit undisciplined. (14ymedio)

The driver told us: “Take these 100 quetzals. If the policeman says something to you, give them 100 quetzals, and if they want more money, give him the 20 dollars and that’s it. There is no more money and then it’s OK for them to kill you.” He told us, just like that.

Luckily, we only found a small checkpoint and the driver said: “Hello, I have two little boxes here. I’ll give you this. It’s all I have, because there may be more checkpoints ahead, if I give it all to you now, I can’t then give it to the others, and look, it’s just two little boxes”. The policeman told him, “Ok, no problem, go ahead.”

Later, when we were bordering the mountains, we had a motorcycle in front of us that was warning us of where there were policemen or cars, then, we would avoid them by turning on a different block. Although it was quite a harrowing journey, I saw some truly beautiful scenery. The geography of Guatemala, in general, is spectacular. If it hadn’t been for the danger we were in…

In the end, we arrived at a little town with barely three houses, and he stopped the car at a grocery store, which are small stalls that are in front of the houses where they sell everything. We went in and bought some chips, some juice and some soda crackers before continuing. We were very close to La Técnica. 

“Take these 100 quetzals. If the policeman says something to you, give them the 100 quetzals, and if they want more money, give them the 20 dollars and that’s it”

There, a man got out of a thicket and almost scared me to death. This guy explained to us that we had to walk approximately one and a half or two kilometers, but not to worry, there was no slope to climb, that everything was flat, but please, we had to walk as fast as possible. On the other side, a man would be waiting for us on a motorcycle to take us to the wagon where the others were going.

We crossed two pastures with barbed fences and some huge cows. One stared at us and the man told us: “Stay still, because if you run, he will come after you.” Finally, we arrived where the motorcycle was. I had kept the 200 quetzals that I had in my pocket where I keep my cell phone, but I had taken it out to film videos and the bills must have fallen on the road.

When El Gordo asked us for the money, of course, I couldn’t find it. So I had to give him those 20 dollars from before, which the Cuban-Russian had already returned to me, and we got on a little bus that took us down a rather ugly road, through which we arrived at La Técnica. It is a place that might seem touristy, but in reality, it is full of migrants: a good number of those who try to reach the United States cross through there.

They sit down on a ladder and charge you a tax. If you don’t pay them, you don’t cross. Or you get shot. (14ymedio)

We had lunch in that area, in a restaurant on the way down to the river, and immediately a man came and asked us for unlocked phones. There, we changed the phone lines that we brought, mine from Nicaragua and Alison’s from Honduras, to an already configured Telcel line, with mobile data and everything.

There was a great number of Cubans, at least 40 or 50, with two or three guides who seemed to be bull-fighting Cubans, because, as someone in Palenque told me, we are a bit undisciplined.

The tickets to go to Mexico are sold there.  I don’t know how much they cost, because our guide bought them. It is controlled by a cartel that manages the passage of migrants.

Our guide knew them: “Hey, guys! What’s going on? I’ve got two little boxes here.” He paid them and we were able to take one of those boats, like a very large wooden canoe, with an outboard motor.  Then we crossed the river, which had a very strong current.  The landscapes were beautiful and I was able to enjoy them.  We crossed to the other shore without any more incidents.

Tomorrow:

Encounter with Ángel, the gang member who fled from crime____________

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Migration Part 4 – Scare in Guatemala: They Viewed Cubans with Distrust

The agents, we’d been told, had already been paid, but they’d suggested we carry a $20 bill, just in case. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 26 April 2022 — That day they woke us up at four in the morning and gathered us together as if it were a show at dawn, grouping and distributing us: some by car, others in vans. I was assigned to go in a hermetically closed truck, with 27 other people. I said to myself: “My God, I can’t believe they’re going to put me in one of these closed things for so long!” But luckily, the trip was ten minutes. And then, in the forest: “Run, run!” and it continued until we got on a ‘coaster’ heading to Santa Elena.

There were many children in that group. With us, there were five: a one-year-old baby and others between 7 and 10 years old. Two kilometers after we were on our way, the police stopped us. The agents, we’d been told, were already paid, but they’d suggested we carry a $20 bill, just in case. It was $20 each for 27 people, just imagine.

