METETI, Panama (AP) — Led by smugglers armed with knives and machetes, Mayra Reyes and 14 other Cubans sloshed through swamps and rivers and suffered hordes of mosquitoes as they struggled across the notorious Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, the only north-south stretch of the Americas to defy road-builders.
So Cubans have turned to land routes. Nearly 90 percent of all undocumented Cubans who make it to America now come overland, usually through Mexico, rather than reaching U.S. shores by boat, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The route across the Darien Gap arose partly because many Cubans are now using the South American nation of Ecuador as the start of their path to the United States. President Rafael Correa eliminated visa requirements for Cuba in 2008, as other countries in Latin America, including Mexico, made it harder for Cubans to reach their shores.
All a Cuban needs is an exit permit from the Cuban government and a letter of invitation from a citizen of Ecuador, where some people sell such letters for $300 to $500. If Cubans have a letter of invitation and prove they can finance their travel abroad, it's relatively easy to get an exit permit if they are not doctors, scientists, military or members of other professions deemed high value by the government.