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Digital shepherds ease Cuban migrants' passage to US border

A slew of secret weapons aid Cubans embarking on the arduous overland journey through South and Central America to the United States: smartphones, data plans, and Facebook.

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A Cuban woman migrant uses her cell phone while other Cubans sleep, outside of the border control building in Penas Blancas, Costa Rica, on the border with Nicaragua, Saturday. Some 45,000 Cubans will 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 US and Cuba will mean an imminent end to special immigration privileges that date to the opening of the Cold War.

Esteban Felix/AP

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As tensions between Cuba and the United States begin to thaw, thousands of Cubans are crossing dangerous South and Central American territories to flock to the US, afraid that their special immigration privileges will soon end.

But with their social networks easily accessible on smartphones, the migrants are now better prepared than ever to endure the many obstacles in their exodus.

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Historically, Cubans have had an automatic right to legal residency as political refugees once they touch US soil , because of the Caribbean country’s ties with communism. But that right could vanish, as diplomatic relations between the two countries improve, prompting more Cubans to embark on the 2,000-mile journey from Ecuador and other South and Central American countries to US borders.

Since President Obama announced last December that the two countries will begin to reconcile, the number of Cuban immigrants has spiked dramatically – the highest since the 1980s.

Travelled on bus, boat, taxi, and foot, the journey is far from easy. The Cubans must traverse some of the most violence-stricken areas in the world. They encounter corrupt border guards, criminal gangs, and human traffickers called “coyotes,” who coerce travelers into paying up to $15,000 to be smuggled to the US.

But the Cubans have a slew of secret weapons: smartphones, data plans, and Facebook.

"We're completely, always, alert to our phones," Elio Alvarez told the Associated Press, gesturing to his Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini as he waited to enter Costa Rica in Nicaragua. "This is our best friend, the phone. It's always on, always ready."

Using the Facebook Messenger app, the travelers are able to get in touch with their friends and family who have already made the journey. They receive tips on routes, border closures, and even how to bribe Colombian police.

"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," Lideisy Hernandez, a Cuban psychologist, told AP. "You go making friends along the way. I myself have 70, 80-something friends on Facebook who've already gotten to the United States."

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The influx of Cuban immigrants have created problems along the at least seven different borders they must cross. For instance, Nicaragua dispatched soldiers to a Costa Rican border last week to block the Cubans' passage when Costa Rica allowed them to pass into Nicaragua without its permission.

Central American governments will gather for an emergency meeting Tuesday in El Salvador to address the issue.

Meanwhile, data plans are selling briskly in towns where Cubans are temporarily stuck. Telecommunications company Movistar in the Guanacaste province on the Nicaraguan border has increased the number of sales vans, stationing them near the Cubans' temporary quarters to sell discount $3-per-megabyte packages.

"The one who's ahead guides the one behind," Geny Machado, a shopkeeper from Havana, told AP.

"We go along communicating like that. Social networks are what's helping Cubans along the whole migration route, more than the coyotes."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.