Then the guide got out, they spoke, and the policeman told him: “Ok, go on.” We hadn’t even advanced 500 or 600 meters, when the patrol car came behind us at full speed, with the siren on, beeping for us to stop. At that moment we said: “Well, this is screwed up,” because one of the guards got on, with a lot of gesturing and a machine gun, and told the guide: “You’re a liar, I should shoot you in the head.” The children began to cry, a woman began to scream… and the two of them kept arguing:

– Hey, no, look here, the boss…

– I don’t want to talk to your boss, you’re a liar.

Apparently, the man had told him that the chief of police knew about us, but the other said he didn’t. I don’t know if they had not given him enough money.

– I’m not going to talk to anyone, move to one side because I’m taking all of you prisoners. Turn around. continue reading

Normally the guides say that if they take us prisoner, they take care of it, but my faith was a bit shaky at that moment. We hadn’t gone back even a kilometer and a huge black truck appeared, with the famous boss. They positioned themselves in the middle and got off. The policeman would point with the machine gun and I thought: “They’re going to shoot each other here and I don’t know what’s going to become of us.”

But they managed to fix the situation by slipping him some dough, which is what Guatemalans call money, and the policeman allowed us to continue, with the black truck in front of us all the way, making way for us. Thus, every time we passed near a patrol car, those in the black truck were there and waved their hands at us to advance.

We arrived at a restaurant in the middle of a town. It was 10 in the morning, too early to eat, but we had to eat. They gave us orange juice, a tortilla, cheese, beans, beef, very tasty, with onions… They told us that wherever we stopped to eat, we should do so, because one never knew when we could do it again later.

We headed out again, and when we reached a river intersection, we parted ways. I was going to Santa Elena and the others were going to a place called El Naranjo, on the border with Mexico, further north, because they were going to Cancun, to sort out the famous fake visas and be able to fly to Mexicali to cross the border. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard anything from them or from Lauren. That was the last place we saw each other. I hope they have arrived safely at their destination.

When we crossed the river, the guide in the black van told me: “Come, Cuban, you’re going the other way.” And then he spoke with a man in a minivan, which was on route to Santa Elena, and he took me with him. I told him: “Hey, are you going to leave me alone?” And he replied: “Don’t worry, if that man hands you over to someone other than the one I’m telling him about, we’ll kill him. Him and his whole family.” He told me just like that.

He gave the man $40 and said: “Listen to what I’m going to tell you: hand him over there, and make sure nothing happens to him. And if it goes well, I’ll have more work for you.” So, the man took me to a little town, one of those typical ones that have many small markets outside the houses – there was such beautiful fruit, melons, oranges, grapes, even strawberries – and I didn’t understand it.

The man took only me, but in the end, about five more people got on board, and I had to ride while hiding my nationality, because, according to what I heard, if they found out you were Cuban, they viewed you with distrust.

Finally, the man left me in Santa Elena. Just before arriving, I contacted the person who had to pick me up and sent him my location via WhatsApp. He was waiting for me, he got in front of the truck and said: “Unload the Cuban,” as if I were a sack of potatoes.

From there, he took me to a motel, a very humble, simple little hotel, but the truth is that those were the few days I was able to rest from the entire trip, which had been quite stressful until then. In fact, I felt very safe in Santa Elena, in Guatemala.

I met Juan and Juana, the manager of the little motel and the cook, a very nice old lady, very friendly. She had lost her husband in the pandemic and she had to sell everything to go live with a son, but she was building a house thanks to the work the manager gave her.

Despite being what he was, because he was a human trafficker, I saw that man help several people in the four days that I was there. The first day I saw a Cuban couple, his name was Yasmani and he was an ambulance worker in Cuba.

On July 11th, he took to the streets to protest, but afterwards he was so disappointed… The funny thing is that he told me that the next day they were handing out clubs to defend the ambulances’ parking lot, and to beat Cubans on the streets. “But how is this possible?” He told me. So, he came in and said, “Hey, the ambulance is smashed, it can’t go out today.” And he turned around and went home.

“Brother, after what I experienced on July 11th, the repression, the beatings and those who were imprisoned, I said to myself: “I can’t continue in this country,” he told me. He asked his relatives for help, took out a little money that he had collected from a business and set off for Nicaragua.

