The boat was cramped and uncomfortable, with nowhere for its 71 passengers to sit during the three-day ride. But Abdullahi was excited. He was halfway to America from his native Somalia, which he had left more than a month before.
Pressed together with six other Somalis and 63 Eritreans, they had set off in the dark of night from the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena, headed for somewhere in Central America. But shortly after they set sail, the vessel's steering mechanism snapped, the engine failed, and the boat began to take on water.
For an entire day and night, they were adrift at sea. Many of the passengers fell ill from the rocking of the waves. All feared for their lives.
"Pray to your God," the captain told them. And they did.
The boat finally ran aground on the tiny island of El Latal. The passengers scrambled ashore and the captain fled. Soon the Colombian Navy arrived, ushering the East African immigrants to the mainland and housing them in a small basketball stadium in this steamy city near the coast. Once here, they requested refugee status.
The aborted voyage put a temporary hold on the Somalis' and Eritreans' plans to get to the United States, but Abdullahi says it hasn't dashed his dream. He fled Somalia after his eldest brother was shot dead by the radical Islamist group Al Shabab because he worked as a doctor for a Western aid group. In the US, he says, "I can be safe."
Colombia – long a starting point for much of the cocaine smuggled into the US – has now become a major hub for smuggling people from Africa and Asia to the US via Mexico. And, although this particular boatload of Africans may not have posed a security risk to the US, authorities are increasingly concerned that the Colombian human-trafficking hub could bring in terrorists.
Alarm bells start ringing
"About a year and a half ago, the alarm bells went off when we started detecting a growing number of illegal immigrants passing through [Colombia]," says Felipe Muñoz, director of Colombia's domestic intelligence and immigration agency, known as DAS. "It's become a hub because it [is in] a strategic position to reach Central America."
In 2009, Colombian authorities captured more than 480 illegal immigrants from China, Somalia, Eritrea, Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia, India, and other countries in Asia and Africa. "We don't know how many actually got through undetected," says Mr. Muñoz.
Once in Central America, these immigrants join the thousands of Latin Americans who make the treacherous journey to the Mexican-US border.
In December, Colombian officials arrested Ethiopian national Yohannes Elfneh Neguissie, who they say was in charge of running the Colombian leg of an East African smuggling ring. Three Colombian nationals were also charged. Mr. Neguissie had been living in Colombia since 2006 when he requested, and was granted, refugee status.
After discovering small groups of East Africans on boats leaving the tiny Colombian island of San Andrés, near Nicaragua, Colombian authorities began tracking the movements of Neguissie in the capital, Bogotá. "He would go to travel agents looking for the best deals on flights to San Andrés for the immigrants, and we detected that he would receive money wires from South Africa and the US," says the lead investigator on the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Colombian officials say the US has expressed an interest in extraditing Neguissie, who is negotiating a plea bargain with Colombian prosecutors. "His was a major operation that may have moved as many as 1,000 people through Colombia in 2009," says Muñoz.
However, Muñoz acknowledges that Neguissie's capture won't end the smuggling. "It will slow them down for a while, but there will soon be someone to replace him," he says. "The arrest, more than stopping the traffic, helps us learn more about how the networks function."
It appears that Neguissie's operation has continued to work fine without him. Abdullahi and his travel companions were found 15 days after Neguissie's arrest and are believed to have been his "clients."
Huddled on mattresses covered with lime-green and pink sheets on the floor of Sincelejo's municipal basketball stadium, the Eritreans and Somalis spent six days fretting over their fate, after being picked up by the Colombian Navy. "We are happy to be alive, but we don't know what will happen now," said a tall, thin Eritrean with a broad smile who called himself Sami. Most of the immigrants interviewed would only give their first names.
Under a controversial program of the Eritrean dictatorship, Sami, like all of his countrymen, was forced into indefinite national service, assigned to be a soldier. Twice he had been caught trying to escape the country and twice he had been thrown into prison, he said. "The second time was worse," he said in halting English. "Like Guantánamo, but worse. There were many beatings." He asks his companions for the precise translation of a word in Tigrinya. "Torture," they tell him. "Yes, torture," he says.
He managed to escape what he described as an underground desert prison and, after saying goodbye to his mother, slipped into Sudan. There he met a man named Carlos who said he could get Sami to Colombia and from there to the US. Sami worked for 14 months as a cleaner at a hotel in Sudan to raise the money. By the time he'd made the Colombian leg, he'd already paid $6,500.
The immigrants' main fear is being deported to their homelands. "If that happens," says Sami, "everyone knows his fate: It's either prison for life or shooting."
Colombia is giving this group permission to remain in the country for 30 days, during which they can seek refugee status – or find a way to continue their journey.
Based on past experience, Colombian officials say, most will do both. Although they go through the paperwork to be recognized as refugees, by the time Colombia decides their cases, they are long gone.
Colombian and US authorities say they've detected a number of routes by which Asian and African immigrants reach Colombia.
South Africa's visa loophole
Ethiopians and Eritreans usually come to the continent via South Africa, where smugglers provide them with a false South African passport, which allows them to enter Brazil without visas. Once in Brazil, they travel to its porous border with Colombia. From Somalia, the route often passes through Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Moscow; and Cuba to Colombia.
The rescued Somalis and Eritreans had all arrived in Colombia individually or in small groups and were kept under lock and key until the large group was complete.
The smugglers whisked them onto the boat in the middle of the night only to end up back on the mainland two days later. One of the Eritrean immigrants who declined to give his name says that as soon as he can he will try to complete his journey to the US. "If you're going to die either way," he says, "it's better to die trying to live."