MEXICO CITY (AP) – Advocates for migrants said Friday they filed 15 complaints against Mexican government officials for allegedly extorting Cubans passing through en route to the United States and have documented hundreds of similar cases.
The complaints filed with the federal prosecutor's office charge that officials at the National Migration Institute have held Cuban migrants and solicited phone numbers of relatives in the United States, who they then called to demand money.
"They hold them incommunicado for a week and meanwhile they phone the families, say they have them here and ask for $3,000 to $5,000 to deliver the relative," said Alberto Donis, a lawyer and head of a migrant shelter called Brothers on the Road in the southern city of Ixtepec. "They threaten that if there is no payment, they will do all sorts of things to the relative."
Donis said his group has documented at least 800 cases of abuses against Cuban migrants by Mexican authorities since such complaints began in 2012, including receipts for money transfers sent from individuals in the United States to lawyers and officials in Mexico.
He singled out the migratory station of Acayucan in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz as a place "from where we receive these same complaints every day." He also noted three other stations in southern Mexico and one on the outskirts of the capital.
The National Migration Institute, or INM for its initials in Spanish, denied the allegations.
"The INM rejects the unfounded accusations that without any substance devalue the work of INM officials, who work every day to assist irregular foreigners in the country," the agency said in a statement.
However, a federal official who is familiar with migration flows through Mexico agreed that some Cubans have suffered extortion as have migrants from other countries. The official insisted on speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Cubans generally arrive in Mexico by sea at the Yucatan Peninsula or by land from Central America after flying to Ecuador, which has had relatively relaxed entry requirements for Cubans in recent years.
Once in Mexico they present themselves to authorities and Cuban diplomats here are then notified, the federal official said. As Cuba generally doesn't respond, Mexico then considers the migrants stateless and not subject to deportation, he said.
They are given an exit permit, which allows them to cross into the United States. Under U.S. law, nearly all Cubans who reach American soil are automatically allowed to stay and apply for residency, unlike migrants from elsewhere.
Donis alleged that Mexican officials charge Cubans for exit permits, which are supposed to be free.
The federal official acknowledged a permit is sometimes withheld by migratory officials to pressure the Cubans to pay for it.
Activists said unscrupulous lawyers or people pretending to be attorneys also show up at migration stations telling Cubans incorrectly that they risk deportation and trying to charge them fees to file for injunctions that actually set back processing of an exit permit.
"There is a serious crisis of attention to migrants in the country that at this moment preys in particular on Cubans, who are currently the ones paying the most money to extortion" schemes, said Alejandro Solalinde, a priest and advocate for migrant rights.
The National Migration Institute said in its statement that 2,867 exit permits have been processed for Cubans this year alone, while Mexico has deported only 186.
Cuban migration to the U.S. has spiked since Washington and Havana announced in December that they would restore diplomatic relations severed over five decades ago. Many would-be migrants on the island fear the unique rules favoring Cubans who reach U.S. soil could disappear, although American officials have said no policy change is in the works.