MEXICO CITY (AP) — El Salvador’s government has begun imposing a $1,130 fee on travelers from dozens of countries connecting through the country’s main airport, under pressure from the United States to help control flows migratory towards its southern border.
Since the end of October, citizens of 57 largely African countries and India have had to pay this tax, according to El Salvador’s aviation authority.
Aviation officials did not say whether the measure was aimed at reducing migration and described the tariff as an “airport improvement tax,” but El Salvador’s government acknowledged an uptick in the number of travelers from of these countries this year. Additionally, the United States has put pressure on Central American countries to curb migration flows toward their border with Mexico. US authorities say they have arrested migrants there more than 2 million times during the financial year ended September 30.
El Salvador’s aviation authority said most passengers who must pay the fee are heading to Nicaragua on the commercial airline Avianca. Due to its lax visa requirements, Nicaragua is a transit point for migrants from Haiti and Cuba, as well as Africa, trying to reach the United States.
Earlier this year, for example, U.S. officials were surprised by an increase among Mauritanian migrants arriving at the southern border. No natural disaster, coup d’état or sudden economic collapse could explain it. Rather, travel agencies and social media influencers were promoting a multi-stop journey that took migrants from the West African country to Nicaragua.
A Senegalese migrant’s flight itinerary seen by The Associated Press showed the migrant passing through Morocco, Spain and El Salvador before landing in Managua. The last two stages took place on board Avianca flights.
El Salvador’s aviation authority and immigration agency said they did not have data on how many migrants from listed countries had transited through the country this year.
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson declined to say whether the United States requested the fee. But the ability to help the United States control immigration could be a political boon for Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, as he seeks re-election despite a constitutional ban and faces intense scrutiny from its human rights record.
Under President Donald Trump’s administration, U.S. policy toward El Salvador prioritized controlling migration above all else, and Bukele heard no public criticism from the United States as he began to consolidate its power. Under President Joe Biden, the United States has openly criticized Bukele’s record on democracy and human rights.
The US Department of State alleged that Bukele’s war against powerful street gangs resulted in “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and other related abuses” on tens of thousands of people in detention. His government has also targeted journalists, activists and critics.
But migration now appears to be returning to the top of the two countries’ bilateral agenda, as Biden also seeks re-election.
While the Biden administration has declared that Central American nations “ we need to step up and do more” to control migration, not everyone received the request with open arms.
“Most governments have recognized that what the United States is clearly interested in is migration and therefore it becomes a bargaining chip,” said Pamela Ruiz, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. “They will either become partners or adversaries on this issue.”
Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador have worked with the United States to open centers for migrants seeking asylum, family reunification or temporary work permits.
On the other hand, Nicaragua has opened its doors to hundreds of charter flights transporting tens of thousands of Cuban and Haitian migrants to the United States in recent months.
The flights – which one analyst described as a “weapon of migration as foreign policy” in Nicaragua – have drawn a fierce warning from the Biden administration.
“We are exploring the full range of possible consequences for those who facilitate this form of irregular migration,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols wrote this month in a message on X, formerly Twitter. The Haitian government announced that charter flights were temporarily suspended.
While Bukele has been criticized again in recent weeks as he registers to seek re-election in 2024, the Biden administration has been cautious in its comments.
“There needs to be a broad debate about the legality and legitimacy of the election, but it is a debate for Salvadorans,” Nichols said during a recent visit to El Salvador and before a meeting with Bukele.
These comments contrasted sharply with the condemnations of “undemocratic behavior » during the elections in neighboring Guatemala, a few months earlier.
Bukele “is willing to cooperate on immigration by banning certain nationalities and charging them ridiculous fees so as not to be criticized internationally,” Crisis Group’s Ruiz said. “Part of me wonders…we won’t be so critical of the Bukele administration because it’s supposed to reduce the number of migrants?”
Associated Press writer Marcos Alemán in San Salvador, El Salvador, contributed to this report.
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