Cubans head into perilous Panama jungle to avoid deportation

About 1,000 Cubans intent on reaching The United States have opted to cross into Panama in the perilous Darien Gap jungle region rather than submit to deportation and return to their homeland, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Most of the hundreds of Cubans who had been stranded since May in miserable conditions in the steamy Colombian town of Turbo near the Panamanian border have now departed, said William Gonzalez, the government ombudsman for the region.

The government said Monday that only 350 remained. Gonzalez said they included 80 remaining at a makeshift shelter where sanitary conditions were poor. Fourteen Cubans who accepted voluntary repatriation were flown to Cuba on Saturday on a Colombian military plane.

A spokesman for the Cuban migrants, 34-year-old Aliex Artiles, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that rather than face deportation, many of his compatriots had ventured into the Darien Gap, a lawless and roadless expanse where rebels and criminal syndicates operate.

"They took the dirt path into the jungle," said Artiles. "I calculate there were more than 1,000."

He said others had headed south for Ecuador, which had long been a transit country for Cubans until its government began cracking down.

Cubans who fear that detente with Havana will lead the U.S. government to end the preferential immigration treatment that Cubans now get when reaching U.S. soil have been heading by the thousands for North America.

But they've been stymied by a crackdown on migration by Central and South American nations that have their borders to the Cubans. More than 7,000 Cubans were stuck in Costa Rica for weeks earlier this year when Nicaragua closed its border to them. They were eventually airlifted to Mexico and El Salvador to continue their journey. Thousands of others took shelter in Panama before it tightened its border with Colombia.

The migrants stranded in Turbo had requested safe passage to Mexico, but its government turned them down.

Colombia's migration office said in a statement Monday that "to permit the passage of irregular migrants to other countries is to open the door to criminals dedicated to human trafficking; this would also multiply the number of irregular migrants, given our strategic geographical position for networks dedicated to migrant trafficking."

The government says it has deported more than 5,500 such migrants since May, mostly Cubans and Haitians.

The migration office said none of the Cubans in Turbo had sought asylum in Colombia. But Gonzalez, the ombudsman, said one family four had approached him with the request and the case was being considered.

Artiles, the spokesman, told the AP he planned to leave Turbo on Wednesday.

He would not say where he was going.

___ Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Houston, Texas