By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
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
Early in the day this past July 19, Luis Lázaro Lara Morejón left his sunny oceanside room at the Solymar hotel in Cancún to buy groceries at a small market nearby. The tall, heavy-set 30-year-old Cuban exile from Miami was accompanied by his pretty, young Mexican girlfriend, María Elena Carrillo Sáenz.
The lovers passed the two huge pools and a beachfront clubhouse and bar, then walked down a stone-paved path to the Solymar's main building before exiting the imposing, Aztec-style front entrance onto Kukulcán Boulevard.
Morejón's two kids, ages six and nine, stayed behind with a nanny. By nightfall, the couple hadn't returned. The alarmed caretaker called police.
Authorities began investigating and soon contacted the children's mother, Alely Acosta, who lived in a one-bedroom apartment at 6525 W. 24th Ave. in Hialeah. Forty-eight hours later, she arrived in Cancún, picked up the kids, and returned to South Florida.
The cops suspected the pair had been kidnapped. Eleven days after Morejón disappeared, following an anonymous tip, about a dozen Mexican police officers walked down a narrow dirt road surrounded by thick brush near the Cancún-Mérida highway. It was about two kilometers from the Solymar's front steps.
Soon they came upon an abandoned stone building near a site where law enforcers once incinerated confiscated drugs.
An officer stopped near the front door. Before him was a handcuffed, shirtless corpse in dirty white Bermuda shorts lying face down. The dead man's left index finger had been mutilated, and the body was covered in welts. When police turned him over, they found his eyes and mouth shut with duct tape. His face had been obliterated by bullets.
An autopsy revealed Morejón had been shot 12 times, six in the head and six in the torso, with a 9mm pistol.
Three days later, at 3:30 p.m., police received a second anonymous tip. Some 600 meters from the Morejón crime scene, in a natural sinkhole 10 meters deep, they found Sáenz's decomposing body. Her murder drew particular attention. After all, she was the child of prominent Yucatán hoteliers.
Also buried in the sinkhole were two young Mexicans, Jesús Aguilar and Edwin Park.
The victims were covered in lime, and, like Morejón, had been blindfolded, gagged with duct tape, and handcuffed. Forensic analysts determined they had been shot six to eight times with 9mm bullets similar to the ones that had killed Morejón.
Police believe Morejón and the Mexican men were human traffickers and that their brutal murders were part of the latest dustup in a turf war between groups of Cuban-Americans. The girlfriend was collateral damage in the bloody conflict that claimed the lives of seven people in August, including Morejón's alleged boss, Manuel Duarte Díaz.
The carnage is just one indication of the booming market in smuggling Cubans through Mexico by land to Texas and Miami or elsewhere. Some 9,296 Cubans crossed the border into the Lone Star State between October 1, 2006, and July 22, 2007, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That's more than double the 4,589 who crossed or were picked up by the Coast Guard in the Florida Straits during the same period.
Stakes are high. Traffickers charge at least $10,000 per person to ferry Cubans off the island to the Yucatán.
Smugglers provide undocumented Cubans with shelter in Cancún and the neighboring city of Mérida, a place Mexican prosecutor Bello Melchor Rodríguez calls "the financial base of operations for these bands of Cuban-American mafia."
Rodríguez explains that smugglers in speed boats sometimes haul 25 to 30 passengers from Cuba to Mexico via the treacherous 135-mile-long Yucatán Channel. During a typical run, a speed boat transfers the human cargo onto a chartered yacht, which then docks at Cancún, Cozumel, or Isla Mujeres. The smuggled Cubans are given new clothes, usually beach apparel, to blend in with the tourists. "They are all over Quintana Roo and Yucatán," Rodríguez says.
Deadly violence is not the only obstacle these Cubans face. Those intercepted at sea by the Mexican navy face the possibility of immediate deportation. Those who make it to land and seek political asylum are jailed for 90 days or more while awaiting a hearing. Detentions of undocumented Cubans in Mexico skyrocketed from 254 in 2002 to 2,205 in 2006, according to the National Immigration Institute of Mexico. About a third of those were sent back to the island, where they likely face serious prison time for escaping Cuba.
And even if they make it to Texas, Cubans risk appearing before an unsympathetic federal judge who has denied political asylum to every Cuban who has gone through his courtroom, tacking on at least another 90 days of incarceration in exchange for American liberty.
In effect, the Mexico route is an end-around on the U.S. "wet foot/dry foot" policy in which Cubans caught at sea are taxied back to the island, but those who make it to U.S. soil can stay. The phenomenon has given rise to a new term: dusty foot.
"I am not happy with the [U.S.] policy," says Jorge Ferragut, a Cuban who settled in Houston in 1980 and later started Casa Cuba, an organization aimed at helping Cubans who arrive in Texas. "The people that try to leave, they are putting their lives in danger."
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.
"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."
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.