They were going to take the girl and him to Los Naranjos first, and then to Cancún and Mexicali. They were charging them $7,000 each, in addition to the ticket. By the way, first they had to travel to Barbados, then to Jamaica, with a stopover in Panama and from there, to Nicaragua. Huge rounds they had to do. I didn’t see them again afterwards, because they left at dawn. And those were the last Cubans I saw in a long time.

Tomorrow:

On the border with Mexico, if you don’t pay the ‘tax’ you get shot

Translated by Norma Whiting
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Cuban Migration Part 3 – Armed ‘Coyotes’, Powerful Toyotas to Cross Honduras

We left there at five-something in the morning, and they took us to some mountains in the north of Honduras, next to a steep hill, where one had to wait for the trucks. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 25 April 2022 –The next bus, which we boarded at San Pedro Sula, had more capacity than normal, because it had three seats on one side and two on the other, so, luckily, we were able to sit down. I think that on the other bus some people did have to stand up, but on ours they put the bags and backpacks in the aisle and people sat on top of them.

We left there at five-something in the morning, and they took us to some mountains in the north of Honduras, next to a steep hill, where we had to wait for the trucks that were going to take us through that mountain range to enter through Morales, in Guatemala.

We were there, on a muddy hill from the rain, and fear took hold of some of us, because the drivers and passengers carried pistols, some even long weapons. That stunned us, but at the same time we felt protected. We told ourselves: “Well, if these people are armed it will be more difficult for them to rob us on the road, but even if someone has a problem, they will surely shoot him in the head and throw him down a ravine.”

Then, between 20 and 25 trucks arrived and they put 15 people in each one, although there were 12 or 13 of us in mine. In the mountains, the situation was quite complicated. The truck, a Toyota with a lot of engine power, shook a lot as we went near the cliffs and the bushes. Men grabbed each other and made a mesh, protecting the women. It seemed that we were going backwards. Then, a girl from Cienfuegos began to cry; we all tried to calm her down, but she didn’t stop the whole way.

In some parts, where the hills were too steep, and everything was full of mud and stones, we had to get out of the bus, and the men ran as we pushed the bus.  The first two hills were easier and I managed to climb on the bus at the same time as the others, but the third time I thought I wasn’t going to make it.  I’m asthmatic and was thinking: oh, my God, they are going to leave me here, abandoned. Luckily, one of them helped me considerably. He got down from the bus, grabbed me, helped me up and gave me some water. In addition, they all agreed that if pushing the bus again was necessary, I would not do it. continue reading

Throughout the journey, despite being so unpleasant and having mud everywhere, we saw some very beautiful landscapes, with exuberant vegetation, and a river with transparent water. All the Cubans who had been traveling in a now disabled van were washing themselves there.

We didn’t know we had crossed the border until we saw a stone, half covered by vegetation, that indicated it: “Welcome to the Republic of Guatemala”. There, they took us out of the vans and put us in some other smaller, cramped vans. There were almost 200 of us in three vehicles. We arrived at a post where there were many Guatemalan soldiers, with their machine guns, but what they did was open the fence and let us through, no problem.

When we arrived in Morales, they left us in a house on the outskirts that was full – of course – of Cubans. We crowded into the patio of that house, because they told us to please not to stay outside so that the police wouldn’t see us. Inside the house itself, a woman had a table where they sold everything: drinks with electrolytes, to avoid dehydration, soft drinks, water, apples, bananas… A captive audience, we bought some things, although they sold at a fairly expensive price.

The intermediaries that were there said that they would contact the relatives of those who did not have money, so that they could send it to them

Coincidentally, the group of 15 Cubans who had been robbed in Honduras, at the Danlí terminal crossing, was there. Most were from Havana. According to their version, the old man who was driving the van was in cahoots with the assailants, three Hondurans who appeared from the middle of nowhere, at four in the morning, in the dark, with guns that they began shooting into the air, telling everyone to get down from the bus. Then they lined them up and searched them everywhere. They took absolutely everything; they only left them their clothes and coats. Although they had come this far because they had paid for it in advance, they couldn’t continue, because at that point they had to pay more money.

