by Julie Watson, Gisela Perez de Acha, Katie Licari, Trenton Daniel and Patricia Luna
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — With jokes, upbeat Caribbean music and vacation scenes of sun-kissed beaches and palm trees, Haitian influencers on YouTube and TikTok advertise charter flights to South America.
But they are not targeting tourists.
Instead, they are touts for a thriving, little-known shadow industry that is profiting from the U.S. government sending people back to Haiti, a country besieged by gang violence.
More than a dozen South American travel agencies have rented planes from low-budget Latin American airlines — some of them as large as 238-seat Airbuses — and then sold tickets at premium prices. Many of the customers are Haitians who had been living in Chile and Brazil before they made their way to the Texas border in September, only to be expelled by the Biden administration and prevented from seeking asylum. They are using the charter flights to flee Haiti again and return to South America.
Some, clearly, plan to make another try to enter the United States.
Rodolfo Noriega of the National Coordinator of Immigrants in Chile said Haitians are being exploited by businesses taking advantage of their desperation. They “are at the end of a chain of powerful businesses making money from this circuit of Haitian migration,” he said.
The airlines and travel agencies say they work within the legal norms of the countries where they are operating from and are simply providing a service to the Haitian diaspora in South America.
The thriving business model was revealed in an eight-month investigation by The Associated Press in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and its Investigative Reporting Program.
This story is part of an ongoing Associated Press series, “Migration Inc,” which investigates individuals and companies that profit from the movement of people who flee violence and civil strife in their homelands.
Haitians sick of the deprivations of their island home resettled in Chile or Brazil, many after Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Then, last fall, struggling as the pandemic hit local economies and beset by racism, thousands decided to make their way to the Texas border town of Del Rio. There, they ran afoul of a public health order, invoked by the Trump administration and continued under the Biden administration, that blocks migrants from requesting asylum.
Authorities returned them not to South America, where some of their children were born, but to their original homeland — Haiti.
Some interviewed by the AP said they feared for their lives there and wanted to return to South America. But airlines had stopped direct commercial flights from Haiti to Chile and Brazil during the pandemic; their remaining option was the charters.
The flights from Haiti became a lucrative business as restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus decimated tourism, according to the travel agents. Planes arrive empty to Haiti but return to South America full.
From November 2020 until this May, at least 128 charters were rented by travel agencies in Chile and Brazil for flights from Haiti, according to flight tracking information, online advertisements matching the flights to agencies and other independent verification by the AP and Berkeley.
Since taking office in January 2021, the Biden administration has sent more than 25,000 Haitians back to Haiti despite warnings from human rights groups that the expulsions would only contribute to Haiti’s travails and feed more Haitian migration to Latin America and the U.S.
Not all of the passengers on the charters had tried to immigrate to the U.S., but based on interviews with dozens of travel agents, Haitian migrants and advocates, and an analysis of flight data using the Swedish service Flightradar24, it is clear that the charters have become a major means to flee Haiti.
Some who took charter flights back to South America have headed north again on the network of underground routes that wind through Central America and Mexico and that ultimately lead to the United States, according to immigration attorneys, advocates and interviews with dozens of Haitians.
Many of the Haitians go back to Chile and Brazil, rather than places close to the U.S. like Mexico, because they have visas and other legal paperwork to get into those countries. And having lived there, they can find jobs quickly to make money for the trip north.
Some, like Amstrong Jean-Baptiste, also have children who were born in South America. The 33-year-old father of two said he spent $6,000 on a harrowing trip from Chile to Texas, only to be sent back to Haiti.
He said he had knives pulled on him, forged rivers that carried others away to their deaths and encountered highway robbers. In the end, he said the Haitians were handcuffed and “treated like animals” by U.S. immigration authorities. He said his son caught pneumonia in the immigration detention center.
As he waited in Port-au-Prince for a charter flight back to Santiago, news from northern Chile underscored why he wanted to go to the United States in the first place: A demonstration against immigrants drew thousands of protesters who turned violent and destroyed the belongings of migrants living in a camp.
