Fishermen are denouncing increased piracy around Lake Valencia in northern Venezuela, which is weakening one of the last productive industries in the area.
For months, heavily armed pirates have attacked homes along the now-defunct Valencia-Güigüe highway in the state of Carabobo every 15 to 22 days. Residents report that they arrive on motorboats, armed with machine guns, and demand that fishermen hand over various belongings including fishing gear. Although no people have reportedly been harmed in recent attacks, there is reason to fear an escalation of violence if families are unable to meet the pirates’ increasing demands, according to press reports.
In 2017, four brothers were found dead in Lake Valencia, allegedly killed by pirates who tried to steal their boat engine motor while they were fishing.
Piracy on Venezuelan lakes is not a new phenomenon nor is it limited to Lake Valencia. Fishermen on Lake Maracaibo, in the northwestern state of Zulia, have reported extortion and violence from pirates for at least a decade. These attacks increased throughout 2019. Local residents told InSight Crime that pirates demand that fishermen surrender part of their daily catch. If fishermen refuse or do not surrender enough fish, the pirates take their boats or engines and demand payments of up to $2,000 to secure their return.
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As the economic situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, the few remaining industries that continue to generate any profit are likely to remain prime targets for extortion and theft. Fishing keeps local populations afloat on the shores of Lake Maracaibo and Lake Valencia, although profits have decreased in recent years due to inflation and environmental problems. This relative success has ensured that piracy remains a profitable criminal economy.
Fishermen have begged for state protection, but the government’s inaction in the face of these attacks will give little hope to vulnerable populations. Although the governor of Zulia announced the creation of a maritime force to protect fishermen from pirates in mid-2019, the barebones unit was comprised of only 35 police officers and one boat. In its first operation, the brigade freed four captives and retrieved two boats stolen by pirates. Despite this early success, a local fisherman and community leader told InSight Crime last March that attacks have continued.
And while much of the fishing on Lake Valencia is artisanal and does not feed into major industries, fishermen on Lake Maracaibo often sell their catch to companies that ship internationally. Capitalizing on this connection, gangs often charge fishermen extortion fees for access to Lake Maracaibo and to the seafood companies on its shores. A community leader in Zulia confirmed to InSight Crime that gangs, including Tren del Norte and Los Leal, are among several groups that engage in piracy and jockey for control of this economy in Lake Maracaibo.