Panama sends Cuban migrants to Mexico

Cuban migrants, like these men and women seen in Puerto Obaldia on May 15, 2015, on their way to the United States have been stuck in Panama ever since Nicaragua closed its borders to them (AFP Photo/Rodrigo Arangua)

Panama City (AFP) - Panama on Tuesday started direct flights to Mexico for more than 1,000 US-bound Cuban migrants who have been stuck in the country since Central American borders were closed to them late last year.

The first flight left from Panama's international airport. The foreign ministry said in a statement it would land in Juarez, a Mexican city on the US border. Other flights would follow this week.

It emphasized that the flights were a "limited" and "exceptional" measure.

They mirrored flights Costa Rica has been carrying out since January, for some 8,000 Cubans who had been stuck on its territory.

The Cubans aim to get to the United States where a Cold War-era law allows them easy entry and a fast-track to residency.

But their journey, to South America, up through Central America and then Mexico and the US border, was frustrated in November last year when Nicaragua -- a Cuban ally -- closed its borders to them, and Costa Rica dismantled a people-smuggling ring they had been relying on.

Costa Rica in December closed its own border to any more Cuban arrivals as it struggled to clear the migrants from its territory.

That trapped around 1,300 Cubans in Panama, which then availed itself of Costa Rica's example to organize its own flights for them.

Authorities insist the Cubans have to pay the cost of the flights themselves -- around $550 per person, according to Panamanian Foreign Minister Isabel De Saint Malo.

Panama said the flights were only for Cubans already in the country, not for any future arrivals. It also barred media from covering the departure of the first plane.