The intermediaries that were there said that they would contact the relatives of those who did not have money, so that they could send them some. At least half fell by the wayside. The rest of us were sent to a small hotel to rest and to continue the next day. They called us by the coyotes’ names. They told us: “Junior’s list, top, money”, for example, although, in many cases, the coyotes already had our money, from the relative who advanced it, so they gave it to us to pay for food and basic things.

From the house in the outskirts to the hotel in Morales, we arrived in something similar to a cocotaxi, whose driver told us: “Do you know that Ricardo Arjona is Guatemalan? I’m going to play a song by him called Mojado, (Wet) because at the end you ‘re going to get wet in the Rio Bravo and this song is about that.” I tell him: “Come on, yes, put it on”. I went with a girl and a guy, and the three of us sang it. There was an emotional moment, because one wonders: “What am I doing here? What am I doing here?” It is a little difficult.

Drivers and passengers carried pistols, some even long guns. That impressed us, but at the same time we felt protected. (14ymedio)

In that hotel there were more Cubans, two from Santiago, with whom I spoke. One of them had the loud voice of a television announcer but multiplied by ten, but it was to make a video call to his daughter and tell her that he might not see her again, because they were going to kill him on the way, and he burst into tears. That made me remember my family, call them and cry too, like them. From Cuba, my wife and my parents encouraged me, told me that everything was fine, although I knew it wasn’t, that their pain of being separated was the same as mine.

That night I was able to sleep, although there were eight of us and there were four beds, two in each. I was also able to bathe, with very cold water, which came directly from a spring.

I brought enough wet wipes from Nicaragua and I began to clean my clothes, my shoes, my backpack, full of mud, as best I could. We were also able to buy water, beer, soft drinks in a small lobby… I spent a dollar on a bottle of apple-flavored water and I didn’t like it. The others bought beer and drank it. I wasn’t in the mood for beer.

Since the food was not that good, someone suggested that we buy some pepperoni pizzas that cost 15 dollars and, since they were very large, we shared them between two. They also brought us three-liter bottles of a carbonated orange soft drink that I loved and drank throughout my stay in Guatemala. Imagine, Little Caesars Pizza… The pizza made our night a happy one; it was a moment like being with family.

Tomorrow:

Scare in Guatemala: they looked at Cubans with distrust

Translated by Norma Whiting
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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Migration Part 2: Caravan Through Honduras: There Were 30 Motorcycles with 30 Cubans Riding on Them

 Llegando a un retén que se llama Las Crucitas, nos pararon dos guardias, que se subieron y empezaron a pedir los documentos a todo el mundo. (14ymedio)
Arriving at a checkpoint called Las Crucitas, we were stopped by two guards, who got on and began to ask everyone for their documents. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 24 April 2022 — Trojes is a very poor village in southern Honduras. I stayed in a typical country house, very humble. However, the food was not lacking. In that house lived three women and a man who knew life in Cuba well, because many Cubans had passed through there before me.

That made me happy, because Cubans are also waking up their Latin American brothers about the lie that Fidel Castro has invented all his life, continued by Raúl Castro and now by Díaz-Canel. We dismantle that lie wherever we go.

They gave me typical Honduran food, some corn tortillas, dried red beans, and beef, in sort of a sauce. They also gave me “fresh” – that’s what they call soft drinks – pineapple and orange.

After resting until two in the morning, we met at a point where we found many motorcycles, about thirty, to undertake the difficult journey from Trojes to Santa María, where one boards buses to Tegucigalpa. I was very happy to see so many Cubans, whom I had not seen since I left Managua. All the stress I had felt disappeared.

Cubans are waking up his Latin American brothers about the lie that Fidel Castro has invented all his life, which was continued by Raúl Castro and now by Díaz-Canel

There was a Honduran there who seemed to be one of the brightest of the group and he told me that he liked Cubans very much because they had the best doctors in the world. I replied that Cuban doctors were also the lowest paid and he wanted to hear more about it. I gave him many examples about the health system, which is presented as an achievement and is trash. He told me that the Cuban doctors who were there on mission were given money by the locals, because they knew that the government was not giving them everything they were owed. continue reading

That also had an impact on politics there. Many Hondurans I met complained about Juan Orlando Hernández, who was recently extradited to the United States, and he told me that they are happy with Xiomara Castro for now, but that “if she started playing funny games, they would remove her.” At the end, when I got on my motorcycle, the man said goodbye to me and said: “Cuban, long live free Cuba!” And he raised a fist at me and tears came to my eyes.