Would he try to go to the U.S. again? He did not rule it out.
“The risks are so numerous that this shouldn’t be an experience to repeat,” he said. “However, one should never say never.”
Ana Darcelin, a travel agent with Travel VIP, a Santiago-based agency that rents planes for flights from Haiti to Chile, said Haitians who migrated north from the South American country, only to be sent back to Haiti, are scrambling to leave Haiti and get back to Chile again.
“Everyone is offering charter flights. There is a lot of demand,” she said.
Travel agencies in Brazil and Chile said in interviews that they pay anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 to rent an aircraft. At that rate, the three airlines that rented planes for 128 charter flights between Haiti and either Brazil or Chile would have been paid a total of anywhere from $12 million to $25 million. Meanwhile, some prices for one-way tickets from Haiti to Chile have more than doubled in eight months, from $625 to more than $1,600.
In Brazil, many agencies offering flights from Haiti rented from the low-cost Azul S.A. airlines, which was started by JetBlue founder David Neeleman.
Most of the charters to Chile are on planes rented from SKY Airline, owned by the Chilean Paulmann family, which is worth billions.
Neither Neeleman nor Holger Paulmann, chairman of SKY, responded to emails and LinkedIn messages requesting comment.
SKY also signed a $1.8 million contract in April with the previous administration of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to fly Latin American immigrants, mostly Venezuelans and Colombians expelled from Chile, back to their homelands. SKY earned about $670 for each expelled immigrant it flies to Central and South America. Under the contract obtained by the AP and Berkeley, the carrier must complete at least 15 flights carrying 180 passengers each.
John Paul Spode, who has worked 35 years in the travel industry and manages NewStilo, which rents planes from SKY for the flights, said Haiti is not the only place in crisis that offers an attractive market for the charter flight business.
His agency also offers charter flights between Venezuela and Chile. But there are few places with the demand for charter flights like Haiti, though he said it’s not an easy place to do business. In March, protesters stormed the tarmac at an airport in the countryside and set a small plane on fire. Gangs also operate in and around the airport, he said.
“Unfortunately, we have had many passengers who have not been able to board because there are people who stand outside (the airport) with some kind of a list and some kind of uniform and they started charging, saying ‘You are not on the list, sir, but for $250 you can be added,’ and then they let them enter the airport,” Spode said.
Some passengers said once inside the airport they were blocked again by so-called airport business employees and told that their names were still not on the list, and they must pay again, Spode said. Many do before they reach the ticket counter where they finally are checked in by a legitimate employee with the flight.
But would-be passengers brave all that. “It’s tough to sell tickets from Santiago to Port-au-Prince. The plane leaves usually almost empty,” Spode said. “But we know that on the return trip it’s going to be full, literally, like people practically hanging from the plane, so to speak.”
The demand has been so great that a second low-cost airline based in Ecuador, Aeroregional, entered the Chilean market for the first time and started offering charter flights from Haiti to Chile. At least 11 Aeroregional charters have arrived from Haiti to Chile since December.
Dan Foote, a former U.S. envoy to Haiti who resigned over the Biden administration’s handling of Haitians at the Texas border, said he is not surprised to hear Haitians expelled from the U.S. are making their way back to South America, and that businesses are lining up to help them.
“Until the root causes of instability are truly attacked in a patient, systematic, holistic way, it’s going to keep going,″ Foote said.
The travel agencies and airlines denied they are facilitating Haitian migration.
Aeroregional’s managing director, Luis Manuel Rodriguez, said in a statement via LinkedIn that the airline’s role is simply to transport people. He said that the immigration status of its passengers is checked by immigration authorities of the countries involved.
Azul confirmed by email that it has provided charter flights between Haiti and Brazil, but said those contracts have confidentiality clauses. The company did not respond to a follow-up request for more information.
