World News

Mexico clamps down on illegal immigrants from Cuba

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico agreed to tighten immigration rules on Monday in an effort to cut off the main smuggling route for thousands of Cubans headed to the United States.

“We believe now there will be fewer attempts to use Mexico as an illegal corridor for Cuban immigrants trying to get to the United States,” said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque at a news conference with Mexican officials.

More than 11,000 Cubans slipped into the United States via Mexico last year, according to U.S. authorities.

Most sneak off the island without exit permits from the Cuban government and travel in small speedboats to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Paying smugglers up to $15,000, they then make their way overland to the United States where, unlike other Latin American immigrants, they only have to step on U.S. soil and request political asylum to be allowed to stay.

If arrested in Mexico, the Cubans are often released and continue their journey north.

The lax enforcement will change under the new agreement, with Mexico pledging to send all Cubans caught without proper documents home.

The move is an effort by President Felipe Calderon to smooth the ties between the two countries strained under his predecessor, Vicente Fox.

Fox and Fidel Castro feuded publicly, with the Cuban leader calling Mexico a U.S. pawn, and Fox voting to condemn Cuba at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 2002.

The two countries temporarily withdrew their ambassadors in May 2004. Fox left office in December 2006 and Castro, sidelined by illness, was replaced by his brother Raul Castro this year as Cuba’s first new leader in 49 years.

Cubans seeking to get to the United States traditionally packed into boats and motored across the Florida Straits, but U.S. drug patrols in the area have made it harder to get through. Now the preferred route is by boat to Mexico and then overland to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Human traffickers are believed to be working with drug smuggling gangs that control organized crime and police protection rackets in Mexico.

Several Cubans have been murdered in Mexico in recent months with police pointing fingers at smugglers with suspected ties to drug cartels.

A joint declaration by the two governments said the preferential treatment given by the United States to Cuban migrants encourages their illegal entry into Mexico.

“The U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba ... complicates efforts to effectively combat criminal organizations that profit from the illegal trafficking of Cubans,” the declaration said.

Reporting by Anahi Rama; Editing by Eric Beech