We started to climb mountains, muddy paths, at night, in absolute darkness. We were a 30-motorcycle caravan with 30 Cuban riders. On the way, we also passed five vans, which normally carry at least five people in front and another 15 in bed behind them.

There was an incident on the way, because one of the Cubans fell into a ravine, but he was lucky that both he and the driver got caught in some branches and, with help, managed to get out. The motorcycle was lost, but the Cuban was put on another one and we all arrived safe and sound.

Already in Santa María, the owner of a truck, who had come by a less cumbersome road, said that he was bringing 15 Cubans when three Hondurans assaulted them at gunpoint in the middle of the road and took everything they had. I met those 15 people later, when I arrived in Morales, in Guatemala.  I will tell you more about that a bit later.

There were two yellow buses with just 10 people on them, but many more were waiting to fill the buses. Of course, almost all of them were Cuban, although there were some Nicaraguans and a few Hondurans. We saw each other’s faces and made signs to each other. I said to many: “Free Cuba.” It was very emotional.

The trip to Danlí was pretty smooth, but I had a problem because of a wrong decision I made.

The one who was taking me on a motorcycle had entrusted me to a guide who was taking three Cubans. “Hey, please, take care of this little Cuban. Help him out,” he told the guide, who replied not to worry. I had to continue on that bus, very uncomfortable, by the way, to Tegucigalpa, but the guy told me: “Hey, we’re going to change buses, because we’re very uncomfortable here. It costs five dollars, it’s not much.”

So, we boarded the other vehicle – the number of migrants in that city getting on buses to the capital was amazing – after buying something, a pizza, bread and a hamburger each and a Coca-Cola (all very cheap, like a dollar and a half). Changing buses had not been necessary. At our arrival at a checkpoint called Las Crucitas, we were stopped by two guards, who got on the bus and began to ask everyone for their documents.

– Where are you all from?

– From Cuba.

– Passports?

The man left with the passports, crossed to the station, checked them, came back and told us: “Have a good trip”. Just like that, no more. To this day, I don’t know if they paid for that or if they let us go that easily.

We went through some incredible landscapes, many crops and cattle, and we arrived in Tegucigalpa, a rather gray city. It is very developed, but there they do attack you in a dirt quarter, as we say; they rob you and take everything from you. They tried to take my phone from me when I was taking pictures, but we were able to protect each other.

Something that struck me about Tegucigalpa, something that I had not seen in Nicaragua and even less in Cuba, was the number of begging children. We are not talking about children aged 10 or 12, but of 6 or 7-year-olds. “Please, sir, buy from me, buy from me so I can bring home some water, please buy from me”. Children at that age should not have to work.

Terminal de ómnibus en Danlí, municipio del departamento de El Paraíso, en Honduras. (14ymedio)
Terminal de ómnibus en Danlí, municipio del departamento de El Paraíso, en Honduras. (14ymedio)

There, too, I was shocked to see a 40 or 50-year-old man sniffing something in a large jar.  He sniffed it hard and sniffed it again and again, and I said wow! I had only seen this once, in a documentary, that people sniff to get high. But of course, in Cuba there is no glue for everyday use, much less for that.

I took a taxi to the Sultana terminal, where the buses to San Pedro Sula are taken, and I met three Cubans – there were Cubans everywhere – who told me their stories, almost all of them, in short, the same. Some said, and that bothered me the most: “No. Political problems don’t interest me.” I have heard that everywhere. People are not interested in politics, or political prisoners, or anything.

Those three Cubans I met there were from the eastern provinces. One was from Granma, Daniel, a pre-university teacher, who had an animal business that the pandemic did away with. He left for Jamaica, where everything was very expensive, according to what he said, and then Costa Rica or Panama. Later he went to Nicaragua and here we were. The other two were from Las Tunas, one an engineer, who told me that he had parachuted. The vast majority were 40 and under, many were young people, 25 or 26 years old.

