By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Sometime after 3:30 p.m. this past December 6, Alexander Pedraza Martínez made his way to an isolated corner in the dusty courtyard of a Mexican immigration detention center where he is sequestered. The thin 44-year-old Cuban physician with gray and white stubble on his face looked around to make sure none of the guards was watching. Then he pulled out a cell phone from the pocket of his green Bermuda shorts and dialed his sister-in-law's number in west Miami.
Within seconds, the cordless phone in Ivette Chung's kitchen blared. A thin 36-year-old dressed in aqua hospital scrubs, Chung got up from the dining room table, where she had been sipping Cuban coffee with Martínez's elderly aunt, Olga González, and answered the call.
"Hello?" Chung said anxiously. "It's him! It's Alexander!"
Martínez has been stuck in Tapachula, on the Guatemalan border, since June, wondering if he will ever make it to Miami. His predicament offers a glimpse into Mexico's haphazard immigration policy, which allows Cubans who enter by land to stay after paying a fine of 1,000 pesos ($92.07), but deports those intercepted at sea if the Communist government wants them back. The only way to avoid deportation is to claim political asylum and spend 90 days in detention until a Mexican immigration judge hears the case. Yet Martínez has been waiting more than 180 days for his hearing.
Back on the island, Martínez was a respected physician. He was vocal about his desire to leave, so vocal that he feared arrest. Twice in the past two years, he had been detained and interrogated by Cuban police. "I had no other way out, because Cuba always rejected my applications to go on medical missions," he says. "I had to be very careful in everything I did, so I had to find a way out."
More than six months ago, Martínez and 29 other Cubans, including a woman with a 15-month-old daughter, climbed aboard two rickety, tin-hulled boats powered by old car engines at a beach between Havana and Pinar del Río. Fifty-five-year-old Aquiles Cosme tagged along because he had nothing left in Cuba. A tall, heavyset fellow with probing brown eyes and thick gray hair, he had dreamed of reuniting with his only daughter, Yamila, and his wife, Maritza Gómez, who live in Westchester. Cosme had lived through three surgeries on his colon, but had no one to help him in Cuba.
So for four days, the novice seafarers navigated the Gulf of Mexico. "Our intention was to head north," Martínez says during a half-hour telephone conversation with his relatives and a reporter. "We wanted to get to Miami."
But then one of the boats' motors conked out about 50 nautical miles from the Yucatán coastline. "We were not going to leave anyone behind," Martínez adds.
As they drifted in the gulf, the Cubans observed another boat nearby. "We waved at them and got their attention," Martínez says. The unknown vessel was manned by a couple of Mexicans, who tied a rope to the Cubans' disabled boat and began towing them to shore.
Some 37 miles off the Mexican coast, and still in international waters, a Mexican naval ship picked them up. Soon they were delivered to Cancún International Airport, where they were placed in a detention cell, Martínez says. One day later, the doctor was granted permission to contact his sister-in-law in west Miami. "I wanted to let her know I was in Mexico but that I wanted to go to the United States," he says.
They were detained in Cancún for approximately one week and then transferred to the detention facility in Tapachula. Martínez describes the place: "There is a big cement wall with barbed wire that surrounds the complex," he says. "Guards with rifles man watchtowers along the perimeter. There are bars on the doors to our sleeping quarters. There is a closed security camera system in the hallways. This is a jail, no doubt."
He sleeps in a cell with 10 other people under a 500-watt light bulb that is never turned off. "It stays on all night long," he says. "It's psychological torture." His diet consists of white rice, red beans, shredded chicken meat, and bread.
He stays in contact with his Miami relatives via cell phones that other detainees have smuggled into the facility.
"Our [immigration] situation is unknown," Martínez laments. "We have tried everything to get out of this place, but no one will do anything."
Eighteen members of his group, including the 15-month-old baby and her mother, have been returned to Cuba. Six others were released, including four family members of an elderly man who died of natural causes shortly after the group arrived in Cancún. "I guess to shut them up they let them go," Martínez complains. "I know they made it to Miami."
From his group, only six remain. But he says there are about 67 Cubans being held in the facility. The detainees have received assistance from the Mexican chapter of Médicos sin Fronteras, a humanitarian aid group. Representatives of the group have met with seven high-ranking officials at the National Immigration Institute of Mexico, including Secretary Pablo Enríquez Rodríguez.