MEXICO CITY – A group of 18 Cubans crossed into Texas in good health more than a week after heavily armed masked men seized them from immigration agents in southern Mexico, the Attorney General's office said Thursday.
The hijacking of a bus carrying the illegal migrants to a detention center shows how violent criminal organizations are increasingly smuggling Cubans into the United States through Mexico.
Cuba's ambassador to Mexico Manuel Aguilera blamed a Miami-based mafia for the attack.
Thomas Shannon, a top State Department official in Washington, also expressed concern, saying this week that all Cubans sneaking out of the communist-run island through Mexico are being managed by professional traffickers.
Few details have been made public about how the 18 Cubans made it through Mexico, or about the fate of 19 other migrants who were on the bus seized by six gunmen in southern Chiapas state.
The assailants drove off with 33 Cubans and four Central Americans after forcing seven unarmed immigration agents and two drivers off the bus, which was found abandoned hours later along a jungle highway.
Nine Mexican immigration officials and the two bus drivers have been detained for questioning, the Attorney General's office said, and authorities are searching across Mexico for the missing migrants, said Raul Vazquez, an official with Mexico's Migration Institute in Chiapas.
The 18 Cubans walked across an international bridge in Hidalgo, Texas and surrendered to the U.S. Border Patrol. Under the U.S. government's "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, Cubans intercepted at sea are turned back to Cuba, but those who reach U.S. soil are usually allowed to stay.
Questioned in Texas, some of the Cubans said the assailants took them to a house in the Gulf port of Veracruz where photographs were taken and glued to apparently fake immigration documents, which helped them get past military checkpoints, the Attorney General's office said.
Then, the Cubans said they were split up, given money and put on public buses to the border, where they were given more money before crossing into Texas. Authorities didn't identify who helped the Cubans along the way.
U.S. Border Patrol officials said they had no information, and a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, who was not authorized to be named, would only confirm that 18 Cubans had turned themselves in.
The migrants said they left Cuba on a makeshift boat and were picked up at sea by two men in a yacht who offered to take them to the United States. They yacht was then intercepted off Cancun by the Mexican navy, and the two men were detained on allegations of people smuggling.
Both men, Nairobi Claro Ortega and Noriel Veloz, are Cubans who have recently been living in Miami. They turned down an offer of bail, saying they feared for their lives, the Attorney General's office said.
Family members at Ortega's home in Miami said he came from Cuba through Mexico two years ago.
In recent years, several alleged people smugglers have turned up dead in the Yucatan Peninsula, which lies just 120 miles (190 kilometers) southwest of Cuba. Mexican authorities say Cuban-American human trafficking rings operate in and around Cancun.
For decades, Cubans quietly passed through Mexico to avoid being caught by U.S. Coast Guard vessels. But this flow of human cargo has increased substantially — more than 1,000 Cuban migrants have been detained in Mexico this year compared to 1,359 for 2007.
"We know there's a mafia that has connections from Miami to Mexico to Havana," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, who runs the nonprofit Democracy Movement group that helps Cubans arriving in Miami.
Relatives in Miami usually pay the smuggling fee, which has risen to US$15,000 a person, Sanchez said. And when Cubans can't pay, smugglers arrange for them to work off the debt.
"Then they keep them like slaves," Sanchez said. "There's a whole industry developed around the division and the pain of the Cuban family."