Fourteen Cubans crammed onto the boat, destined for a twisting river that leads to the Yucatán Channel. To Harry Reinier, who had been waiting with the others in a safe house for weeks, the vessel felt like a kitchen sink.
Reinier didn't know what to expect at sea. He had never set foot on a boat before this moment. Food and water were scarce. He brought a backpack full of canned food and two jugs of water for each member of the group. He knew only that their goal was the east coast of Mexico — a trip he believed would take four days. Reinier had little money, few resources, and no guarantee the boat would ever reach land.
But the risk would be worth it. Before he left Cuba this spring, Reinier worked in a bakery, kneading dough for 10 hours a day and $12 a week. His mother had fled Cuba years earlier for Peru. When a friend told Reinier about a planned escape to Mexico, he emptied his savings account and paid $500 to reserve a seat on the boat. It was blind faith; he had never met the men in charge of the trip. "Everyone wants to leave Cuba," Reinier says. "When there is money, and there is a chance, that's when they leave."
The boat sputtered east for two days before the motor died. For more than a week, it drifted on the open sea. Food and water ran out. There were only raw fish and rainwater.
Then they finally reached shore. After suffering dehydration, sunburn, and exhaustion; after battling sleep-deprived, crazed boat mates; after spending five months in a Mexican prison; and after enduring marathon bus rides to Mexico City and Matamoros, Reinier crossed the Texas border.
Following his release from prison, Reinier walked to a small park across the street from the customs office in Brownsville, Texas. Large trees shaded concrete benches, and recently arrived immigrants rested in the park or waited for companions. Reinier began asking strangers for advice.
He eventually found his way to a Catholic church in the heart of Brownsville. The church contacted Sister Margaret Merkens, an ex-Catholic schoolteacher from Missouri who runs a small shelter for refugees about 30 miles north of the border. After a few weeks at the shelter, Reinier felt stuck. Five months ago, when he stepped aboard the homemade boat and set out for Mexico, he knew it would be the last time he would see Cuba. His sister is still there, along with his wife and child. He misses the place.
Reinier rarely leaves the shelter grounds, which are surrounded by acres of dirt and sugar cane fields, miles from any businesses that might provide work. He sometimes hitches a ride into town to go to the bank and cash the $500 in government assistance checks he receives monthly.
Most days Reinier either studies English or cooks dinner for other refugees. He has applied for several jobs in surrounding towns but thinks whites and Mexican-Americans are suspicious of a black man with a funny Spanish accent.
He's waiting for an immigration hearing to get his green card. "You could put a paper in front of me that says, 'This black guy will be your slave,' and I would sign it," he says, "because I have no idea what I'm signing."
But Reinier has some hope. He figures he can venture out on his own as soon as he learns enough English. He doesn't know much about the Texas away from the border and wants to leave the state so he can find work. He has heard of a place called Kentucky; he dreams of settling down there.
"I have no idea what it's like there," he says, "but it sounds calm and peaceful, with plenty of jobs for Cubans. I think that it's a place where I could raise a family."
Stories like these have some anti-immigration groups fuming. The Federation for American Immigration Reform supports ending all preferential treatment of Cubans, who were first given a path to residency in the United States in 1966, when the government passed the Cuban Adjustment Act. Ira Mehlman, a representative for the federation, says the policy encourages all kinds of illegal immigrants — including potential terrorists — to seek asylum on American soil.
"It's a vestige of a Cold War-era policy that didn't make sense even during the Cold War. Castro has always been happy to export his political dissidents here to yell and scream," Mehlman says. "Cubans should be treated exactly like everyone else — no better and no worse."
One immigration judge at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, Howard E. Achtsam, regularly denies asylum to Cubans — apparently on principle. This forces them to spend more time in detention, though they're eventually freed. "If you're unfortunate enough to get Judge Achtsam, that means you're probably going to get denied," says attorney Jodie Goodwin. "I think he has got to be the only immigration judge in the country that routinely denies asylum for Cubans." (The U.S. Justice Department acknowledges that every Cuban who has passed through Port Isabel in the past two years has been denied asylum.)
Even some prominent Cuban-Americans question the legitimacy of asylum claims by "dusty foot" Cubans. Grisel Ybarra, an immigration attorney in Miami who fled Cuba in 1962, thinks the Cuban Adjustment Act shouldn't apply in Texas. She thinks most Cubans are seeking a better-paying job, not political freedom.
"These Cubans come here, tell some bullshit story at the border, and they get their green card," Ybarra says. "I came here seeking freedom, not hot dogs. My generation, we are refugees; they are immigrants. If you came to Miami and asked Cubans who came here before Mariel [in 1980], 99 percent of them would agree with me...."
Compounding the problem, Ybarra adds, are Cuban-Americans who support illegal human trafficking by paying tens of thousands of dollars to get their relatives off the island. "Cubans are the richest Hispanic group in the U.S.," she says. "We live in million-dollar homes in Coral Gables. We have the money to pay for boats to get people out of Cuba."