Carmen Gloria Serrat, the business manager of SKY, said in a statement that the company offers safe, legal transportation “for whoever wants it and needs it.” She said airlines are responsible for validating the paperwork of passengers and must eat the costs of returning anyone who is denied entry to a country.
She said the flights run four times monthly on average and represent a minuscule part of SKY’s business.
“The act of providing safe and legal transportation is a guarantee to avoid the possibility of abuses,” Serrat said. “It’s important to point out that in SKY we operate within the established norms for entering a country and always in coordination and under the supervision of immigration authorities.”
At least one travel agency is open about offering to help those who hope to reach the United States.
Alta Tour Turismo Travel Agency rents planes for charter flights between Haiti and Chile.
A TikTok account with the handle @altatourtravelagency posted a video on June 14, 2021, discussing how to avoid the Darien Gap, a treacherous, roadless area of thick jungle between Colombia and Panama traversed by migrants from South America heading north.
In the video, two men are talking about different routes north as they show a big boat at sea.
“Considering the level of mistreatment Haitians endured from the Colombians in the jungle, I will never go through the jungle,” says one as the camera zooms in on the boat on the horizon.
It was unclear if the video was meant to connect people to boats or was a marketing tool to attract customers in need of flights to South America who intended to then take the migrant route north.
Alta Tour Turismo started with a video on Facebook at the start of 2021 that informed viewers that Bolivia was not deporting people. The agency incorporated a month later.
The slogan of the Santiago-based agency is “travel with joy.” Reservations for flights are largely done through WhatsApp. The agency’s social media accounts have nearly 40,000 followers; they promote travel from Haiti to such countries as Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, Chile and Mexico.
Ezechias Revanget said he started the agency with three other Haitian immigrants in Chile to rent planes so fellow Haitians in Chile could go back home to see family. His agency has leased 186-seat Airbus planes from SKY airlines.
“Our objective is to work with our compatriots, and there are also other people — such as Chileans, Bolivians, Dominicans, anyone, any nationality can buy tickets at our agency,” he said.
Alta Tour Turismo also advertised flights to Suriname. In an April 2021 post, the agency posted on its Facebook page that Haitians who had only a passport and wanted to leave Haiti should not miss this opportunity, asserting: “you know if you arrive in Suriname you can go to other places too,” followed by three smiling emoji and the agency’s numbers.
Revanget, who also uses the name Dave Elmyr, refused to answer more questions.
“They should be investigating these flights — they should,” said Carolina Rudnick Vizcarra, an attorney and director of LIBERA, a Santiago-based nonprofit combatting human trafficking. “And by now, everyone knows that Haitians are vulnerable — they don’t have the money" or places to stay.
U.S. officials told the AP they were unaware of the charter flights from Haiti. Some South American nations have taken action to prevent their use by migrants and smugglers. Last year, Suriname stopped charter flights from Haiti and issuing visas to Haitians, according to Suriname's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
That same year, neighboring French Guiana complained about Haitians coming across its border.
“What was strange was that in the middle of a pandemic, so many flights were arriving from Haiti ... there were unaccompanied minors on the flight, as well as several Haitians without visas,” Antoine Joly, the former French ambassador in Suriname told the French Guiana TV station, Guyane la 1ere in a video posted May 4.
Shortly after that, Guyana, which also borders Suriname, canceled an earlier order allowing Haitians in without a visa, contending the country was being used as a destination for human smugglers who were taking migrants into neighboring Brazil where they would stay briefly before heading north to Mexico and the U.S.
Giuseppe Loprete, chief of mission in Haiti of the International Organization of Migration, said the United Nations agency learned about charter flights from Haiti to Chile in interviews with migrants who had been sent back from the United States and Mexico.
“We tried to find out more, but we don’t have the means to investigate these flights,” he wrote in an email to the AP on April 22. “Our assumption was that from Chile they move on to other countries heading (to) the Mexican-USA border, if not right away, after some time. Probably when they have collected enough money and information to move forward.”
