Of Rafters and Slave Hunters / 14ymedio, Luzbely Escobar

Special border guard group.  (Luzbely Escobar)
Special border guard group. (Luzbely Escobar)

Gerardo and Agustin were stuck for two days with water up to their knees, among the trunks and roots on the coast. They had chosen a point west of Havana that they nicknamed the terminal for its frequent illegal exits, but the trip was thwarted. “They detected us, I don’t know how, because it was in the middle of the night and you couldn’t even see your hands,” they relate, still somewhere between surprised and upset. The capture of the two seems to be due to a new device, half truck, half scanner, that goes in search of rafters.

Last Friday a rare entourage was exhibited a few meters from the central Havana corner of L and 23. Two military jeeps, an overhauled vehicle and a motorboat were shown to the stupefied students who formed a circle of interest just outside the Cuba Pavilion. The teens fluttered around the objects, and an officer explained the modern work tools for “protecting the Cuban coasts from illegal entry and exit.”

The purpose was to familiarize the students with every detail of the work in the Ministry of the Interior’s Border Guards in order to attract potential soldiers. The device that they described with greatest pride was a truck that once belonged to the Trasval chain messenger service and that they themselves have fitted with GPS and motion and heat sensing cameras. Its mission? Finding amid the underbrush, darkness and waves those who have decided to escape from the Cuban paradise.

The curriculum of each of the members includes not only detailed knowledge about the functioning of the new technology but also proficiency in techniques of self-defense and neutralization of the “enemy.” The students seem to listen to the explanation with the playfulness of being halfway between the hiders and the seekers, between the coastal police and the fleeing rafters.

Barely a couple of years separate Gerardo and Agustin from those youngsters in the interested circle. Maybe they once crossed an intersection or shared a jitney or waited for the green light together at a stoplight. Nevertheless, if those students were to decide to become part of the Border Guard Troops, on a night as dark as hell some would be shivering amid the mangroves and others would push the buttons of a device designed to hunt emigrants. “We have to hold them and guard them until the people from Villa Marista come to look for them,” says one of the officers to motivate even more those who listen to him under the December sun of a Havana afternoon.

A girl asks about firearms, and a man wearing a beret pulled tight to his ears tells her that they must not go out armed on these missions due to “incidents that have occurred where fatal shootings have happened.” But continuing, he explains that they plan to place on the truck “an arsenal for confronting possible entry of speedboats with armed people or explosives.”

From the outside, the singular truck looks like a featureless gray box, but passing through its side door one finds a bathroom and a space that can be transformed into a bedroom or meeting room. The table used for discussing upcoming plans and operations folds up and is stored. The benches are opened and converted into two bunks, one on each side, where up to four people can sleep. The climate control permits them to endure the hot nights without opening the door which would cause them to suffer the persistent coastal mosquitoes.

Border guard boat.  (Luzbely Escobar)
Border guard boat. (Luzbely Escobar)

They carry a coffee maker, a rice cooker and a so-called “Queen” cooker (a Chinese-made pressure cooker) for cooking outside the truck. In order to make it all work, they carry an electric generator “so that the current is not a problem,” they assure with a certain vanity. The boast about resources does not stop there. They relate that they have “a campaign table in tow to set up the outdoor kitchen and a tent with a 40-person capacity.” This last is for the detainees, in case the people of Villa Marista take too long and they have to sleep at the capture site.

“This is a combat truck because it was born in combat,” one of the pompous drivers is heard to exclaim. “It is a unique prototype in the country and is called a mobile command post,” he stresses. “The boss,” he says while he points his index finger up, “says that he is going to make one more advance, but well, this takes financing, this takes resources.”

The news is worst for those who evade because this team acts as if they were really slave hunters with an obsession. “This is a fixed rotation. We go out for 20 days to the coast, and we have no relief. Those are 20 days without seeing the family,” they say, explaining the conditions in which they work.

In order to attract the girls to the circle of interest, an officer with ten years of experience clarifies that “in communications there are many women who do not have to go to the coast.” They laugh and blush, then he returns to the charge saying that “all the communications offices are climate controlled, there are many women who do this work.”

Nevertheless, after looking a while at the device the teens begin to speak of going on vacation with it to the beach, with its bunks and electricity. In the end one of them laughingly says thanks for the “classified information,” and heads down the street to the sea. In the air remains doubt about the next encounter between those adolescents and the officers: Will it be to petition for entrance into the elite group or to beg them not to tighten the handcuffs?

Translated by MLK