A sophisticated human trafficking network dismantled in Colombia, illustrates a pattern in how Venezuelan citizens, particularly women, are recruited.
On March 27, Colombian authorities managed to arrest and indict members of an organized criminal group (Grupo de Delincuencia Organizado - GDO) known as "Los PEP," who are charged with human and migrant trafficking. The network, led by Luis Enrique García, alias "El Chamo," managed to permeate the institutions responsible for issuing immigrant identification and control documents.
The network sold Venezuelan citizens, particularly women from Zulia, a department on the Venezuelan border, false residency permits and promised them well-paid work in Colombia. After transporting them through clandestine routes to cities such as Cúcuta, Valledupar and Villanueva, the women were sexually exploited.
According to a press release by Colombia's Attorney General's Office, “when the women arrived in Colombia, they offered them a place to stay, food and clothing, but they then forced them to participate in prostitution until they could pay the debt they acquired for the papers to cross the border and their room and board. If the women refused, they threatened to deport them or post naked photos of them on social media.”
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Additionally, Los PEP issued false documents for Italian, German, French, Argentine, Panamanians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Dominicans and Guatemalans with legal problems and criminal records.
The preparation of these documents was possible thanks to the expertise of the group’s members. Additionally, the network gained access to the immigration system by recruiting corrupt officials. One of those arrested was a Colombian Migration officer, who, using his access to the entity's information systems, recorded false information and obtained residency permits.
InSight Crime Analysis
This case highlights patterns in the methods used to deceive, capture and subsequently exploit Venezuelan citizens. The modus operandi used by Los PEP, involved persuading Venezuelan migrants via promises of decent jobs and permits to reside in Colombia, and then subjecting them to exploitation. Additionally, the case highlights the disproportionate impact of sexual exploitation of women and minors on border towns.
In mid-2019, InSight Crime was in Cúcuta and verified that criminal groups are offering migrants documents – including visas, citizenship cards, and residency permits – to remain in Colombia legally. The documents required by Colombian authorities are free of cost and can be requested online, but criminals take advantage of Venezuelans' lack of knowledge and vulnerability to sell them false permits.
Migrants are promised that after obtaining the Border Mobility Card (Tarjeta de Movilidad Fronteriza - TMF), which allows them to transit the border area for a maximum of seven days, they will receive the Special Permanence Permit (Permiso Especial de Permanencia - PEP), with which they can work or study legally in Colombia. The particularity of the Los PEP network is a demonstrated level of sophistication, including the generation of QR codes that directed the user to webpages where Colombia's Migration website had been supplanted.
Unfortunately, the trafficking of Venezuelans is not a phenomenon that occurs only in Colombia. In its 2020 Trafficking in Persons report, the State Department affirmed that the trafficking of Venezuelans is taking place across Latin America. It should be noted that Venezuelans are not the only victims of trafficking and that sexual exploitation is not the only form of abuse. On March 28, a network was taken down that would have sent 20 women from Nicaragua to Spain for the purpose of forced labor.
However, the situation in Venezuela creates even more conditions for exploitation. More than 5.5 million Venezuelans have fled their country. As long as there are still a large number of people willing to pay to cross Venezuela's borders in search of a new life, criminal groups will continue to find ways to profit at their expense; they will even continue to expand their reach within government institutions to do so.