The Azul charter flights started on Nov. 14, 2020, from Port-au-Prince to Manaus, Brazil. The city of 2.2 million boasts one of Brazil’s biggest airports, is the capital of the Amazon region with a Haitian immigrant population and is also a well-known jumping-off point for Haitian migrants who travel by boats from there along a river connecting the Colombian, Peruvian and Guyanese borders before continuing north.
Flight data showed that 54 Azul planes flew charter flights from Port-au-Prince to Manaus. The flights stopped in October. That same month, the Brazilian embassy in Haiti stopped issuing all visas to Haitians, according to a document from the Brazilian ambassador in Haiti obtained by AP and Berkeley.
Jean Robert Jean Baptiste, 49, said he bought a $1,400 ticket for an Azul flight in December 2020 to Brazil. He spent a month in Haiti after he was deported from Louisiana, where he was held at an immigration detention center following his arrest on a DUI charge. Back in Haiti, he said an enemy threatened to kill him and had the backing of the police.
He said he decided to fly to Brazil because he had a visa to get into the country after living there from 2011 to 2012 before making his way to the United States in 2016 and settled in Alabama.
In 2021, he made his way from Brazil by bus and on foot. He walked for a week, most of it in the rain, through the Darien Gap, where he said he saw dead bodies of those who didn’t make it. He said he had to pay bandits who blocked his path; robbers stole his phone and $500 from him.
All told, he said it cost him about $7,000 to return to Tijuana, where he was trying to find a way back to the U.S. He’s driven, he said, by a determination to “have a good life” for his children.
The Paulmann family's SKY, meanwhile, is the charter of choice between Haiti and Chile; of 71 such flights since 2020 that AP and Berkeley tracked, 60 were on SKY. The Paulmanns run one of Latin America’s biggest retail companies, Cencosud, and have a net worth of $3.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine. SKY charter planes also flew three flights between Haiti and Brazil in 2021.
Etienne Ilienses said she was sent back to Haiti from Texas on Dec. 14. She talked to the AP before flying to Santiago with her three children on a Jan. 30 charter flight on SKY. “To get to the USA, I braved hell,” she said. Still, she did not dismiss the possibility of doing it again “because Haiti offers nothing to its children. We are forced to suffer humiliations, affronts everywhere."
But just because Haitians fly to Chile, it doesn’t mean they can stay. Dozens have been held by immigration officials after arriving in Santiago in recent months. One group spent weeks sleeping at the airport before Chile’s Supreme Court on Jan. 31 ordered police to release them and allow them to request asylum.
Others were sent back to Haiti within hours of landing.
SKY’s Serrat said the airline works closely with immigration officials to avoid that situation, while the marketing aimed at passengers is the responsibility of the travel operators. (Aeroregional’s manager did not respond to questions about flying in Haitians who were later expelled.)
Theleon Marckenson, 31, was sent back to Haiti from Texas last fall. He said he spent $1,650 for a charter flight on Aeroregional to return to Chile, where he had lived since 2017.
After Marckenson landed in Santiago, Chilean authorities told him the application he had submitted for permanent residency before he left for the U.S. border had expired. Hours later he was put on another Aeroregional flight to Haiti with six others.
“I don’t have any more money,” Marckenson said by phone after landing back in Port-au-Prince. “I don’t know what I am going to do. But I can’t stay here. There is only hunger. There is no life.”
Gisela Perez de Acha is a supervisory reporter for Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and its Investigative Reporting Program. Katie Licari is a recent Berkeley graduate journalism alum.
Watson reported from San Diego, Daniel from New York. Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego; Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami; and Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador; also contributed to this report. University of California students Zhe Wu, Mar Segura, Grace Luo, Gergana Georgieva, José Fernando Rengifo, Pamela Estrada, Freddy Brewster, Sabrina Kharrazi, Jocelyn Tabancay, Imran Ali Malik reported from Berkeley, along with Human Rights Center Investigations Lab director Stephanie Croft.