Nicaragua is 'weaponizing' US-bound migrants as Haitians pour in on charter flights, observers say

MEXICO CITY (AP) — More than 260 charter flights believed to be carrying migrants from Haiti have touched down in Nicaragua in recent months, according to flight data and experts in the region, adding to a historic crush of migration by people hoping to reach the U.S.

The flow of migrants has left the Biden administration and Latin American leaders scrambling for solutions, and experts say it's also being used as leverage by governments like Nicaragua’s to get concessions from the U.S. amid tightening sanctions.

“The Ortega government knows they have few important policy tools at hand to confront the United States, ... so they have armed migration as a way to attack," said Manuel Orozco, director of the migration, remittances and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue. “This is definitely a concrete example of weaponizing migration as a foreign policy."

Nicaragua has long been used as a migratory springboard for people fleeing struggling Caribbean nations like Cuba and Haiti as well as countries as far away as Mauritania in Africa, because it is one of the few countries that doesn’t require visas for many of them to enter.

Such flights from Cuba were already gaining steam late last year amid a historic exodus from the island. In August, Orozco said the Nicaraguan government allowed charter airlines to carry out the flights.

The journeys are not on official air routes, but flight tracking data that has been analyzed by Orozco and The Associated Press shows that 268 of the charter flights went from Haiti to Nicaragua since the beginning of August.

The charter airlines have flown as many as 31,000 people out of Haiti, which would represent nearly 60% of the Haitians arriving to the U.S. border, Orozco's data shows. Over the same period, some 172 flights have carried 17,000 people from Cuba to Nicaragua.

The AP spoke to three Haitian migrants who were aboard the charter flights, who said they doled out thousands of dollars to leave the poorest country in the hemisphere in hopes of reaching the United States. Orozco said most tickets range between $3,000 and $5,000 a seat.

Things came to a head this weekend, when local media reported that in 48 hours, 27 charter flights from Haiti had landed in Nicaragua. The mounting number of flights comes at a strategic moment for Ortega’s government, said Enrique Martínez, a spokesperson for the dissident group Platform for Democratic Unity.

As Venezuelans make up a big portion of those arriving to the U.S. border, the Biden administration recently negotiated a loosening of sanctions on Venezuela's government – which have deepened the country’s economic crisis – in exchange for promises of carrying out democratic elections.

Ortega may be hoping for a similar outcome, Martínez said.

The U.S. government and European nations have ratcheted up sanctions on members of Ortega’s family and administration in recent years as he has grown more repressive. His government has driven hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans to flee abroad and shut down thousands of non-governmental groups and universities in an effort to stifle dissent.

“Ortega is going to use this migration issue to say to the United States that we’re the ones in control," Martinez said. “ And if they want to stop this, they’re going to have to negotiate.”

Ortega’s government did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the charter flights and allegations they were being used as leverage. Aviation authorities in Haiti did not respond to a request for more information.

Stéphanie Armand, a spokesperson for Sunrise Airways, which data show carried out at least 15 flights over the past week, said the company doesn’t sell tickets to Nicaragua, but rather is contracted by “third parties” to carry out the flights. She would not elaborate on who the third parties were.

Asked if the carrier’s services are being used by people smugglers to carry out migration to the U.S., Armand said the company checks passengers’ documents before boarding.

“As an airline and aircraft operator, we have no information about the intentions of passengers we are carrying,” Armand wrote. “If passengers comply with the country’s entry requirements and are admitted, it is for the authorities, not the airlines, to follow up on their status.”

Sky High Aviation Services, Air Century and Euroatlantic Airways, which also have made some of the charter flights, did not respond to the AP's requests for comment.

A previous investigation by the AP unveiled a “shadow industry” of charter flights moving largely Haitians around the Americas. Migrant aid groups in other parts of Latin America accused airlines of being at “the end of a chain of powerful businesses making money from this circuit of Haitian migration.”

After boarding the pricey flight to Nicaragua, migrants have described to the AP walking out of the Managua airport and seeing crowds of smugglers waiting for migrants with photos and their names. From there, they are smuggled north.

The wave of flights come as the United States and other Central American nations have been left reeling as they struggle to cope with the numbers of people traversing their territories and arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. authorities said they stopped migrants more than 2 million times on the Mexico border in the 12 months of the government’s fiscal year that ended Sept. 20.

Last January, the Biden administration announced a plan it hoped would deter illegal immigration, saying it would accept 30,000 people per month from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela and authorize them to work in the U.S., as long as they come legally, have eligible sponsors and pass background checks. This “humanitarian parole” was paired with a warning that the U.S. would turn away any citizens from those countries who enter illegally.

In Tapachula, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border, tensions have risen along with the increase in the number of migrants passing through the city.

On Monday, saying they were frustrated by long lines and poor conditions, a group of largely Haitian migrants pushed into a temporary Mexican government asylum office in the town, and seven people were injured.

They were among about 3,000 migrants gathered outside the asylum office, among them Nilda Jean, a 28-year-old farmer from Haiti.

Jean said she paid $3,000 for her flight to Nicaragua and sacrificed a lot only to now find herself sleeping on the streets outside the asylum offices with the hope of reaching the U.S.

Mexico’s efforts to contain migrants in the south have frequently led to such displays of anger, because there are relatively few opportunities for work and housing is limited in Tapachula. Migrants already in debt for their journey are eager find work to begin paying it off.

The Biden administration has urged Central American nations and Mexico to help contain migration levels. While some countries in the region at least talk about trying, Nicaragua, no friend of the U.S., has not.

Martínez, at the Nicaraguan dissident group, said Ortega’s government views migration as a “business” injecting money into the country. While the Ortega administration has done little to facilitate travel by migrants, airlines pay taxes to the government and migrants and smugglers pay for hotels, food and transport.

“What (Ortega) is doing is taking advantage of things,” Martínez said, “but what it’s doing is making the path forward even more difficult for the countries searching for a solution.”


Associated Press writer Edgar H. Clemente in Tapachula, Mexico, contributed to this report.


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