While Colombia bears the brunt of the Venezuelan exodus in terms of sheer numbers, several islands of the Caribbean, like Trinidad and Tobago, are being battered by a criminal hurricane unleashed by the nation’s collapse.
Colombia has anything up to one and a half million Venezuelans now living in country or passing through to other parts of the region, a staggering three percent of the population. Trinidad and Tobago however, with a population of almost 1.4 million has up to 100,000 Venezuelans, a figure of over seven percent. Such is the influx, that the English speaking island is being forced to rediscover its Spanish roots and the fast paced Venezuelan Spanish can increasingly be heard on street corners amid the Caribbean creole.
Trinidad and Tobago, unlike Colombia, does not have a well-oiled machine to receive and process Venezuelan migrants, nor does it easily grant them recognition, allowing them to work and get access to health care and education. This forces many into the underworld, into taking menial jobs, or if they are attractive young women, into prostitution.
While in Port of Spain I spoke to a young woman who had been trafficked from Venezuela, and promised, in return for $1500, the chance to work in a restaurant and thus send back desperately needed hard currency to her family in Valencia. Instead she was put to work in a bar and pressured into prostitution. When she refused she was savagely beaten. Now she sits, terrified, in a tiny room she rents, with no job and not even enough money to make the journey back to Venezuela. Her story is not uncommon, and the prostitution sector on the island is booming.
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Venezuelans are also feeding the street gangs, which in turn feed Trinidad and Tobago’s murder rate of 37.5 per 100,000 people, far head of Colombia’s 25 killings per 100,000.
Just 11 kilometers from the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago provides much of the contraband for eastern Venezuela. While migrants and cocaine leave Venezuelan shores in growing quantities, food and medicines travel the other way, for purchase by those in Venezuela who still have access to hard currency. There has been explosive growth in pharmacies and mini markets across the islands of Trinidad and Tobago and it is common knowledge that the real money is not made with goods sold across the counter, but the boxes that leave through the back door and find their way onto boats streaking across the Caribbean towards Venezuela. Piracy across the straits is common, and Trinidad’s newspaper frequently report on the kidnapping of fishermen.
But let’s return to the cocaine mentioned above. Organized crime is like water. It follows the path of least resistance. One of those paths now lies through Venezuela and onto the Caribbean. Catatumbo, which sits on the Venezuelan border, has become one of the focal points of cocaine production. This is the cheapest place in the world to produce cocaine. The growing conditions are perfect, with each hectare here able to produce more than seven kilos of cocaine. The “raspachines” who strip the leaves from the hardy coca bushes, are increasingly Venezuelan, and prepared to work for the price of a hot meal. The principal precursor in the production of coca base is petrol, almost free in Venezuela and easy to find in Norte de Santander. And the departure point for the cocaine to international markets is the Venezuelan coast, an easy journey facilitated by corrupt members of the Venezuela security forces who will wave through drug shipments for laughably small bribes.
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So now go-fast boats leave the Venezuelan coast in groups of up to seven, each carrying a ton of cocaine. Every week. Conservative estimates put the quantities of cocaine passing through Venezuela at 300 tons a year. International law enforcement agents believe the number is much closer to 500 tons. This is the fuel for the endless hurricane that batters the Caribbean with violence and corruption. The principal destination is the Dominican Republic with its big container ports and up to five million tourists passing through every year.
But so many other islands offer possibilities to the drug traffickers. Puerto Rico is a US territory. Get onto the island and you are as good as on the US mainland. San Martin is French, while Sint Maarten is Dutch. Step onto this island and you are in Europe.
Every day that the Venezuela collapse continues, is another day this criminal hurricane blows through the Caribbean, fed by cocaine and desperate Venezuelans fleeing their country. There were no contingency plans for this unnatural disaster, no idea that it could last so long.