Authorities in Venezuela have arrested four suspected members of a child trafficking network that used a children's foundation as a cover operation, highlighting the country's involvement in the disturbing regional trade.
The arrests took place near Ciudad Guayana, in the northeastern Bolivar department, after a woman reported the theft of her child. According to EFE, the captors had previously told the woman they worked for a non-profit children's organization. They convinced her to board a vehicle with them on the pretext of enrolling her child in a social welfare program but fled with the infant after she exited the vehicle to sign some papers.
Among those arrested were an official from the nearby Caroni municipality and the Chilean manager of the Venezuelan branch of timber company Masisa. The Masisa manager allegedly bought infants from other members of the network, for a price of around $11,000 each (70,000 bolivares).
According to authorities, the group utilized the non-profit as a front, offering charity packages to low-income families, reported El Universal. The group is believed to have operated with the help of corrupt officials, who charged a fee to make transactions look legal.
It is unclear how many children were trafficked out of the country, but Venezuelan officials said at least two girls were sent to Chile and one to Brazil.
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In 2011, Venezuela was ranked a Tier 3 on the US State Department's human trafficking "watch list," based on the country's failure to adequately combat the practice. Though the country was designated a Tier 2 in the 2013 report after strengthening anti-trafficking laws, it continues to be a source, transit and destination country for victims.
While the news reports do not make it explicit, it is possible that the stolen infants were later sold into illegal adoptions outside Venezuela, something seen in other countries in the region. The theft of infants to be sold into illegal adoptions by criminal groups is a major problem in Guatemala. Cases have also occurred in Mexico and Brazil.
The Venezuela-Chile connection in the case is somewhat surprising, as Chile is not considered a major trafficking hub, though a Chilean human trafficking network that used Peru and Ecuador as transit countries was uncovered in June.