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Joint investigation exposes vast network of charter flights for Haitian migrants

Etienne Ilienses, right, checks her family’s papers for a flight to Chile, at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 30, 2022. Ilienses told AP she was sent back to Haiti from Texas on Dec. 14, 2021. “To get to the USA, I braved hell,” she said. Still, she did not dismiss doing it again “because Haiti offers nothing to its children. We are forced to suffer humiliations, affronts everywhere.” (AP Photo / Odelyn Joseph)

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Last September, the AP was fast and definitive in its coverage of some 15,000 Haitian migrants arriving at a large camp near the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio,Texas.

Now,in a highly successful investigative collaboration with the University of California,Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the school’s Human Rights Center,the AP has shone a light on a billion-dollar migrant transportation business that targets Haitian migrants. Part of an ongoing AP series,“Migration Inc,” the multiformat investigation found answers to who was behind the travel agency advertisements on YouTube and other platforms aimed at Haitians fleeing political upheaval and violent unrest in their homeland.

A team of more than a dozen staffers from five countries exposed a new industry of charter flight operators who rent jumbo jets from major Latin American airlines to fly migrants from Haiti to Brazil and Chile. Passengers included some of the tens of thousands of Haitians who were expelled from the Del Rio camp and are again making the trip to the U.S. border,the investigation found. Interviews with the travel agencies confirmed how they are profiting.

Over the eight-month effort,San Diego’s Julie Watson and New York’s Trenton Daniel led the reporting. They met weekly over two semesters with journalism students in Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. And they directed research with the help of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center,which has expertise in finding and verifying information online. Using flight tracking software and other tools,students uncovered at least 128 charter flights from Haiti to Chile and Brazil since November 2020,when commercial flights ended, giving rise to the burgeoning charter industry.

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For additional confirmation,the late Fernando Gonzalez and Mexico City-based Eduardo Castillo,director of Spanish services, arranged for staffers to witness flights from Haiti to Chile on one Sunday in November and another in January. Santiago reporter Patricia Luna interviewed several passengers and told their stories; AP’s piece also carried the bylines of Gisela Perez de Acha,a supervisory reporter for Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and its Investigative Reporting Program,and Katie Licari, a recent Berkeley graduate journalism alum.

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In photo at left, Haitian migrants wait to check in for a flight to Chile at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, in Port-au-Prince, Jan. 30, 2022. Thousands of Haitians in recent months have boarded charter flights to South America according to flight tracking information and independent verification by the AP in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley. At right, the office of the Alta Tour Turismo Travel Agency is open for business inside a small shopping center in downtown Santiago, Chile, June 9, 2022. The agency rents planes for charter flights between Haiti and Chile. – AP Photos / Odelyn Joseph (left); Esteban Felix

For revealing a new element of Latin American migration with an investigation that simply would not exist without this dedicated and collaborative effort,and the team of Watson, Daniel and Luna is AP’s Best of Week — Second Winner.

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