A large influx of migrants from the Caribbean and other regions landing in Colombia has provided the country's criminal groups with a ready-made opportunity to ramp up human smuggling operations.
Migrants desperate to leave Cuba, where the average monthly salary is a paltry $17, have essentially two options, both of which are daunting: take the overland route to the US that passes through South and Central America or test their fate at sea in rickety homemade rafts. The land route encompasses thousands of miles, numerous border checkpoints and reliance on human smugglers known as "coyotes," while the sea route spans just 90 miles.
One reason some take the longer, more expensive land route is because of the US government's "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which mandates that Cubans discovered at sea be turned back, while those that are apprehended on land can enter the US and start the process of applying for a green card.
This journey often starts, of all places, in Ecuador, where until November 2015 Cubans could enter without needing to obtain a tourist visa. Migrants then head north to Colombia and Central America in the hopes of reaching the United States, where the prospect of higher wages and reuniting with family members beckons. But the process broke down recently when a series of Central American nations started refusing entry to the Cuban migrants.
Human smuggling is a convenient source of income for Colombia’s criminal groups because it often overlaps with other illegal activities like drug trafficking.
The first domino to fall was Nicaragua. In November 2015, Nicaragua responded to a surge of Cubans at its southern border by militarizing the frontier area, leaving thousands stuck in northern Costa Rica. The following month, Costa Rica stopped receiving Cuban migrants as well, pushing the bottleneck further south into Panama. Panama followed suit in early May 2016, just a week after it had agreed to airlift almost 4,000 Cubans into Mexico.
The succession of border closures left some 1,300 Cubans stranded in Colombia's northwestern city of Turbo. It was at this time that the authorities reported Colombia's most powerful criminal group, the Urabeños, were charging Cuban migrants for the right to pass through the city. According to Gen. Jorge Rodríguez Peralta, the group threatened to leave the migrants in the large swath of remote jungle that separates Colombia and Panama, known as the Darien Gap, if they didn't pay the ransom fees. The authorities were also reportedly investigating whether the group was using the heavy flow of migrants as a distraction to send drug shipments uninhibited via other smuggling routes into Panama.
But a more menacing threat than extortionist gangs soon materialized: immigration officers. In early August, Colombian authorities announced the migrants would be deported back to Cuba. The pronouncement sparked widespread fear within the migrant community, and last week a spokesperson told the Associated Press that over 1,000 Cubans had fled into the Darien Gap in order to avoid deportation. Just 350 Cubans remained in Turbo, according to government officials.
Shortly thereafter, the Colombian government announced it had "overcome the Cuban migrant crisis." But the Cuban migrant "crisis" was neither the beginning nor the end of Colombia's immigration and human smuggling problems.
Last year, for example, authorities in the region of Urabá -- where Turbo is located -- said the Urabeños were responsible for smuggling a group of Cubans, Somalis, Afghanis, Nepalis and others nationalities through the area. And this year promises to be an even bigger boon for human smuggling networks; according to Migración Colombia, 9,377 migrants passed through Turbo during the first seven months of 2016, surpassing the 8,885 migrants seen in all of 2015. The greatest number of migrants to arrive in Turbo are not from Cuba but from Haiti, while Indians, Pakistanis and Africans from several different countries have also reportedly entered the city.
"Right now there has been a lot of attention on what is happening with the Cubans," Leonidas Moreno, a pastor based in the town of Apartadó, told El Tiempo in early August. "But this problem is not new, nor is it only Cubans, and it will continue."
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Migrant smuggling is not a major source of revenue for Colombia's criminal groups. In a recent interview with El Colombiano, Professor Pedro Piedrahíta Bustamante of the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana said that this type of smuggling in Colombia generates over $5 million each year. And Christian Krüger, the head of Migración Colombia, said in late July that coyotes charge anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 per migrant to cross Colombia. If all of the 9,337 migrants that Bustamante said have been deported from Colombia so far in 2016 were to have paid the maximum fee, that would equal $23.4 million.
Either way, that's a pittance compared to the annual earnings of the cocaine trade, which is measured in the billions, not millions.
Nonetheless, human smuggling is a convenient source of income for these groups because it often overlaps with other criminal activities like drug trafficking, according to Bustamante.
"In Colombia... any illegal armed group that you can imagine is involved in human trafficking because the migrants use the same routes as cocaine, marijuana, all of drug trafficking, [and] the illegal weapons that come from different parts of the world," Bustamante said.
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The reason behind the surge of Cuban migrants is two-fold. The thawing of US-Cuba relations has Cubans fearing that they will lose their preferential immigration status with the US government, while recent reforms by the communist government have loosened travel restrictions for ordinary citizens.
Many of the Haitians, meanwhile, are coming from Brazil, according to pastor Moreno. They came to Brazil after Haiti's devastating earthquake in 2010, but the jobs there have since dried up, forcing the Haitians to look for work elsewhere.
Whatever the reason or the nationality, migrants will continue to land in South America looking for a route northwards to the United States. All will pass through Colombia, and many will inevitably rely on predatory human smuggling networks to deliver them a chance at the American Dream.