Cubans head into 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 yesterday.
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 on 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 yesterday that rather than face deportation, many of his compatriots, about 1,000, had ventured into the Darien Gap, a lawless and roadless expanse where rebels and criminal syndicates operate.
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 the detente with Havana will lead the US government to end the preferential immigration treatment that Cubans now get when reaching US soil have been heading by the thousands for North America.
But they have been stymied by a crackdown on migration by Central and South American nations that have their borders to the Cubans.
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 on 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".