PENAS BLANCAS, Costa Rica — As summer began to bake the central Cuban city of Sancti Spiritus, Elio Alvarez and Lideisy Hernandez sold their tiny apartment and everything in it for $5,000 and joined the largest migration from their homeland in decades.
Buying two smartphones for $160 apiece on a layover on their way to Ecuador, they plugged themselves into a highly organized, well-funded and increasingly successful homebrewed effort to make human traffickers obsolete by using smartphones and messaging apps on much of the 3,400-mile (5,500-kilometer) overland journey that's become Cubans' main route to the U.S.
Some 45,000 Cubans are expected to move by bus, boat, taxi and on foot from Ecuador and other South and Central American countries to the Texas and California borders this year, afraid that the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba will mean an imminent end to special immigration privileges that date to the opening of the Cold War. With thousands more taking rafts across the Florida Straits, 2015 may witness the biggest outflow of Cubans since the 1980 Mariel boatlift that hauled 125,000 people across the Florida Straits.
The overland exodus has caused a border crisis in Central America, set off tensions in the newly friendly U.S.-Cuban relationship and sparked rising calls in the U.S. to end Cubans' automatic right to legal residency once they touch U.S. soil.
At the heart of it all is Cubans' ability to cross some of the world's most dangerous territory relatively unscathed by the corrupt border guards, criminal gangs and human traffickers known as coyotes who make life hell for so many other Latin American migrants. Key to that ability is the constant flow of information between migrants starting the journey and those who have just completed it.
"Those who've arrived have gotten in touch with their acquaintances, their friends, and tell them how the route is. That means that no one needs a coyote," said Hernandez, a 32-year-old psychologist. "You go making friends along the way. I myself have 70, 80-something friends on Facebook who've already gotten to the United States."
Cuban migrants start with an advantage others can only dream of: Many countries along the route grant Cubans free passage because their government does not respond to most requests for information about illegal migrants that would allow them to be deported. And many Cubans who run out of money along the way have access to hundreds or thousands of dollars in backup funds sent by relatives who belong to one of the United States' most prosperous immigrant groups.
Once they reach the U.S. border, they can just show up at an established U.S. port of entry and declare their nationality, avoiding the dangerous desert crossings that confront many migrants who try to avoid U.S. Border Patrol. Federal data shows 45,000 Cubans appeared at U.S. land border points in the 12 months ending Sept. 20, and at least as many are expected in the coming year.
But along the way, Cubans still must navigate jungles, rivers, at least seven international borders and countries in the grip of gangs responsible for some of the world's highest homicide rates.
Asked their secret, Cubans interviewed in shelters along Costa Rica's northern border with Nicaragua almost universally pointed to cheap smartphones, data plans and Facebook.
"We're completely, always, alert to our phones," Alvarez said, gesturing to his Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini outside a border statin in northern Costa Rica, where he and some 2,000 other Cuban migrants were stuck waiting for resolution of a regional conflict set off by Nicaragua's closure of the crossing. "This is our best friend, the phone. It's always on, always ready."
The metallic "zing!" of a new message arriving in the Facebook Messenger app has become the soundtrack to this year's historic migration as Cubans consult friends further along the route for tips on bus routes, border closures, even how much to bribe the notoriously corrupt Colombian police.
"They tell you when you can get money, at what moment you can arrive somewhere, what hotel to go to," said Annieli de los Reyes, pharmacist from the eastern city of Camaguey. "In all of those things, you run less risk and go with more security and peace of mind."
While many move across large swathes of territory independent of coyotes, others still depend on traffickers, most commonly when they need to get across complicated borders.
On Nov. 10, a U.S.-backed Costa Rican task force on human trafficking arrested 12 people suspected of helping run an international ring that charged Cubans between $7,000 and $15,000 to be smuggled from South America to the U.S. border, or $400 to be moved safely across Costa Rica.
