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.