Business at the Managua International airport “Fifty and (I’ll) take you to Honduras”

The African migrants arriving in Nicaragua from El Salvador, Panama, and Europe represent a business not only for the regime but also for taxi drivers, private drivers, and street vendors working near the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua. DIVERGENTES spent several days at the airport talking to those involved in this new business endorsed by the Sandinista dictatorship for the past couple of years

aeropuerto Managua

The Augusto C. Sandino International Airport is chaotic. The presence of African migrants arriving in the country from flights coming from El Salvador, Panama, and Europe creates chaos inside and outside the airport. In the immigration officers’ cubicles, the massive lines exceed the speed at which they can perform their duties.

It’s a February Wednesday, but it could be a Thursday, Friday, or Monday. For several months now, this scene has been recurring. “Ever since they started letting in the ‘negritos,’ things have changed. It’s a delay and a business. A real commotion,” says one of the more than ten taxi drivers patiently waiting for Africans going north, specifically to the United States.

In the morning, the heat easily penetrates the airport. The traditional air conditioners have been replaced by large floor fans that do not cool the atmosphere, making the heat in the immigration offices exhausting. In the lines, Africans do not respect order, pushing forward and desperately demanding attention. A traveler who waited in line that day mentioned that the airport officials opened a couple of windows to “keep up.”

Taxi drivers “hunting” for African migrants

aeropuerto Managua

Outside the airport, the chaos continues. Other key players emerge, very interested in engaging with African migrants. One of them is Gonzalo, a twenty-something taxi driver who uses his phone to repeat an English phrase over and over: “Fifty and (I’ll) take you to Honduras.” During the nearly sixty minutes I spent with him, no foreigners got into his vehicle, despite more and more coming out from the airport terminal. 

Recibe nuestro boletín semanal

In October 2023 alone, an average of 18 planes landed on the runway of Managua’s international airport each day, mostly from Port-au-Prince, Haiti; the Dominican Republic, and Providenciales Island. Also from Europe, via El Salvador and Panama.

The planes brought a significant number of Haitian, South American, and African migrants who have found Nicaragua to be a migratory passage to reach the United States.

The Sandinista regime’s opening, which does not require visas for these foreigners to enter the country, represents a profitable business due to the official and unofficial charges imposed on each foreigner by the authorities.

At the highest level of the business, undoubtedly, is the Sandinista regime. The dictatorship found in the transit of migrants the perfect opportunity to overcome the financial crisis in the National and International Airports Administration Company (EAAI). A report on the institution’s balance in 2022 reported profits of 150 million córdobas, but in 2023, there was a notable increase of 386%, that is, more than 700 million córdobas.

The unofficial “fee” at the Managua airport

Business at the Managua International airport “Fifty and (I’ll) take you to Honduras”

In the middle tier are migration officials who, according to airport sources consulted by DIVERGENTES, irregularly charge migrants to allow them to enter the country. This “fee” can range from 50 to 250 dollars per person, depending on whether they identify a family group among the migrants.

At the lowest level are Nicaraguans like Gonzalo, the owners or taxi couriers waiting in the airport parking lot to transport migrants to the Honduran border. There are also private drivers who, with the complicity of police officers and the airport itself, make trips to the border. And below them, other taxi drivers wait outside the airport, hoping that foreigners will come out to the road to get a lower price than the one offered inside.

The airport taxi union

In the airport parking lot, a group of about ten taxi drivers work, arriving around five in the morning every day to wait for travelers to take them to their destination in Managua or to the Honduran border. They operate with the approval of airport authorities, to whom they must pay a fee for their presence on site.

At 9:50 in the morning, they all gather at the airport terminal exit. They are not interested in regular travelers. They are waiting for African, Haitian, and South American migrants whose next destination is Honduras. For Gonzalo, the twenty-year-old taxi driver who spoke with me for almost an hour, one of these trips is enough to make his day.

“If I take four Africans, I charge fifty dollars each. The trip costs them 200, and I earn 130 because I spend 70 on gasoline. The least I’ve charged is 180, because they like to bargain a lot,” says the young taxi driver, who has sometimes had to leave the airport without any passengers.

Alongside Gonzalo are other taxi drivers approaching African migrants to offer their services. “Go to Honduras?” some say with an occasionally unintelligible accent. “Four for 200, cheap,” they reply, while most Haitians ignore the drivers and head to another area of the parking lot.

Intermediaries protected by the police

Aeropuerto Managua

Private drivers, in addition to working with a police officer, also collaborate with a man who could pass as an African migrant, were it not for the fact that he comes to the airport every day to pick up foreigners who previously arranged their transportation with him.

The cost, according to Gonzalo, is higher. However, migrants are unaware of this, and “for safety,” they get into the vehicle of the person they agreed with days prior for their trip to the Honduran border.

