On the way to the U.S.: Coyotes, thieves, gunfire and uncertainty

By the time this piece gets published, 20-year-old Magalys de Loyola should be arriving to join her mother and sisters in Orlando, Florida.

Hers is not the story of just any gathering.  It is the ending of a tale shared by 7,822 other Cubans who got trapped in Costa Rica on their way to the United States.

Back in November, Costa Rica faced its biggest immigration challenge. Waves, tides and tsunamis of Cubans began to add up in the northern area of Peñas Blancas. The Nicaraguan government had shut its border for those seeking to reach Mexico and the United States.

When Ms. de Loyola arrived to Costa Rica in mid December, the Costa Rican government already had a contingency plan. The national emergency commission, the International Migrants Organization, churches and their volunteers along with crowds of civilians had all organized food and shelter for those in need.

Ms. de Loyola was assigned to a refuge located in La Cruz in the province of  Guanacaste, where she spent almost three months with her husband and her father, all of them trying to keep busy.

Born and raised in the province of Camagüey, Ms. de Loyola, her father and her husband wanted a tourist visa from the U.S. to visit family in Orlando. However, their request was denied on the grounds that they fit the profile of illegal immigrants. It did not take long for the three of them to make up their minds.

Once they found the right person, they sold the house for $20,000. A newer state policy allows citizens to sell property. Then they went after human traffickers, better known as coyotes who would charge them $1,500 per person to get to Panamá.

“You never get to see their faces. They give you a mobile line and ask you to call as soon as you arrive to Ecuador. It’s not complicated. Everyone knows at least someone who knows a trafficker.”

Ecuador was the only country where Cubans could enter without a visa. Once in the territory, calls and messages started to arrive. They were short and concise. “Go,” “wait,” “move again,” “wait” and “get in the truck.”

Ms. de Loyola emphasized that all of these logistics take place during the night and, at least in her case, there were no upfront payments. The only requirement was to be well behaved.

And so, they continued their travel through Colombia and Panamá, two places that posed a bigger risk.

“In Colombia, Panamá and even Nicaragua, police officers will take your money and values away, use violence and even shoot their guns for intimidation,” said a Cuban musician who has lived in Costa Rica for the past 13 years. He wanted to remain nameless because he said he fears retaliation from the Cuban government.

Ms. de Loyola has no fear because she says she left the island legally. She even goes as far as to say that her trip with the coyotes was flawlessly organized. They took care of every action, every bribe.

Coyote customer service had been so engaging for Ms. de Loyola, that she even tried to continue her way through the jungles of Nicaragua in spite of the government ban.

She couldn’t do it. She was robbed. She returned to the camp.

“Well, I didn’t have all the money on me, and my family in the U.S. would send me some cash from time to time,” she said.

So, Ms. de Loyola and his companions decided to wait. Though the Costa Rica government had offered the immigrants a direct flight to Mexico, about 3,500 of them continued their journey with coyotes.

“That’s because they got afraid” says Ms. de Loyola. “At the very beginning people were told that Guatemala and Honduras would open their borders for us. A week later that changed, and we were told about the trip to Mexico. Then that option took so long to start working that people started to run out of money.”

“It’s true we had mattresses or tents and the daily meals,” she added. “But there are always other expenses such as medicine, cell phone charges and other stuff. Many of them panicked and ran away.”

Ms. de Loyola, is quite sure she is going to have a fresh new start once she settles down in Florida. After all, she and her husband are both college graduates in economics. That should smooth things out a bit.

She can go back to the island after 24 months and no penalty would be applied to her. She says she is happy when she thinks about it.

But in spite of the future ahead, she is cautious. And she added her final two cents for other Cubans:

“Think about it thoroughly. If you don’t have a reason don’t do this. It’s hard, dangerous and many have suffered a lot.”

NOTE: This article first appeared in A.M. Cuba, another title of the A.M. Newspapers corporation.

Magalys de Loyola when she was in a government shelter in La Cruz de Guanacaste.

Magalys de Loyola when she was in a government shelter in La Cruz de Guanacaste.

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