In a move likely to reduce the number of Cubans reaching U.S. soil, Mexico agreed Monday to deport Cubans smuggled into the country on their way to the United States.
The agreement between Mexico and Cuba reflects concern among Mexican officials over the growing number of Cubans being brought into this country by traffickers evading beefed-up U.S. patrols in the waters between Cuba and Florida.
The pact, signed during a visit by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, is the latest sign of improved relations between Mexico and Cuba after a chill during the administration of former Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Mexican authorities have arrested about 2,000 undocumented Cubans this year, more than triple the total last year, according to figures cited in the Mexican media. Four years ago, Mexican immigration officers detained fewer than 200 Cubans.
More than 11,000 Cubans made it to the United States through Mexico last year.
The U.S. crackdown near Florida has sent smugglers in search of new routes for delivering Cuban migrants to American soil, where they are entitled to legal residency under a provision of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allows only those who reach land to stay.
Seeking to evade U.S. sea patrols, smugglers shuttle the migrants by boat to the Yucatan peninsula and neighboring islands, such as Isla Mujeres. The Yucatan is about 150 miles from Cuba’s western tip. Others sneak into Mexico from Central America.
Cubans are just one group using Mexico to reach the United States. It is also the primary route for Central American migrants, thousands of whom cross Mexico’s southern border illegally on their way north each year.
Relatively few Cubans who reached Mexico without papers have been arrested but are rarely sent home. Many obtain permits enabling them to travel by land to the northern border. Once on U.S. soil, Cubans are usually held only a few days.
Mexican officials have watched the surge from Cuba with growing dismay. Sophisticated migrant-smuggling networks, which receive up to $15,000 for each Cuban client, reportedly have joined hands with Mexican drug traffickers. Smugglers have stolen fast boats and airplanes to ply their trade, authorities say.
The pact will be a “decisive tool for preventing and confronting illegal immigration, human trafficking and other related crimes,” Perez Roque said during the signing ceremony Monday.
In one publicized incident in June, gunmen seized 33 Cubans being taken by bus to a detention center after they were detained by Mexican authorities. Officials blamed Miami-based smugglers.
Within days, most of the migrants had made their way by land to the Texas border to apply for U.S. residency.
In a joint declaration, Mexican and Cuban officials Monday blamed U.S. immigration policies for spurring smuggling.
Traditionally warm ties between the nations frayed under Fox, a pro-U.S. conservative who angered then-President Fidel Castro by supporting a United Nations measure condemning Cuba’s human rights record.