In the Florida Straits, the Coast Guard has become more aggressive toward suspected smugglers, according to Chief Petty Ofcr. Dana Warr of the U.S. Coast Guard. Officers are instructed to shoot at boats that do not respond to warning shots. Gunfire has a 100 percent success rate, Warr says, so it's no surprise that smugglers have changed direction. "We know it's happening, that there is a lot of maritime smuggling between Cuba and Mexico," he says. "We have a vested interest because, indirectly, that is illegal smuggling into the U.S."
If smuggling continues to affect the number of Cubans crossing the Texas border, Warr says, Coast Guard ships could patrol as far south as the Yucatán Channel. "The Caribbean Sea is two million square miles, and we try to patrol every bit of it," he says. "We realize we can't catch them all."
Quintana Roo Attorney General Bello Melchor Rodríguez acknowledges Mexican law enforcement is having a difficult time battling smugglers. Moreover, Rodríguez says, some rings employ assassins known as Los Zetas, or The Zs, former Mexican National Police officers and ex-special armed forces soldiers turned freelance mercenaries. Los Zetas are responsible for the turf war-related murder of reputed human trafficker Francisco Javier Fernández Ramírez this past July and the July 27 shooting of suspected Cuban smuggler Alberto Maya Mendoza, who spent two weeks in a coma in a Mérida hospital.
Jenaro Villamil, a reporter for Yucatán newspaper Periódico AM, says the rings act with impunity. "We are talking about a multimillion-dollar industry involving Mexican cartels, local businessmen, corrupt immigration authorities, and the Cuban-American mafia," Villamil says. "The battle for control is taking place in Quintana Roo, specifically in Cancún."
The roots of Miami resident Luis Lázaro Lara Morejón's bloody execution-style killing in Cancún date back at least five years. He and his then-wife, Alely Acosta, arrived in Miami from Cuba in 2002, when they took up residence in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium in west Hialeah, about a three-minute drive from Palmetto General Hospital. Over the next four years, the couple and their two children moved to two different condos within five miles of each other.
Little is known about Morejón's time in Miami-Dade County. Six of his neighbors New Times questioned couldn't remember him or Acosta, whom Morejón apparently split with sometime in 2005 — about a year before he fled to Mexico. New Times was not able to locate Acosta at her last known address, a one-bedroom apartment 10 blocks from the condo at 65th Street and 24th Avenue in west Hialeah. The place was empty during a recent visit, perhaps indicating she and the young children fled after the murder.
Morejón's name appears in the Miami-Dade County Clerk's online database, but no information is available about any charges, indicating he probably has a sealed criminal record. The clerk's website also reveals Morejón's Florida driver's license was suspended March 27, 2006, when he failed to pay a $162 fine for a traffic violation.
The reason is clear. By then, Morejón was in Cancún. He had joined more than 200 Cuban-Americans, many of whom are originally from Miami, in the smuggling business, asserts Quintana Roo prosecutor Melchor Rodríguez.
Shortly after his arrival, Morejón hooked up with Manuel Duarte Díaz, nicknamed "El Maní" ("The Peanut"), the alleged top man of a human trafficking ring operating in Mérida and Cancún, Rodríguez says. Morejón mediated between El Maní and Cuban-Americans in the United States seeking to get their relatives out of Cuba. The exiles would send Morejón the money and he would then pick up their relatives and take them to a safe house in Mérida. There he would provide them with food and new clothes so they wouldn't arouse the attention of law enforcement in the Yucatán province where Mérida is located.
Rodríguez won't say exactly how much Morejón was earning, but contends it was more than $100,000 per year.
According to police officials in Quintana Roo, El Maní and Morejón knew a local named David (authorities declined to provide his full name), who worked for the regional office of the National Immigration Institute of Mexico. The Cubans paid David to help them secure legal immigration status for the undocumented Cubans. The alleged smugglers were also doing business with Francisco Ramírez, the Cuban executed at the hands of Los Zetas. Ramírez owned a fishing charter business with Edwin Park, one of the two Mexicans executed alongside Morejón's girlfriend María Sáenz.
Rodríguez believes a rival Cuban-American ring paid Los Zetas to kill Morejón, his girlfriend, and his business associates. "Where we found the bodies and how they were killed points to Los Zetas," Rodríguez says.
Nearly six months after the murders, Mexican detectives have detained and questioned 20 individuals suspected of human trafficking. But the authorities still don't have any solid leads.
During a press conference this past December 10, Mexico's attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, said the killings and the trafficking are likely to continue as long as Cubans keep receiving automatic asylum in the States. "It has been legally proved," Medina Mora told reporters, "that people of Cuban origin but who are citizens of the United States are involved, financing these people-smuggling operations, obviously with the complicity of Mexicans."