Alongside the anti-trafficking operation, Costa Rica began holding Cubans in the town of Paso Canoas on the Panamanian border. Their numbers grew to around 1,600 until Costa Rica announced on Nov. 13 that it would allow them to transit the country to Nicaragua. Complaining that it wasn't consulted, Nicaragua dispatched soldiers to the border to block the Cubans' passage, setting off minor clashes at the Penas Blancas crossing on Nov. 15.
The dispute has left some 2,000 Cubans stranded in shelters in Guanacaste province on the Nicaraguan border, with dozens more arriving daily. The local sales office for telecommunications company Movistar has increased the number of sales vans along the border from two to seven, most stationed permanently outside the Cubans' temporary encampments in schools and churches, selling 2-for-1 $3-per-megabyte data packages to a steady stream of Cuban migrants.
Central America governments have called an emergency meeting on the crisis in El Salvador on Tuesday. Nicaragua, a close socialist ally of Cuba, has not publicly responded to a Costa Rican proposal to create a "humanitarian corridor" for Cubans to move unhindered toward the U.S.
Cuba, meanwhile, has made a series of public statements blaming U.S. emigration policies for drawing so many from their homeland, draining the country of badly needed professionals and working-age adults. Ironically, the Cuban government has been joined by an increasing number of Cuban-American legislators in the U.S. who say the Cold War-era Cuban Adjustment Act that grants new migrants special privileges is being abused by economic migrants instead of granting asylum to political refugees as originally intended.
Outside observers say Cuba's own policies also fuel emigration, which siphons dissatisfied Cubans away from the island and increases the number of people injecting badly needed remittances into Cuba's cash-starved economy. The communist government did away with a hated exit permit three years ago and also began allowing Cubans to establish permanent residence in the U.S. while maintaining their property rights and access to social services in Cuba.
Geny Machado worked as a private shopkeeper in the Havana neighborhood of Guanabacoa before he hopscotched from Trinidad and Tobago to Venezuela, where he started a months-long journey north with stops to work and earn money for the next stages. Other Cubans interviewed in Costa Rica were making their way from as far south as Chile, Argentina and Brazil.
Machado showed a reporter a string of Facebook messages from a friend recently arrived in the U.S. advising him on the best route from Guatemala City to the Mexican border; what to say to Mexican border guards once he arrived; what hotel to stay at on his first night in Mexico; and even the nightly rate: $10.
"The one who's ahead guides the one behind," said Machado, 45. "We go along communicating like that. Social networks are what's helping Cubans along the whole migration route, more than the coyotes."
When migrants are stopped by border guards along the route, officials' first step is contacting the migrant's country to confirm their identity. In the case of Cubans, that's often impossible. The Cuban government doesn't respond to as many as 90 percent of inquiries about people with Cuban passports but no visas, said Mario Madrazo Ubach, head of immigration control at Mexico's National Migration Institute. Since entering the country without a visa in itself isn't a crime in Mexico, Mexican authorities generally give the Cubans 20 days to leave the country, which they use to get to the U.S. border and claim legal residency. Similar scenarios take place throughout Central America.
"You're not going to find Cubans in the back of tractor-trailers," Madrazo said.
Still, Cubans are not immune to the dangers of northbound migration. A migrants' rights group said in July that Mexican border officials had been holding Cubans in border inspection stations until their relatives in the U.S. sent as much as $5,000 to win their freedom.
Mario Martinez, 24, trained as a computer programmer but worked in a barber shop in the Havana neighborhood of Marianao until he left for Ecuador this fall with his friend and traveling partner Manuel Gonzalez. Sitting on the floor of a public bathroom next to the only available electrical outlet he could find in a bus station on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, he said that Facebook friends had been steering the two men away from coyotes, saying that "it was going to end up being very expensive, that they were going to charge us more money, that they could cheat us."
"The first ones, sure, they had to do this with 'contacts,' the great majority had coyotes," Martinez said as Gonzalez's Facebook Messenger app pinged with the sound of new messages arriving. "But there were coyotes who were picking people up to cheat them, to kill people, to rape them. So now we Cubans are showing each other how to do the journey on our own."