Uruguay has dismantled a group dedicated to bringing Cuban migrants illegally to the country, highlighting an increasingly popular human-smuggling route.

Thirty-four Cuban citizens were detained as part of a joint operation with Interpol, Uruguay’s Interior Ministry announced on September 13.

This network allegedly encouraged Cubans in Havana to first travel to Guyana, a trip for which they did not need a visa. They then traveled across Brazil to the cities of Chuy and Santana do Livramento on the border with Uruguay and were smuggled across. Once in the country, some claimed refugee status while others paid between $6,000 to $7,000 to continue their journey northward toward the United States.

The network reportedly had contacts to facilitate the journey of the Cubans throughout the region as investigators found they made transfers of money to Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Peru.

Besides human smuggling, 12 of those under arrest have been charged with falsifying documents as fake Italian, Mexican, Austrian and Spanish visas were found.

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This is not the first time Uruguay has been targeted by human smugglers moving Cuban migrants. In 2018, an Interpol investigation uncovered a network with an almost identical modus operandi, where Cubans were moved through Guyana and Brazil at a cost of between $3,000 to 4,000 each.

And in 2020, a sex trafficking ring involving Cuban women was also dismantled in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

In 2019, Cubans became the largest population of migrants in Uruguay, surpassing Venezuelans.

InSight Crime Analysis

Since the United States changed its border policy in 2017, which had granted Cuban migrants preferential treatment if they reached American soil, human traffickers have swarmed to take advantage of Cubans seeking to leave the island.

Thousands of migrants from Cuba have been reported in highly vulnerable conditions at some of Latin America’s worst chokepoints, including the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama and the Mexico-Guatemala border. Compared with these dangerous, uncertain routes, Uruguay has become a safer destination of choice. Throughout the pandemic, hundreds of Cubans have made asylum requests in Uruguay, leading the government to investigate the extent to which human smugglers have taken advantage of this demand.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Smuggling

According to Uruguayan migration officials, border cities on both sides of the Brazil-Uruguay border, such as Chuy and Rivera, are common crossing points, Local taxi drivers and car rental agencies are reportedly involved in the smuggling operations. Coyotes (human smugglers) on that border charge around $1,200 dollars per person to help them cross, according to one migrant interviewed by Voice of America in 2020.

One internal investigation found that some Uruguayan police officers are even suspected of letting Cubans cross the border without papers.

And while this crossing is less dangerous than others in the region, it is not without risk. Several Cuban migrants have died along the border, while the Uruguayan city of Rivera has seen a wave of homicides due to fighting between Brazilian gangs.