Over the last decade, millions of Venezuelans have fled economic collapse and political turmoil, creating what is possibly the biggest migration crisis in the world. This exodus has represented a massive political challenge for the countries migrants have sought passage through or refuge in. It has also represented a major opportunity for organized crime.
Over 7.2 million people have left Venezuela since 2014, as the country has remained in a sustained economic, social, and political tailspin. And while recent years have seen a growing number head north toward the United States, the vast majority -- more than 6 million-- remain in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to R4V, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) platform dedicated to the Venezuelan crisis.
This analysis is part of a three-part series produced by InSight Crime’s Venezuela Organized Crime Observatory, looking at policy intervention opportunities in areas where organized crime intersects with the ongoing political and social crises in Venezuela. The second chapter of the series on organized crime and illegal mining can be found here. The third chapter on Venezuela's electoral process can be found here.
While many of Venezuela’s neighbors initially welcomed migrants, their social safety nets have struggled to meet the ongoing demand of such an influx. This was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which diverted financial resources from resettlement and refugee programs.
Other countries have set up barriers to stop illegal migration, but this has spurred the emergence of human smuggling networks, which migrants use to avoid travel restrictions or closed borders or to traverse dangerous terrain.
The use of smugglers has become so commonplace that 69% of Venezuelan nationals reported hiring one or more smugglers for their journey between 2019 and 2021 in research carried out by the Mixed Migration Center.
Migrants using irregular border crossings also represent a source of income for armed groups and predatory criminals, who extort the migrants as they cross their territory and, in some cases, also rob or kidnap them or force them into roles such as human couriers for drug trafficking.
Human traffickers have also capitalized on the crisis, tailoring their recruitment of Venezuelan women and girls by offering false offers of jobs, scholarships, or even religious charity as bait for what ends up being coerced sexual exploitation.
This criminal exploitation of the Venezuelan migration crisis has created a host of security, human rights, and economic challenges for governments, international agencies, and civil society groups from across the region and beyond. Below, InSight Crime examines three opportunities for intervention to address these issues at a local, regional, and international level.
Local: Fund Alternatives to Corrupt Institutions
One of the principal factors facilitating the criminal exploitation of the migrant crisis has been local-level corruption and institutional neglect. This has eroded Venezuelans’ trust in migration and security officials across the region, leaving severely under-resourced and overwhelmed civil society organizations as the only support mechanism left to migrants. In these areas, prioritizing the funding of such organizations could reduce migrants’ vulnerability to organized crime.
Corrupt members of migration and security forces facilitate and even participate in criminal activities such as human trafficking. Victims know that authorities are involved and fear coming forward, InSight Crime found.
Moreover, the sense of distrust towards authorities pushes migrants toward human smugglers, who they believe can guarantee their safety. It has also enabled criminal networks to prey on a population too afraid to report these crimes to authorities.
Local grass-roots civil society and community organizations, as well as international NGOs, are already stepping in to fill the void left by authorities. They offer migrants, shelter, childcare, and help in navigating their host countries’ migration and legal systems. Victims of predatory crime, including human trafficking, often turn to these organizations for help instead of reporting directly to authorities.
Institutional neglect and corruption in Latin America are deep-rooted problems with no easy short-term solutions. But by channeling funds to grass-roots civil society and non-profit organizations with a proven track record of helping migrants, international, national, and private donors can create an effective and efficient alternative for migrants in desperate need of help now.
Diverting a larger share of emergency aid to these institutions would allow R4V, its donor nations, and even host governments to increase their return on investment in aid while decreasing the risk that those funds will fall into the hands of corrupt officials collaborating with organized crime groups.
Regional: Reverse Reactionary Policies
Some of the largest host countries in the Venezuelan migration crisis are closing or militarizing their borders and passing hardline policies whose objective is to deter migration. These policies sow confusion and chaos at the border, drive the development of sophisticated human smuggling networks, and enable predatory organized crime.
Of the South American countries that host the largest number of Venezuelans -- Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina -- Colombia and Argentina alone have maintained clear rules that offer a timely path to regularization. Ecuador, Chile, and Peru have all made the process more difficult -- and sometimes near impossible.
The governments of Peru and Chile have gone the furthest, militarizing their borders to block migrants.
In April 2023, Chile also introduced a bill that threatens to criminalize any refugees and migrants who lack regulatory migration status. If approved, the law would impose prison sentences on those found guilty of entering irregularly and staying in the country. Peru has not gone as far, but its government recently made it illegal to rent housing to irregular migrants.
History shows that such hardline policies exacerbate insecurity and fuel organized crime.
In Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, border closures leading up to and during the COVID-19 pandemic saw a rapid rise in sophisticated human smuggling networks, known as travel agencies. When the borders reopened, the demand for these networks fell, but the infrastructure remained in place, ready to benefit from a renewed rise in demand.
Chile is already seeing a return in that demand as Venezuelans, unable to migrate in a regulated way because of the government’s increasingly hardline approach, turn to human smugglers.
Amnesty International has also reported a spike in exploitation by predatory organized criminals -- extortionists, robbers, and human traffickers -- along these new human smuggling routes.
Hardline or hostile migration policies can be tempting in the face of prolonged economic pressure, criminal migration, and the perception that migrants bring insecurity. But by maintaining -- and in some cases returning to -- policies that provide Venezuelans with a safe, orderly, and regular road to migration, host nations can reduce migrants’ dependency on smuggling networks and vulnerability to recruitment or exploitation.
Global: Fund the Forgotten Crisis
By 2021, the Organization for American States (OAS) warned that “without a global response and massive influx of funding, the Venezuelan refugee crisis could become the largest and most underfunded in the world.” But more funding has yet to arrive, and as long as this continues, the conditions for the criminal exploitation of the migrant crisis will likely remain.
Currently, the R4V’s 2023 plan to address the Venezuelan migration crisis across the region is short by 75%, according to the UN. Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, which previously have been praised for their generous reception and host more than half of all Venezuelan migrants between them, are among the countries missing out.
The funding shortage undermines local authorities, international NGOs, and grass-roots civil society organizations, whose operations have begun to shrink. These institutions ensure that migrants are safe, processed quickly, and can access welfare programs and the legal labor market. Without proper funding for them, migrants fall through the safety net, often into the waiting arms of organized crime groups, who sort them for sexual exploitation, forced recruitment, or disposable low-level criminal labor.
Addressing the funding shortfall is key to reinvigorating South America’s progressive policies towards Venezuelan migrants and has the potential to stem the flow of vulnerable migrants falling into the hands of organized crime networks.
Large international actors, such as the governments of the United States, the European Union, and Canada, as well as the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank, could ameliorate local funding shortfalls in South American countries by increasing funding to the UN’s response plan, as well as grass-roots civil society organizations.