Chronicle of a ‘Rafter’ on Foot (Part 1 of 3)

Un grupo de personas cruza a bordo de una balsa desde Guatemala en dirección al lado mexicano. (Manu Ureste)
A group of people crossing from Guatemala to the Mexican side aboard a raft. (Manu URESTE)

I live proud of being Cuban. I always have been. Cuba evokes the warmth of a mother’s lap, the tenderness of my great-nephews, friends, my first love, the pain of a suffering nation. I am one of a generation born on the threshold of the euphemistically called  Special Period, so also coming to mind are blackouts, scarcities, building collapses and censorship. How can I forget that I had to come to Guatemala to hear the music of Celia Cruz for the first time, or to learn of the valiant struggle of the opponents of the Cuban regime? How can I forget that rights like freedom of expression, assembly, enterprise and the press were something that I never experienced, things that according to what was said could only be obtained “outside”?

It was pouring down rain in the Guatemalan capital the day they gave me the news. “After serious consideration we believe that your path is not to be a consecrated religious.” The temperature dropped and like every Caribbean in these mountainous lands, I began to feel a glacial cold. A lapidary moment. One by one the floor tiles start to sink to the rhythm of my life: the dreams that I had forged, the people with whom I had related, the university students, everything was being erased by that hurricane, whose vortex would be the duty of returning to Cuba.

It took a few hours to get over the shock: the decision was made. I would melt into this human river that had been written about in the independent media, and that few or no one in the world knew: the hemorrhage of Cubans who risk Central America and Mexico to get to the United States. Rather than return to slavery, at least I would try to get to a land of freedom. I knew it could cost me my life, but it was worth it to try.

The whole border region lives off human trafficking. My experiences confirmed it.

The first point was to find an appropriate coyote. Not all are reliable, so you have to make sure it is someone who has made successful trips. Through friends who made the journey previously I got Juan’s number. What first drew my attention was his ring tone. It was a popular Christian doxology. “It is so people will feel confident,” I thought. On the other end of the cell a voice assured me that the journey would be a success and that a group of Cubans was already waiting for me to leave. The cost, $2,500 US, in cash in Guatemala, was the price of the American dream, $5,000 if it was from Ecuador and you wanted to be sure to arrive. I had to leave, on my own account and at my own risk, from one of the most violent countries in the world to a border city with 18,700 quetzales in exchange. They were waiting for me there.

The bus that took me to the site was a tower of Babel: Africans, Hindus, Cubans… It seemed very ordinary, as no one was surprised. After a six hour journey, I arrived at my destination. At least a dozen people crowded around the terminal offering, to anyone who looked foreign, help in crossing the border illegally. Another passenger told me that the whole border region lives off human trafficking. My experiences confirmed it.

Behind me, making me shudder: “Are you Juan?” I was facing the emissary of my coyote. Following a positive response, we wended our way through a web of intricate alleys to a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. “Don’t worry, bro, this neighborhood is controlled by us, there’s no problem.” Both the fake Cuban accent and the difficulty of getting to the place sparked the exact opposite of what the guide intended.

That same afternoon, I was installed in one of the many houses used to hide the island migrants. In the full light of day, and unrestrainedly, because the law in Guatemala constitutes these networks tied to violence and nobody knows for sure how many millions of dollars move. Just to give an idea, it is said that globally, human trafficking generates gross revenues of more than 32 billion dollars annually, some $13,000 on average that each subject brings his coyote.

It was there that I met in person, I learned later, one of the most recognized coyotes in the traffic between Central America and Mexico. His humble demeanor hardly reflected the power he possessed. Emerging from the underworld of rural Guatemala, this person had trafficked drugs and belonged to the  maras (armed groups or gangs who generally control the extortion, human trafficking and drugs in the region). Alcohol and drug use, along with little schooling, marked his life. In time, and according to what he himself told me that afternoon, he converted to evangelical Christianity, and today is its staunch promoter.

It is said that human trafficking globally generates more than 32 billion dollars annually, some $13,000 on average that each subject brings his ‘coyote’

Juan alternates conversation with preaching, and while he charged me $2,500, he affirmed to me that today Christ is the center of his life and the one who has given him everything he possesses. “God and Cubans,” he corrects himself. Under his protection are charitable sites and he shares his life between both passions: “The Church and crowning people so that they get to their destination: the flagpole with the stars and stripes.” Before leaving he let me know that I should leave there everything I owned. I will only be allowed to depart with a change of clothes and my papers. The rest will go into the coffers of his charities. “It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day when they will crown you in  la yuma,” he blurts out as consolation.

Once the coyote left, I was alone in an unknown house, in the midst of an unknown city and in the hands of unknown people without very good references. I’m facing a mountain of clothes, shoes and the belongings of those who came before me. Judging by the number of garments there were dozens. On the walls graffiti recorded the names and hometowns of Cubans. Manuel from Matanzas, May 2013; Yoenia González from Camagüey, December 2013; Yendry from Bayamo, June 2015… What had become of them? Did they make it to the United States or are they in a mass grave? Images of Auschwitz crossed my mind, while on the roof rats frolicked. The die is cast. I waited three days in solitary confinement, three days “with the Creed in my mouth” as my grandfather used to say: facing death and praying to God to save me.

Thus began the long road of a “rafter” on foot. Swamps, jungles, rivers, robbers, internal divisions and police would take turns adding to the difficulties of a crossing already difficult, to reach free soil.

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Editor’s note: The author worked as a religious consecrated to the Catholic Church in Guatemala for almost two years before embarking on the journey to the United States.

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