Criminal Ring Behind Smuggling of Hundreds of Haitian Children From Chile to U.S.


MIAMI — An unusual flow of Chilean children of Haitian descent traveling through South and Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border has led to the arrest of nine people suspected of operating an international migrant smuggling ring that used the social media WhatsApp messaging platform to promote their services, INTERPOL said.

The arrests were made last week by Chile’s Criminal Investigations Police along the South American nation’s border with Peru. They are part of a year-long investigation code-named “Frontera Norte,” Northern Border, that was carried out by Chilean police, INTERPOL and law enforcement agencies across South and Central America.

The ring is suspected of smuggling an estimated 1,000 Haitian migrants, including hundreds of children, from Chile, with Mexico or the United States being the final intended destination, the international policing agency INTERPOL said in a release.

“It is horrifying to think what these vulnerable children, some just a few years old, have suffered,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “The diligence of the Chilean [law enforcement] in investigating and dismantling this network, with support from other involved countries via INTERPOL shows what law enforcement cooperation can achieve when information is shared.”

Haitian migration has become a problem for Latin America, as Haitian nationals increasingly take a dangerous 7,000-mile trek through South and Central America to reach Mexico and the U.S. One of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes, it sometimes ends in death and the rape of female travelers. The journey is also costly. One recently repatriated Haitian migrant said he spent $17,000 to travel from Chile to the border town of Del Rio, Texas, only to be deported back to Port-au-Prince by the U.S.

U.S. authorities say they believe that a criminal organization was behind the recent rush of thousands of Haitian migrants to Del Rio, and are investigating. Most of the migrants had been living in Chile or Brazil for several years and among them were a number of unaccompanied children, the Department of Homeland Security said.

To date the United States has deported more than 7,000 Haitians from an emptied Del Rio camp to Haiti, while Mexico has also warned Haiti to expect at least two flights a week after sending back more than 70 Haitians last week.

On Monday, as the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the situation in Haiti, several ambassadors spoke about the Haitian migration crisis. Mexico Permanent Representative Juan Ramón de la Fuente said his country is feeling the effects of Haitian smuggling, which he said is also connected to the trafficking of arms.

More than 12,000 Haitian migrants have arrived in the Mexican state of Chiapas alone, De la Fuente said.

“It is estimated that around Colombia and Panama there are around 60,000 Haitians. Many of them are seeking to arrive in the United States,” De la Fuente said. “Consequently, it is paramount to implement policies to prevent the illicit trade in arms and human trafficking.”

INTERPOL said that to date, 267 Chilean children aged 6 or under — all children of Haitian migrants — have been detected on the irregular migration route to the United States in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama.

Among those detained on suspicion of smuggling, INTERPOL said, were four Chileans, two Venezuelans, one Peruvian, one Haitian and a Paraguayan. All face charges of unlawful association and migrant smuggling following their Sept. 29 arrests in the northern Chilean city of Arica, close to the Peruvian border, the international policing agency said.

The investigation began in January 2020 after Chilean police began receiving reports about an unusual flow of Chilean children of Haitian descent crossing the border to Peru. Soon, border stations in Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama were reporting that large numbers of children of Chilean nationality were stranded, unable to continue their journey to the U.S.

Chile contacted INTERPOL’s Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Migrants unit, requesting that member countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean share any relevant information.

The resulting data allowed Chilean investigators to compile a list of 185 minors smuggled through Central America by November 2020 — a list that has since grown to include 267 names.

Based on the list, INTERPOL issued global police alerts for each of the 267 children as well as 526 Blue Notices seeking additional information on specific cases.

“In some cases, it was confirmed that children were not traveling with their real parents and, in other instances, they had been abandoned or their parents had died en route,” INTERPOL said.

DHS officials have acknowledged that among the thousands of migrants who recently crowded underneath a bridge in Del Rio hoping to gain entry into the U.S. there were “a nominal” amount of unaccompanied minors. At one point as many as 15,000 migrants were at the camp.

INTERPOL said in the case of the Chilean operation, it was discovered that the transnational criminal network promoted and facilitated the travel of Haitians from Chile to the U.S. through WhatsApp groups and were responsible for transporting the migrants across the Chile-Peru border, after which the migrants began the long land route to the U.S. The facilitators operating in Chile also had contacts with migrant smugglers in the other countries on the route.