The underground railroad that slipped millions of Central Americans across the U.S. border in the 1980s is now smuggling Asians and Africans desperate for a chance to reach the United States.
Arriving in South America as tourists, they sneak through the Amazon jungle to Colombia--a country known for the quality of its counterfeiting--to obtain forged Central American visas. With those visas, they are less likely to be stopped along the way. Then, by sea, air or land, they connect with the well-established smuggling routes through Central America and Mexico to the United States.
"For the past year and a half, we have watched with concern the number of African and Chinese immigrants that have arrived [here] from Ecuador and Peru," a Colombian law enforcement official said. "Ninety percent do not want to stay in Colombia."
So far, the numbers are small. Colombian law enforcement sources estimate that in the past 18 months, 4,000 to 5,000 Asians and Africans have passed through their country on the way to the United States.
But they say they expect business to pick up: Prospective migrants are discovering that they can defray the $10,000 or more that the journey costs by working for drug traffickers as "mules," transporting cocaine and heroin.
Even the small numbers, however, are a major headache for tiny, poor Central American countries.
"Every time we go on a raid [to arrest undocumented immigrants] and prosecute, our prisons become overcrowded," said Marlene Martinez, Belize's immigration director. "We have to balance our efforts to minimize illegal immigration with the resources we have."
Access to the Land of Plenty
Weary of war in Africa and poverty in both Africa and Asia, and unable to gain legal admission to the United States, migrants choose the option that has given many impoverished people throughout the Americas access to the land of plenty. They get admitted to a South American country, then travel for weeks, or even months, on an arduous journey by boat, by bus and on foot through South and Central America. But those who reach the United States face disappointment.
"Most have virtually no immigration relief," Los Angeles immigration attorney Robert Foss said. "It isn't like the 1980s, when people had hope of legalizing. This feeds them into a permanent underclass, without hope."
Nevertheless, more migrants keep coming through jungles, mountains and deserts--where border crossings are the most difficult to control.
Central American countries are so concerned about the problem that their immigration officials have been meeting regularly since March 1996 to help identify smugglers and routes. The information they share has increasingly included data about smuggling rings for Asian and African migrants. The effort got a major boost last year when Colombian authorities broke a major African smuggling ring, arresting 22 Nigerians living four and five to a room in five downtown Bogota flophouses.
Among their belongings, authorities found a treasure trove of information: names, addresses and telephone numbers of visa and passport forgers, advice on hotels and instructions for filling out applications for legitimate Central American visas.
The Nigerians' papers also included detailed directions that allowed authorities to identify four smuggling routes stretching from Dakar, Senegal, and Accra, Ghana, through Spain, Russia, Cuba and Brazil to Colombia. There, the routes converged before separating again and heading to Central America and the United States.
One option was to enter the Belizean port of Dangriga, then catch the daily TACA Airlines flight from Belize City to New Orleans. Another route took the migrants through Guatemala to Mexico.
Advice From Migrants Who Made the Journey
The group of Nigerians had even received a letter with further advice from three other Nigerians.
"We're now in Guatemala," began the letter signed Michael, Patricia and Abraham. "Everything is alright, but I want you to take very careful about your journey to Guatemala here."
A few months later, Colombians detained 24 Chinese in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla.
But the migrant group that has worried authorities here the most is the 18 Nigerians arrested at Bogota's international airport nearly a year ago, they said.
"They each had up to 14 pellets of cocaine in their stomachs," the law enforcement official said.
Colombians said they fear that the number of African migrants used as mules is increasing.
"Mules are routed through Honduras and Mexico," the law enforcement official said. "There they drop off the drugs, which are taken to the United States by other means."
Migrants who are not carrying drugs are routed through northern Colombia and taken by sea to Panama, where they enter the Central American migrant stream. There, they connect with an underground railroad that has operated since the civil wars of the 1980s and continues to bring migrants without immigration papers to the United States.
Central American countries reported their detentions of undocumented African immigrants for the first time last year. Asian immigrants also are beginning to appear outside Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras, which have strong Chinese communities and a long tradition of Asian migration.