I had to give my contact at the Sultana fifty dollars more, after hearing how he argued with my coyote because the money he had given him seemed too little. After he was satisfied with the money, they took me to a place close by, where there were many more Cubans, Haitians, Hondurans, people of all Central American nationalities. There was even a Russian woman -or from a neighboring country- who came with a Cuban. There were so many people that they didn’t have enough buses to take them to San Pedro Sula.

The trip was hard, about seven hours, with many curves, and in those ‘stools’… but San Pedro Sula is beautiful

Before sitting on one of the stools I chatted with Lauren, a Cuban from the eastern part of the Island, who had lived in Havana for many years. She was about 30 years old, very alert, very pretty. Her husband paid for her trip and she went alone, although she had a child of about six years old whom she had decided not to take with her. So, we decided to go down the road together.

Every seat was taken, and there were about five or six more people sitting on buckets or plastic stools in the aisle. A man, a little older, complained often that they lied to him, because they told him that they were going to take him from Nicaragua by car. He is one of those who were going to pick up visas in Cancun and that’s what they had been told. My friend Lauren had the same thing happen to her.

The trip was hard, about seven hours, with many curves, and on those little stools… but San Pedro Sula is beautiful. There, after a taxi ride, they placed us in a motel full of Cuban migrants. There, someone played Patria y Vida, and it was very exciting to hear it: everyone sang it.

In that room of the little hotel, we were five men and three women. Two of them were brothers and were traveling to reunite with their families in the United States. They had left their mother in Cuba and that hurt them a lot. I saw them crying. One, whose occupation in Cuba was slaughtering cattle, told me: “My chest hurts, because I think I’m not going to see my mother anymore.”

Cogí un taxi hasta la terminal de la Sultana, donde se cogen los ómnibus para San Pedro Sula y allí me encontré a tres cubanos. (14ymedio)
I took a taxi to the Sultana terminal, where buses go to San Pedro Sula, and there I found three Cubans. (14ymedio)

He spoke that the future was in Yuma and not in Cuba, that he was going to work and get ahead, but he also told me that politics did not interest him. There was also another girl from Cienfuegos who told me something similar, and that she had left two children there, one 10 and the other 12-years-old.

That night people continued to arrive from everywhere, but the important thing was to get some shut-eye, because they warned us that we had to leave early. I had to sleep on the floor, there were pitched battles to charge the cell phones. We bathed as best we could, the shower was only a small cold-water trickle, and we left around four in the morning.

They had told us that we probably wouldn’t all fit, so I said: “Let’s sit near the entrance, because that way we can get a seat on the bus”. And that’s when the mafiosos (because there is no other name for them) stood up, organized us, more or less, and opened a small door through which they began to take us out three by three. We were 177 people, 170 of whom were Cubans.

Tomorrow: 

Armed Coyotes, powerful Toyotas to cross Honduras

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Migration Part 1: The Volcanoes Route: I Trembled with Anguish, I Felt That I Was Leaving Everyone Behind

My trip began one day at 6:30 in the morning, when a taxi picked me up and left me at the Managua terminal. There, I boarded a bus to Ocotal, in the north of the country. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, 23 April 2022 — I had never left Cuba in my life, so emigrating was the most difficult decision I have ever made. I had to painfully say goodbye to the people I love: my children, my grandmother, my mother, my father, my wife, my brothers. There is only one reason to have done it: despair.

Thanks to a relative overseas, I managed to arrange a ticket to travel to Nicaragua. My plan was, like that of so many others, to later cross Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico until I reached the United States. Before leaving, many feelings collided within me. On the one hand, I felt very sad and disillusioned with my country, but at the same time, I was looking forward to finally having the opportunity to carve out a future for my children.

During the trip to the airport, I trembled with anguish: I felt that I was leaving everyone behind and that I had a very uncertain future ahead of me. At the José Martí Airport there was a line of 150 people. Even to escape from this country you have to wait in line.

The vast majority of passengers talked about the same thing: where they planned to leave from, how much their ‘coyotes’ charged them, who they would travel with…

I had a very stressful time at Immigration, when, as they checked my details and my passport, they asked me to wait. After a few minutes that seemed like forever, an official looked at me and said contemptuously: “Oh, he’s from Archipíelago [platform].”

