Photo by Dirk van der Made
Part Two of a Three Part Series
Jose Dominguez—whose real name is not used to preserve his anonymity—is a Cuban national who fled his country in the hopes of starting a new life in the United States. The socioeconomic conditions in Cuba were so dire that he was forced to make a three month trip that would risk everything—including his life.
Due to international policies between the United States and Cuba, Dominguez was unable to fly to the US directly. There was, however, another way: travel by land throughout South America, and cross into the US via Mexico.
He and the other eight Cubans he traveled with would be at the mercy of coyotes who would make false promises and steal their money, police officers who would require bribes in order to allow the travelers to continue their journey, and terrain that crossed through some of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world. This included a four day trek through the Panamanian jungle, all in the hopes of obtaining a better life in the US.
Dominguez had been traveling with a group of eight other Cubans as was reported in Part I of this story. They had traveled from Guyana to Brazil, through Venezuela, and then on to Colombia. The group had traveled by bus across Venezuela, exited the bus before arriving at the Colombian border, and crossed into Colombia by foot. (Note: Part I of this story had incorrectly stated they crossed into Colombia by bus.)
They had been assisted by a coyote they had met in Brazil who had promised to take them all the way to Panama. However, upon arriving in a small town in Colombia, the group immediately encountered immigration officials.
The coyote fled, taking their money, and Dominguez and the others were left to reckon with the officers. According to Dominguez, there was only one way to avoid problems with the officers: “We paid them, so they let us go.”
The group encountered yet another coyote who also offered to bring them all the way into Panama. They paid him and spent the night in the city of Monteria. The coyote told the group to wait in a hotel and claimed he would return shortly to continue the journey.
It became quickly apparent that the coyote had no intentions of returning, so the group found themselves stranded. As it turned out, Dominguez had a Cuban friend living in the US who had successfully made the excursion previously. Dominguez called to help find another coyote. He and the others waited at the hotel for three days, until the coyote arrived and brought the group westward to the city of Turbo.
Yet again, the group had traveled with the expectation of being taken all the way to Panama, only to find they had been duped once more. This time, their predicament was even more severe. They waited alone in a hotel room for thirteen days, without knowing any other contacts to continue the journey.
Dominguez decided to take action, though through an unexpected recourse: “I decided to go to immigration and explain my situation to them. I went alone.”
To his surprise, the Colombian officers were accommodating and understanding. “They had seen so many Cubans, that they understood the situation,” Dominguez remembered.
Yet the officers provided more unexpected assistance. Dominguez remembers that they offered him information for a driver who would take the group by boat from one Colombian coastal town to another in order to arrive at a more advantageous location, closer to the Panamian border.
“We had to pay of course,” Dominguez smiled.
He also recalled another surprising experience while at the immigration office. “While I was there, I received a call from the boss of the other officers. He told me that he had a friend who was a journalist for a Colombian newspaper, and that she wanted to interview me.” He remembered his bewilderment. “I thought it was so strange that a police officer would ask this.”
He complied, completed the interview, and he rejoined the others and took the boat ride to arrive close to the Panamanian border. Their boat guide had also offered to provide direction into Panama, but true to form, had shown his promises were a ruse.
While preparing to enter the Panamanian jungle, Dominguez described another experience that was a reminder of how desperate his situation was. When the group of nine arrived at the small coastal city in Colombia, they also met several other groups of Cubans who had been brought there as well by other coyotes. These other groups would cross together as one group of forty, but they also met a separate group they would not cross the Panamanian jungle with.
According to Dominguez, these others were Nepalese who also sought passage to the US, but had been preyed upon by narco-traffickers. They had been turned into drug mules.
“The Nepalese were trying to get to the United States,” Dominguez claimed, “but they didn’t have any money to pay the smugglers. The cartels knew that, so they paid the Nepalese to transport drugs into Mexico. But the cartels often killed them when they got there.”
It was an indication of how incredibly dangerous the country conditions were, and Dominguez was only half way to his ultimate destination. He still faced the Panamanian jungle and the utter frustration of finding that Costa Rica—which borders Panama to the north—had closed its border to these migrants.
Once again, Dominguez and the others in his group would persevere and find a way through.