Cuban and Haitian migrants are increasingly taking chartered flights to Nicaragua from where they seek to travel overland to the United States, prompting Washington to impose sanctions this week on the operators of the aircraft.
Irma Perez, a 28-year-old Cuban, told AFP she arrived in the Nicaraguan capital Managua last month aboard a charter flight run by Mexican aviation firm Viva Aerobus.
"We had a 45-minute layover in Cancun (Mexico) without disembarking, and then came to Managua," she said.
Perez was speaking from Mexico, after she, her husband and 1-year-old son traveled there overland with the help of a smuggler. The family plans to head toward the United States.
Several Cuban migrants told AFP they had traveled with the same company on flights chartered by small travel agencies.
Viva Aerobus, which does not advertise fights between Cuba and Nicaragua on its website, did not respond to AFP's requests for comment.
Perez said she and her husband paid $1,250 each for their tickets, and $350 for that of her son. The smuggler cost them another $2,100.
The use of charter flights to aid migrants in getting to their dream destination "is a relatively new phenomenon," said Manuel Orozco, a director of migration issues at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
The Central American country of Nicaragua has not required visas for Cubans since November 2021.
Since then, a record 421,000 Cubans have entered the United States, according to official figures from Washington.
In April, the U.S. began deporting Cubans with the first flight leaving April 24 after a two-year pause.
Two other Central American nations, Panama and Costa Rica, imposed a transit visa on Cubans in 2022 to tackle the influx of migrants.
A report by the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank said that an average of 50 charter flights a month traveled between Havana and Managua between January and October 2023.
Meanwhile flights between Haiti and Nicaragua quadrupled in the past three months.
"Nicaragua was a bridge for almost 100,000 people," seeking to migrate, since January, according to the report.
Orozco believes that airline operators and Nicaraguan airport authorities made "an economic calculation" for their "mutual benefit."
Advertisements abound on Facebook: "Tickets available Havana-Nicaragua … prices for families, charter and regular flights," read one.
At the beginning of November, Brian Nichols, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, expressed concern about the dramatic increase in these flights.
"No one should profit from the desperation of vulnerable migrants – not smugglers, private companies, public officials or governments," he wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
On Tuesday, Washington announced it would restrict visas for those in charge of the aviation companies.
Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio told journalists that the number of flights has begun to decrease.
Mexico began requiring an airport transit visa for Cubans in late October.
A taxi driver from Managua, who consults the airport website every day for his work, told AFP on condition of anonymity that he had noticed the number of planes carrying migrants had dropped from "22 to 23 daily" to six.