I had given my name at the beginning, when Yunior García Aguilera formed the group, but I didn’t think that it would leave a mark on me. The officers told me to relax, but the passengers on my flight were already in the waiting room and I was still there. Finally, they let me go: “Have a good trip,” the official told me with indifference. Later, I heard more similar testimonies: continue reading

they maintain uncertainty until the end. Until the plane took off, it was not clear to me that they would not make me disembark.

The vast majority of passengers talked about the same things: where they planned to leave, how much their coyotes charged them, who they would travel with… Nobody around me was going to Nicaragua as their final destination. It was a mass exodus before my eyes.

The treatment was not very good upon arrival in Nicaragua. As soon as I arrived, I was scammed into buying a Claro phone card for $20 that was supposed to have 13 GB of data and unlimited social networks, among other benefits. The next day, I had to recharge it for 100 córdobas, about three dollars.

Observing Managua from the plane, all lit up, shocked me. At the airport and on the way to the hotel, many advertisements, cafes, restaurants. The hotel was nothing to write home about, but it was cozy and had a pool. However, no one was swimming. It is hot in Managua and no Cuban goes swimming, because everyone knows what they are there for.

The first day I went out with a guy I had met and we passed by a gas station. My impression was great when we entered that tiny gas station and saw the immense variety of products they sold: all kinds of gum, chocolates, soft drinks, hotdogs… And that still hadn’t reached Walmart. I can’t even describe here what I felt when I saw all that abundance, all that immense space, with so much and so much merchandise, so varied. I didn’t even know in what direction to walk.

Then I felt very sad. I didn’t understand why we didn’t have these things in my country, why we have to go through so much trouble to buy a piece of frozen chicken or some hamburger meat or some eggs to be able to eat. When I got back to the hotel I talked to my family on WhatsApp and I got a lump in my throat, I felt very powerless to be able to have all that here and that they didn’t have it there.

The coyotes came to pick up many Cubans here during the first day and a half that I was there. I met two of them. One was a medical student in Cienfuegos and he told me that he had to take advantage of the opportunity, because in the third year they are regulated and they cannot leave Cuba. The boy has family abroad and he paid $6,000 to be dropped off at the border. He was nervous and I tried to calm him down by encouraging him.

One was a medical student in Cienfuegos and he told me that he had to take advantage of the opportunity, because in the third year they are regulated and they cannot leave Cuba

The other was named Lazarito, a slightly confused boy, from Havana. His father is in the US and paid for his ticket, in addition to the $7,000 for the coyote. He was even more nervous, because the coyotes had to come pick him up at 6:00 in the morning. They arrived at 8:00 and he finally left with them.

My trip began one day at 6:30 in the morning, when a taxi picked me up and left me at the Managua bus station. There, I boarded a bus to Ocotal, in the north of the country.

It was a very calm trip, very beautiful, the landscapes caught my attention, the fields of Nicaragua are planted, not like those of Cuba. On the way, I talked with Brenda, a 38-year-old Nicaraguan who lives in Ocotal but works in Managua, and she told me that she has three children. She works in the house of a rich man, she told me, taking care of the children, and she only gets four days off a month. During those four days, she takes a bus, takes care of her family and returns, and spends one more month locked in that house. She has been doing it for 5 years, she says, to ensure a future for her children.

Managua Terminal from where buses leave for Ocotal. (14ymedio)

I got off at Ocotal, which despite being a small town has many things, something that continues to impress me wherever I go. There, something caught my attention that I did not see in Managua: a lot of Sandinista propaganda. I arrived at my guide’s house, where I rested and was able to taste Nicaraguan beer, La Toña, very tasty, very similar to the Cuban Cristal, which brought back many memories. In the afternoon, we left for the border, a fairly long journey but in a very comfortable van.

It was night when we arrived at the border crossing, which connects the municipality of Jalapa, in Nicaragua, with a very small town called Trojes, in southern Honduras.

There, we got out of the car in the middle of a field and had to cross an area of crops that measured about 400 meters, in total darkness. There was practically nothing to be seen and we had to walk fast so that the police would not catch us. On the other side, there was a barbed wire fence, and a man with a motorcycle was waiting for me. The guy revved it up to about a million mph, and it was cold. My forehead froze, but in just three minutes, I was already in Trojes.

Translated by Norma Whiting

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Tomorrow: Caravan through Honduras — there were 30 Cubans traveling on motorcycles.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.