A new report looks in detail at how organized crime has profited from Venezuela’s migration crisis across a range of criminal economies.
The report published last month by the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants in Venezuela (Plataforma de Coordinación Interagencial para Refugiados y Migrantes – R4V) highlighted the dangers refugees and migrants face in South America and the Caribbean, which include human smuggling, human trafficking for sexual exploitation and for forced labor, recruitment by armed groups, and high levels of violence.
InSight Crime spoke to Chiara Marinelli, an investigator at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú who worked on the report, about how Venezuelan migrants are being preyed on by organized crime.
InSight Crime: What are the main factors that make Venezuelan refugees and migrants vulnerable to organized crime?
Chiara Marinelli: These people are leaving their country of origin, which means leaving their means of earning a living. At the same time, there are payments they have to make — they need to cross borders, they need food, clothes and more. Many cannot afford them, and this becomes the first moment of opportunity for organized crime, who respond to vulnerability and provide services that migrants need.
Migrants are also vulnerable while they are traveling. They may agree to let organized crime groups help them cross a border because they don’t have any other option. If governments or social organizations are not there, they are going to accept any kind of opportunity.
And the third moment of vulnerability is when they arrive at their destination. They need to start their life over. And in a lot of cases, there are little to no reintegration programs, so organized crime is there to offer them jobs.
IC: How has organized crime in Latin America preyed on migrants since the beginning of the Venezuelan migration? How has it changed over time?
CM: South American countries were not traditional destinations for migrants. Governments there were therefore not ready to respond to the massive influx of migrants. But organized crime groups knew how to exploit them.
The type of exploitation changes depending on the country concerned. Colombia and Brazil, for example, have a greater presence of organized crime and non-state armed actors. Venezuelan migrants don’t know what this really means. They might arrive in Colombia and be offered jobs collecting coca leaves on plantations. They accept it with the belief that they can leave, but they cannot. Or they might settle down and open a small shop, only to quickly become targets for extortion. The protection offered to migrants is low, as countries sometimes do not want to recognize the situation.
IC: How did the pandemic change the way human trafficking takes place, particularly of Venezuelan women and girls?
CM: The first mass migration of Venezuelans in 2016 and 2017 was largely made up of middle-class people who had greater economic resources. This made it more difficult for organized crime to recruit them because they traveled with their families and had better protection. Later, people with fewer resources began migrating. They were more vulnerable, and that made it easier for organized crime to recruit them.
Recruitment is easy. These are people that don’t have any options. They will not complain to state actors, because they believe they don’t have the right to do so, as they are irregular migrants and fear being deported.
Women are usually earning money and sending some of it to Venezuela. Their families often don’t know that they are exploited.
Then, during the pandemic, no one could move, but that doesn’t mean that crime stopped. In Peru, we learned they started moving the girls to private apartments. They were living there, clients would pick them up in a car and exploit these women and girls before returning them.
There is also the matter of sex for survival (sexo por supervivencia). In one study I carried out in Colombia, women working in areas controlled by non-state armed actors or organized crime groups had to hand over part of the money they earned. They may be working willingly, but there is still some control by the organization. We have to talk about this very carefully because it hides a lot of vulnerabilities for sex workers and for LGBTQI persons.
IC: How does this differ from how men and boys are exploited by organized crime?
CM: Nobody knows the real scale of the sexual and labor exploitation of men, adolescents, and young boys. We don’t have a lot of data. This is a problem because we struggle to recognize men as victims of human trafficking when the exploitation of women and girls is the stereotype. When police carry out operations, they will not identify men as victims. For example, they go to mining zones and find women and girls being sexually exploited. But while you also have a lot of men and boys that are working in the mine as victims of forced labor, they will only rescue the girls.
Men and boys are also exploited in the agricultural sector, in ranches in Brazil, in coca fields in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and across mining regions. You can find reports of the exploitation of Venezuelans in Chile and Argentina as well. Then a lot of men and adolescents are exploited in illegal mining and timber trafficking in the Amazon region.
Finally, organized crime recruits mostly men and boys in vulnerable situations. This happens with Venezuelans who are crossing to Colombia or Brazil. Organized crime will force them to commit crimes. These people are then prosecuted for these crimes but the investigations remain at the lowest level — the big picture remains unseen. A lot of teenagers in rehabilitation centers are recruited. There is an effort by the UNODC and other organizations to have recruitment to commit crimes as defined as a human trafficking issue.
IC: How sophisticated are the criminal groups behind this?
CM: You have at least three types of criminal groups. The first consists of traditional groups such as those in Colombia and Brazil. They control territory and exploit migrants in the same way just as they do residents of their territory. But it can be cheaper for them to exploit a Venezuelan person than a local.
In countries like Ecuador, Peru, or Bolivia, there are groups that often don’t have a name or do so only because the police have named them. They are not well-organized, at least not to the standard of larger groups, but they have a presence in the criminal landscape. Their exploitation of migrants is mostly opportunistic. They will seize an opportunity to get into human trafficking as it’s not very costly.
And then you have smaller groups or individuals. In Peru, family groups run criminal businesses, with two or three people recruiting migrants or sexually exploiting girls. This gives them room to deny they’re doing anything if caught. They say, “I’m just working with this girl but she is not forced to perform sexual acts with a client.” It’s a gray area.
IC: What more can governments and organizations do to prevent migrants from falling into the hands of organized crime?
CM: First of all, access to information. Most migrants, not just Venezuelans, have to know the risks of organized crime.
Second, governments need to provide services to all vulnerable populations, including by increasing services for LGBTQI people and for men and boys. These efforts have to be sustainable over time. Then, we need joint law-enforcement groups because organized crime is not focusing on only one crime.
Human trafficking also causes gender-based violence, which you need a specialist to deal with. You need someone that works against drug trafficking or organized crime to target the criminal structure, and you need an anti-money laundering specialist too. The final thing is funding. If authorities don’t have the right funding, the best policy will be of no help.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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