Chinese Detained by Salvadoran Officials
In both 1996 and 1997, Salvadoran authorities detained groups of Chinese migrants clearly headed through their country to the United States. The first group--15 people--was held for 10 months in two small, unventilated cells until a judge declared that the conditions were inhumane. He ordered the detainees released to the custody of a church group.
The migrants were supposed to report to immigration authorities every Monday until their case was settled.
"One week, they didn't show up," said Julio Angel Castro Luna, the national police subcommissioner in charge of immigration. "They are probably in the United States by now."
Conditions are terrible in the holding cells, he admitted. Police have a budget of 11 cents a day to feed detained migrants. They often chip in for food from their own meager wages, he said.
Migrants are routinely detained for long periods because Central American countries do not have the money to deport them. Castro Luna admitted that once, in desperation, he sent five Nigerians back to Panama, the last country that had granted them a visa.
Further complicating matters, Central American countries do not have diplomatic relations with China, so arrangements to send Chinese migrants home must be made through third countries.
Despite the long wait in squalid conditions, a second group of Chinese migrants detained in El Salvador last year was not allowed to leave the jail near the international airport. For eight months--until they were deported--the migrants slept on mats, crammed into tiny cells filled with reminders of past detainees: A group of Egyptians had painted an elaborate mural of pyramids and a sphinx; five Nigerians detained between the Chinese groups wrote "I love you" all over the walls.
Trying to Nab the Smugglers
Chinese magazines, brought by the small Salvadoran Chinese community, littered the cell floors. Speaking through a translator, 28-year-old detainee Chang Yo explained that he was trying to get to the United States because "I don't like the Chinese system."
He had a small store in China that was closed down after some problems with the authorities. He borrowed $4,000 to pay a smuggler, who got him legitimate visas for Hong Kong and Ecuador. From the latter, the smuggler directed him to Brazil, and he traveled by land for two weeks until the minivan transporting him and his traveling companions was stopped by police at Santa Rosa de Lima, in northeastern El Salvador.
The driver fled, leaving police with a van full of Chinese who spoke no Spanish. Still, Castro Luna, the police official, said he hopes that he will be able to make a case against the smugglers under a law that the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed in July that, for the first time, makes smuggling migrants illegal.
Castro Luna said he knows who the smugglers are; it is simply a matter of finding a case he can prove.
"There are five people who are strong," he said. "They are the contacts for the whole country. . . . They have access to international networks. Many have grown and now direct the operations."
Attorney Foss said the Africans who arrive at his office asking for help have been smuggled into the United States with Salvadoran migrants.
"I'm seeing a trickle," he said. "One or two a month."
The effect is only beginning to be felt in the United States. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Andrew Leberis confirmed that "there has been an increase" in smuggling of Asian and African immigrants through Central America, although the agency does not have figures.
Colombia and the Central American countries do have figures. For example, Honduran immigration authorities detained 60 Chinese, 17 Koreans, 17 Nigerians, eight Ghanaians, three Vietnamese and two Zambians last year. They had not stopped any Africans in the previous three years.
"Their final destination is the United States and Canada," said Angelina Ulloa Duarte, Honduras' immigration director.
Taking Action Against Rings
The transit countries have begun to take action against smuggling rings:
* Last year, Colombia tripled to 74 the number of countries that face visa restrictions here--meaning that in order to visit Colombia, their citizens must prove they have substantial incomes and the intention of returning to their native lands. For the past year, Belize has also restricted visas for visitors from 74 countries, including most of Africa and the developing Asian nations.
* Like El Salvador, Colombia and Honduras recently passed laws against smuggling migrants. Legislation is pending in Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica.
* Airport security and land borders have also been reinforced in many countries, to the extent possible, given terrain and budget restrictions.
"We do have a strong obligation not to be used as a transit country for illegal immigration," Martinez said. But as the cost of halting migrants rises, immigration officials feel that they should receive the same kind of international support that their anti-narcotics counterparts get.
"This is a worldwide problem," the Colombian law enforcement official said. "They create instability and generate more crime and violence. Our country becomes a conduit."