The Deadly Road Through Mexico

When Cubans leave their homeland, things can get lots worse.

"Regrettably no one wants to respond," Martínez says.

The situation is even grimmer for Martínez's boat mate, Aquiles Cosme, who has lost more than 20 pounds since arriving in Tapachula. Back in Westchester, in the entertainment room of her four-bedroom residence, Aquiles's daughter Yamila dabs away tears. The pretty, fair-skinned 32-year-old with doll-like brown eyes is concerned her father won't make it out alive. "He has to eat a very basic diet so he doesn't bleed," she says. "He is under a lot of stress and tension."

During Cosme's incarceration in Mexico, Yamila has been frantically sending documentation of her father's illness to immigration officials. In addition, her father has undergone a colonoscopy in Mexico to prove he is sick. "The tests showed that he needs a complete reconstructive surgery of his colon," she says. "Yet two weeks have gone by and the immigration officials won't answer his questions about allowing his release. Are they waiting for him to die? It's just so frustrating."

Rey Rodríguez (right) destroyed all belongings that mentioned his Cuban nationality.
Daniel Kramer
Rey Rodríguez (right) destroyed all belongings that mentioned his Cuban nationality.
Mexico Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora says Americans finance smuggling of Cubans.
AP Wide World
Mexico Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora says Americans finance smuggling of Cubans.

Yamila believes Mexican authorities should release her father for humanitarian reasons. "They released the family members of the man who died in their custody," she argues. "They should do the same for my father." In recent weeks, Yamila, Martínez's family members, and the relatives of at least a dozen Cubans detained in Mexico have been appearing on Spanish-language radio and television programs to drum up public awareness and put pressure on the Mexican government to release the Cubans. U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla) wrote a letter to the Mexican ambassador in the United States to intervene on their behalf. But so far it doesn't seem to be working. "I need my father alive," says Yamila. "He is not going to make it over there."

In Cuba, Rey Rodríguez was a professional photographer in a provincial town. He considered entering the priesthood, but there was little support for seminarians on the island, so in 2003 he secured a visa to Mexico to further his studies. Then Rodríguez fell in love with a Mexican girl during a religious retreat and got her pregnant. He abandoned the seminary, and the couple decided to marry and start a family in Morelia, a colonial city in central Mexico.

In 2004, Rodríguez applied for Mexican residency. He received an unexpected answer. Authorities told him to leave the country in 72 hours or risk deportation. Instead of departing, Rodríguez purchased false documents that identified him as a Mexican citizen. He destroyed all belongings that mentioned his Cuban nationality.

He also worked to change his accent, mannerisms, and word choice to appear more Mexican. It wasn't easy.

His scheme worked for a while. Rodríguez married his girlfriend, their child was born, and he found part-time work at a Ford dealership. With his brown skin and straight black hair, Rodríguez passed three years without trouble.

Finally, last spring, Mexican immigration officials caught and detained him. They released him after issuing him a document stating his real name and nationality. (According to the National Immigration Institute of Mexico, authorities have detained 876 Cubans this year and deported 271.) "It was just a plain piece of paper with a stamp, but it was the only identification I had left," Rodríguez says. "The paper said that I had 30 days of parole in Mexico before I would be ordered out of the country."

Rodríguez decided to bolt for the Texas border. He had heard he could pass legally into the United States there. After a day on a bus from Morelia to Matamoros, he arrived at the border crossing. Fearing he would be caught and sent back to Cuba, he trembled as he approached the gate to the international bridge.

At the turnstile, he fumbled for change in his pockets. He had only a 10-peso piece, the wrong coin. He tried to stuff the peso into the slot, but it wouldn't fit. A Mexican guard approached, armed with an automatic rifle.

"Mexico is so corrupt," Rodríguez says. "You're constantly having to pay bribes to get anything done. I thought I would have to pay another bribe to get across."

But the guard offered the correct change. Rodríguez strolled across the bridge and came to a line of people curling out of the U.S. customs office. He began talking to others, telling his story.

The Mexicans were surprised a Cuban would wait in such a long line. They told him he could simply walk up to a window inside the office, declare his nationality, and claim political asylum. Rodríguez did, and hours later he walked into Texas.

Rodríguez recently moved to Houston, where he resides in a one-bedroom apartment with another Cuban, Silvino, whom he met while living near the border. He's optimistic about job prospects but misses his wife and two children, who are still living in Mexico. He has thought about trying to persuade his family to sneak across the border, but says he's going to wait until he has the money to bring them here legally.

Enveloped by darkness, a tractor rumbled down the hills of Cuba's western coast. It pulled a cart loaded with a makeshift boat constructed from aluminum tubing and an old car motor.

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