A sophisticated human smuggling ring that illegally moved migrants from Haiti across a number of Latin American countries into Chile shows that the Caribbean nation’s crisis remains a gold mine for criminal gangs.
In August, Bolivian authorities caught and deported at least 142 Haitian migrants, while at least 22 more were arrested in Chile. In September, both countries initiated an investigation and have since moved against the alleged people smugglers. Bolivian authorities arrested three Haitian nationals with legal residency suspected of partially organizing the scheme, as well as Bolivian drivers who transported the migrants, according to BioBio Chile citing the Attorney General's Office.
At a September 5 press conference, Bolivian Interior Minister Arturo Murillo said that the network is an "international gang and ... we will pass on information to our partners in other countries to get to the bottom of this problem.”
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The full international dimension of the problem soon became apparent. The Haitians were apparently first crossing into the Dominican Republic, where they were taken on flights to Guyana and then moved through Brazil and Bolivia into Chile, according to the BBC.
The scheme was lucrative. Chilean media reported that the migrants had to pay $3,000 a head just to leave Haiti, with more costs piling up along the way as they moved through different countries.
The number of migrants caught is likely far from the real total. Chile’s former foreign minister, Heraldo Muñoz (2014-2018), stated that the increase in Haitian migrants had been seen for years.
“Companies in Port-au-Prince are dedicated to getting Haitians to sell their house, to sell everything they have, to pay $3,000 dollars in exchange for a job contract in Chile and a plane ticket,” he told the BBC.
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Despite being the poorest country per capita in the Western Hemisphere, according to the World Bank, Haiti's political, security and economic crisis has lined the pockets of criminal gangs. And Chile has been a destination of choice, given its friendlier stance on migration and perceived economic opportunities.
In 2018, it was estimated by the country's border police that as much as one percent of the Haitian population, or 105,000 people, had migrated to Chile. At the time, Chile’s investigative police (Policía de Investigaciones – PDI) stated that human smugglers bringing Haitians to Chile were making 160 million Chilean pesos (over $200,000) a week. To get around a rule requiring them to prove they had the means to support themselves in the country, Haitian migrants showed their bank accounts were well-stocked before emptying them to pay the traffickers once in the country.
But that same year, Chile tightened migration requirements, eliminating a temporary work visa that many migrants from Haiti, Venezuela and other countries had used to enter. Deportations soon followed and the number of migrants staying in the country also fell.
But this has not stemmed the problem entirely. Migrants continue to pay thousands of dollars to criminal gangs, despite Chile having significantly tightened its migration requirements. And while Bolivia caught 142 migrants in August, its government believes numbers have fallen significantly due to the coronavirus.
“Before the pandemic, it must have been much worse,” Marcel Rivas, Bolivia’s director of migration, told the BBC.
Other criminal economies have also benefited from the flow of people from Haiti, with migrants reportedly being used to carry drugs inside Chile. The Bolivian government has also claimed the Haitian migrants caught in August were connected to sex work and even organ trafficking, but has so far provided no evidence of this.