In June when Carlos Murga was intercepted at the airport in Cuba with 7 Chinese passports with Belizean visas - it raised all kinds of red flags. But, the Ministry of Immigration brushed it off, saying that he was simply a courier ferrying passports, the same way a Belizean might send his or her passport with a friend to Guatemala or Mexico City to get a visa for Canada or Europe - countries which don't have embassies in Belize.
But was his mission really that harmless? We thought not. And that's why for months 7News has been following leads on this story, leads which consistently tell us that the Carlos Murga affair was not an isolated event, that he was part of a much larger operation, which you can either label human trafficking or visa smuggling.
Now, with credible, first-hand information from an anonymous insider within this operation, 7news has finally connected the dots at the base of the ring - and it tells us how a highly efficient, very lucrative international visa smuggling operation was run from Belmopan to Cancun to Cuba. Jules Vasquez has the story:..
Jules Vasquez reporting
It all starts here in China, the most populous country on earth - with Chinese who want to travel across the world - in most cases to get to the USA.
They contact - usually we are told - Taiwanese agents in Belize who arrange a visa for a hefty price. The Chinese have to first travel to Cuba, where no visa is required for Chinese nationals. In Havana, they deliver their passport to a Cuban known as "Alex." He then relays it to a Belizean sent by Wayne Salazar, a driver for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In Belize the Taiwanese Immigration Agent uses connections in the Immigration Department to get the visas into the Chinese passports. Wayne Salazar then recruits a runner to take as many as fifteen and as few as 5 passports back to Cuba.
Within the operation the codeword for these passports in "books" - as in, "I will need you to carry 7 books." More than just "books", that runner also has to take thousands of US dollars - both the money and the "books" have to be concealed from Immigration and Customs Authorities in Mexico and Cuba.
Salazar buys them a ticket for Cubana Airlines in Belize and either drives them to Cancun, or, depending on his availability, they catch a bus. He gives them a Cuban cell phone with key numbers already programmed into it. And then it's off to Cuba on Cubana airlines. At the airport in Cancun, the runners would sometimes store the passports in their shoes - because footwear isn't searched when boarding a Cubana flight.
In Havana at the Jose Marti Airport, the runner has to meet a specific taxi-man who is identified to them only as Conejo - Spanish for rabbit. Conejo's there waiting for them - and he takes them directly to Alex's home and restaurant in Havana where they hand over the Chinese passports with new visa's and the money - which, presumably, he is paid as a middleman's handler's fee.
After he counts the money, he usually gives them more "books" to take back to Belize. These have no visa's in them - they are being sent to Belize to get those. From there Conejo takes the runner to a guest house named Alquiler De Habitacion Valia y Rafael, Havana Cuba, where it was not unusual for the runners to meet other Belizean runners either just coming in or leaving.
After a few days of their all expenses paid trip to Cuba, the runners return to Cancun and then Belize where they are paid anywhere between two to five thousand dollars for the "books" they delivered to Cuba and those they returned with.
They are told that they may be called back up at a few hours' notice to make the run again.
Our information says that when those mainland Chinese come to Belize they have to pay their immigration agent a sizeable sum - in excess of ten thousand dollars. Those who can't pay, we are told, have to work it off.
Of course, this is just the base of a visa hustling pyramid - which we are told goes very high.
Hon. Elrington Aware Of Allegations
We did manage to speak to Wayne Salazar by phone this afternoon. He told us, quote, "I haven't got anything to do with (those allegations)....we don't work for the Immigration Department; we don't deal with visas and passports...I haven't been involved in illegal activities." End quote. Salazar is a driver for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has been for 13 years- one who the Minister referred to yesterday in an interview with 7news. Here's what he said:..
Hon. Wilfred Elrington, Minister of Foreign Affairs
"I was also told that there was a driver who has been with the ministry from timely memorial it seems that he also appears supposedly to have been involved. I know that we have gotten instructions to get rid of that driver as well because there is a zero tolerance. The Prime Minister make no bones of it, he wants to have zero tolerance for this kind of thing and so pressure is brought to bear on us."
It has been brought to bear on them, but Salazar has not been terminated or transferred. He is an established public officer so he cannot be terminated without substantial proof, and as we understand it, the Ministry is looking into transferring him and another driver whose name has also been mentioned in the visa ring rumours.
Carlos Murga's sister, Sylvia Murga - a former secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also been mentioned. Elrington also discussed her situation yesterday:..
Hon. Wilfred Elrington, Minister of Foreign Affairs
"As soon as that information came to light we terminated the services of that poor employee, without in fact having any more information than that - that her brother was supposed to have been involve in the transporting of passports."
Sylvia Murga is now at another government department. Her Facebook page shows that she too had been in Cuba earlier this year.