Isla Mujeres Mystery ~ Lynda L. Lock
Home-built boat for Cuban refugees

The wooden hull scrapes on the coral, stalling in the shallow water.  Men scramble overboard, pushing and pulling the small wooden boat to shore – allowing the others to disembark.  Voices whisper softly in Spanish, shushing those that speak too loudly.  Scrabbling over the rocks they swiftly change into dry clothing, discarding the wet pants, shirts, shoes on the sand.
Pirates invading Isla?  No, they are Cuban refugees arriving on the east side of the island in the pre-dawn hours of the night. 

We, and the two watch-dogs that sleep in our driveway, peacefully snoozed through the night completely oblivious to the excitement happening a few hundred feet away.

Naval officers investigating

In the morning Lawrie noticed two naval officers plus two heavily armed enlisted men walking purposefully along our beach. 
Naturally curious he popped his head out the door to see what was happening.  The group had stopped in front of the neighbours’ house, peering over the rocky ledge to the beach.  Lawrie raced upstairs to our bedroom patio for a better view and spotted the boat pulled up on the sand beneath the ledge.
A few minutes later, camera in hand, I wandered down to the beach to chat with our neighbours’ handyman, José.  He said that the boat had arrived sometime during the night, and that he had reported it at seven in the morning to the Navy officials.  
Discarded wet clothing
José thought there were around 20 people on board judging by the amount of wet clothing left behind along with space-blankets (thin aluminum sheets that are used to retain body warmth) and the amount of empty water bottles in the bottom of the boat.  José said the eighty-five mile trip would have taken them at least five days, even accounting for the easterly winds. 

Plastic fan blades for a propeller

 It was a primitive, open boat, with no shelter from wind, rain or sun.  Their only means of propulsion were two long home-made wooden oars, and a tiny motor out-fitted with a plastic fan blade for a propeller.  Fortunately for the refugees the weather had been mild for the last few days – overcast, windy, not the strong storms that can occur in the winter.

The next night, during a driving rainstorm, we could hear loud banging and bashing noises coming from the direction of the grounded boat.  In the morning we discovered the abandoned carcass of the boat had been picked clean.  The local people had recycled all the wood, the motor and most of the wet clothing.  What was over-looked were the two long wooden oars.  These now decorate our living room wall.  Our little bit of recycling, otherwise known as beach scavenging.

Cuban oars as wall decoration

A quicker, but vastly more expensive, way for Cuban refugees to arrive in Mexico is via fast sport-fishing boats, powered by two or three 250-horse outboard motors.  These boats are typically stolen from coastal American marinas and taken to Cuba where the operators sell passage from Cuba to Mexico at approximately $10,000 US dollars per person.  
The operators will then make the drop-off somewhere on the Mexican coastline – hoping to avoid detection by the Mexican Navy or Coast Guard cutters.  Not all escape detection.   There are currently about forty boats moored at the Naval docks on Isla Mujeres.  They remain here, year after year, rotting at the docks, mired in a legal battle between American insurance companies, and Mexican officials. 

All of these boats have been intercepted by the Navy

Spanish speaking Cuban refugees can assimilate quite readily into the Mexican population, but for the most part they eventually try to make their way north to the US border.  When researching on the internet to see how many refugees attempt this crossing I found an interesting news item.  It described an incident in June of 2008. 
A group of armed men “kidnapped” thirty-four Cuban refugees who were being transported by police to a detention centre.  The thirty-four refugees had been detained by the Mexican navy on a beach near Cancun. They were turned over to the immigration department, and were to be transported to the refugee camp at Tapachula near the border of Chiapas and Guatemala.  The article suggested that the kidnapping was likely a rescue operation by either friends or paid associates, preventing the forced return of the refugees to Cuba.
This journey is not for the faint of heart.
The next time the wind blows from the east, the sea is calm, and the moon is bright we’ll be keeping our eyes open, and listening.  Listening for the arrival of refugees.  This journey is not for the faint of heart.

4 Replies to “Escape From Cuba”

  1. Thanks for the story! I took a photo of the wooden boat with Cuba written on it in the confiscation area, but had no clue where it came from. A little bit of excitement right out your back door. Love the oars!


  2. Pobrecitos…think of the desperation that causes these people to take such risk….thanks for the pics – I love your blog! And the oars will continue to tell their story…Sandia


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