The sinking of two boats sailing from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago has unveiled a criminal ring implicating high-level law enforcement officials in the trafficking of migrants and children for sexual exploitation.
The two boats had left Güiria, in Venezuela's Sucre state, for Trinidad when they sank, leaving more than 50 people missing and 10 survivors, El Universal reported.
The first boat wrecked on April 23 with 38 people on board. Nine people were later arrested on human trafficking charges after one survivor, along with family members of the victims, spoke to authorities. Many of the passengers were headed to Trinidad and Tobago to work as prostitutes, but they had been deceived about the purpose of the trip, authorities said.
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Two sources told InSight Crime that those arrested included two soldiers, allegedly from the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana - GNB), and an official from Venezuela's maritime authority (Instituto Nacional de los Espacios Acuáticos - INEA). Additional reports pointed to the involvement of officials from the country's criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC) and the Trinidadian Coast Guard.
The second boat sank on May 16 with an estimated 29 passengers on board, with several children among the missing.
The first boat's captain and one survivor, identified as a teacher, are currently being held. The second boat's captain, reportedly the only survivor, has a previous conviction for human trafficking. His whereabouts are currently unknown after he fled from a hospital in the Caribbean island of Grenada.
Five hotel owners in Venezuela's eastern coastal city of Güiria were arrested after the victims stayed in their properties before boarding the boats. They have since been released.
Güiria residents have told the press that most passengers were charged between $250 and $500 to be taken to Trinidad and Tobago.
Several teenagers, who were reportedly deceived about the purpose of the trip, were taken for free before being turned over for $300 apiece to prostitution rings in the Caribbean country.
A source told InSight Crime that a gang in Venezuela kidnapped 15- and 16-year-old girls and then took them to Güiria, where they were made up and dressed in fresh clothing before being delivered to another group who took them to Trinidad and Tobago.
InSight Crime Analysis
Venezuelans, desperate to find better living conditions, are searching for any way to flee the country, which has given rise to human and sex trafficking, as the recent shipwrecks revealed.
Such businesses seem to be booming in Venezuela, driven by criminal networks that are cashing in on the country's economic and humanitarian crisis. The participation of corrupt officials in Venezuela and their counterparts in Trinidad and Tobago shows ever-increasing levels of collusion between the state and criminal groups.
Teachers from poor schools and even neighbors are encouraged by traffickers to recruit girls whose families are in dire economic straits, luring them with promises of money and gifts, InSight Crime learned.
SEE ALSO: Transnational Sex Trafficking Rings Cash In on Venezuela Crisis
Authorities have arrested others suspected of human trafficking since the wrecks. Three suspects were arrested as they traveled to Güiria in the company of five young people, including three teenagers, without identity documents. Another two were arrested for crewing the boat that would have transported the victims to Trinidad and Tobago.
It is estimated that each ship sending sex trafficking victims to Trinidad and Tobago can earn between $3,000 and $12,000, according to Venezuelan authorities.
A source told InSight Crime that human trafficking has occurred along the Venezuelan coast for at least 15 years, indicating that these criminal networks are likely well entrenched, with longstanding connections to local authorities. The reach of the sex trafficking rings was also evident from the fact that victims were recruited at opposite ends of Venezuela, from Táchira to Delta Amacuro.
Official tolerance of criminal activity combined with a lack of maritime surveillance of illegal vessels have also allowed these networks to thrive. In the case of the first vessel, a search was only initiated three days after the boat sank and ceased as soon as the first group of survivors was found.
The second shipwreck fared no better. No bodies or remains of the boat have been found and no information about the cause of its sinking has been provided.
Worse, other criminal groups are attacking the boats at sea, allegedly kidnapping the victims and demanding ransom payments in dollars, according to InSight Crime sources in Sucre.
A final element is the involvement of a Trinidadian gang, whose leader is thought to be Vaughn Mieres, alias "Sandman." A report seen by InSight Crime stated that one of the surviving young women from the first shipwreck heard the sound of a jet ski and other women screaming. It is believed some of the survivors were taken to Trinidad, where they are likely to have entered the sex trade.