“It’s a double-edged sword. We tell them we charge them 200 and that it’s cheaper, and the “negrito” tells them not to come because we are dangerous. But the others are the dangerous ones who swindle them and charge them up to 100 each,” the young taxi driver says.

Gonzalo adds that when the intermediary brings migrants to the airport, or when individuals attract a group to take them along, there’s no way to compete because they are backed by the police. “It’s best to see them from afar and try to ‘snatch’ your group,” he said.

After touring the airport terminal for several days, DIVERGENTES confirmed that the majority of Africans, Haitians, and South Americans are men; there are few women or children among the migrants. Unlike groups of Venezuelans who cross Nicaragua on foot with their entire families, these groups travel with little luggage and are well-dressed.

It was also noted that, unlike African or Haitian migrants, Cuban or Ecuadorian groups traveling to Nicaragua do not immediately head to the Honduran border. Instead, they wait a few days to continue their journey to the United States. Gonzalo, who has transported these foreigners, says they have a bit more money and prefer to sleep in hostels on the day of their arrival in the country. Some even do a bit of tourism in the capital.

Those outside the airport

At 10:15am, an immigration officer, joined by a colleague, walks along the airport terminal exit. They are not interested in knowing the destination of African migrants, nor do they instruct taxi drivers or private drivers working with the police to transport travelers. The couple is concerned with stopping drivers not authorized by airport authorities to pick up migrants.

Gonzalo alerts me to the presence of immigration officers. “They’re looking for ‘suckers’ who don’t pay their bribe,” he says with a laugh. The agent approaches a woman near the parking lot. He asks who she is waiting for and the nationality of the person who will land in the country in a few minutes. The answer reassures him because the woman tells him they are Nicaraguans.

The officer continues his rounds, but this time, he approaches the fence that protects vendors’ access to the airport parking lot. Immediately, he takes out his phone and starts taking pictures of taxi drivers parked on the Pan-American highway and street vendors near this group of drivers.

The officer’s goal is uncertain. Gonzalo can’t give me a reason why he takes photos. The young taxi driver interprets the airport agent’s measure as a form of intimidation for drivers and vendors who want to transport African migrants to the border. “Maybe they don’t want their business inside to be ruined,” he repeats.

Outside, in front of the Las Mercedes Hotel, there have always been taxi drivers waiting for travelers. They park there because they do not have permission from airport authorities to be inside. But now, the group is larger because sometimes they do well making trips to the border.

During the time we visited the airport, we noticed that they rely on street vendors who wait at the airport exit for African migrants. Some vendors, who do not speak English, manage to take some groups of migrants to the taxi drivers. “Taxi. 150 Honduras,” they repeat to every African migrant they see at the airport exit. “If they get a group, they get their 200 pesos,” Gonzalo tells me, who watches from afar that the immigration officer’s intimidation tactic has no effect.

They arrive by plane and leave on foot

The transit of migrants whose final destination is the United States but who use Nicaragua as a passage has been increasing in recent years. A note published by La Prensa last year reported that between 2022 and most of 2023, Nicaragua received more than 600,000 migrants whose destination was the United States. The Managua airport reported up to 50 flights loaded with passengers per day, who, for the most part, did not leave the country the same way.

“In 2022, 634,800 passengers entered the country through the airport, but only 312,400 left by this means, so it is presumed that 322,400 continued their journey to the United States by land. Last year, between January and November, 791,100 people entered through Managua Airport, but only 517,700 left by plane, so 273,400 would have left by land to the north,” details the informative note.

Gonzalo‘s colleague who complained about how a police officer took away their migrant trip is optimistic about the business. He says that more and more Africans come daily, and if one day he doesn’t pick anyone up, the next day he can make it.

“The important thing is to be in the game, not to fight with the airport people, and to know how to talk to the “negritos”, that is, slowly and in English because some speak English,” says the taxi driver.
In the next half-hour, Gonzalo‘s colleague will leave with a group of five African migrants. He will charge fifty dollars each. His profit, excluding the 80 for gasoline, will be around 170 dollars. Otherwise, the young taxi driver will leave without having made a single trip. Today, he had no luck, maybe tomorrow or the next day, he can “crown” his journey to the border.

The information we publish in DIVERGENTES comes from contrasted sources. Due to the situation in the region, many times, we are forced to protect them under pseudonymity or anonymity. Unfortunately, some governments in the region, including the Nicaraguan regime, do not provide information or censor independent media. For this reason, despite requesting it, we cannot rely on official, authorized versions. We resort to data analysis, anonymous internal sources, or limited information from the official media. These are the conditions under which we exercise a profession that, in many cases, costs us our safety and our lives. We will continue to report.