Ongoing interceptions targeting sex trafficking rings operating between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago have revealed the extent to which Venezuelan women and minors are being continually smuggled to the island nation from critical hubs — along with the grave conditions they face both in transit and upon arrival.
Last month, authorities in Venezuela made their latest attempt to target trafficking networks working between the nation and its island neighbor, disbanding a ring dedicated to sending victims to Trinidad and Tobago where they would be sexually exploited, Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced.
To dismantle the illicit organization, authorities made a spate of arrests in the municipality of Tucupita, located in Venezuela’s northeastern, coastal state of Delta Amacuro. Suspects were also detained further afield, in the northwestern state of Lara, as well as in coastal La Guaira.
Days later, on January 31, the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian reported that the island nation’s police commissioner, Gary Griffith, had claimed corrupt officials suspected of being involved in the trade were under watch.
Below, InSight Crime explores the inner workings of human trafficking networks connecting both countries, revealing how critical routes are being used to feed Trinidad and Tobago’s lucrative illicit sex trade.
Human trafficking between Venezuela and its island neighbor typically consists of three stages: recruitment, transportation and exploitation. Critical hubs in both countries are used to facilitate each stage of the process.
Stage One: Recruitment
Approximately five million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela as a result of the country’s prolonged state of political and economic unrest, triggering the "largest external displacement crisis in Latin America’s recent history," according to the International Organization for Migration.
But many have stayed in the nation, increasingly vulnerable to being recruited, or even kidnapped, by human traffickers. Research from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia — OVV) has suggested populations in border states face greater risks of being trafficked.
This is clear in the northeastern states of Sucre and Delta Amacuro, which sit just across the coast from Trinidad and Tobago.
Kidnappings fueling human trafficking between Venezuela and its island neighbor have been carried out in Delta Amacuro, according to a 2020 report from Dr Cleophas Justine Pierre, a human trafficking researcher and director of research and business development at Dunn, Pierre, Barnett and Company Canada Limited. Pierre’s report claimed Robert Alcalá, national assembly deputy for the state of Sucre, had warned military officials and organized crime groups were allegedly working together to kidnap victims in Delta Amacuro’s municipality of Tucupita before selling them on to Trinidad and Tobago. Assisted by Nayrobis Rodríguez, Pierre found that kidnappings linked to the trade had also occurred in the state’s municipalities of Casacoima and Antonia Diaz.
The study also revealed a staggering 43 percent of those trafficked from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago travel from Sucre. Traffickers in the state often focus on recruiting teenage girls along the coast, in cities such as Cumaná and Carúpano, according to Caracas Chronicles, citing an anonymous source in charge of falsifying passports for those trying to illegally leave the nation.
Others trafficked from Sucre arrive from further afield. José Villarroel, director of the National Office against Organized Crime and Terrorism Financing for the state, suggested victims from other parts of the country often reach Carúpano, before later traveling to coastal areas from which they are trafficked onward, according to El Pitazo.
After speaking with a range of government officials and local residents, InSight Crime was able to confirm that victims from beyond coastal hotspots had been targeted. Women and minors from states far and wide – including Venezuela’s capital district, Anzoátegui, Monagas and Lara – have reportedly ended up working in Trinidad and Tobago’s illegal sex trade.
Those targeted are often contacted by recruiters via social media platforms. Last month, Douglas Rico, head of Venezuela’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas -- CICPC), announced during a press conference that a recently disbanded sex trafficking network operating between the two nations had relied on social networks like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram to contact victims.
In many cases, vulnerable women receive false job offers to tempt them away from a life of economic hardship and toward seemingly greater prospects across the coast, where they ultimately end up being trafficked in transit.
Otherwise, Orlando Moreno, active defenders coordinator for Monagas at Foro Penal -- a Venezuelan human rights organization -- revealed that in some cases, Venezuelan women travel in from Trinidad and Tobago to cast girls for the trade. The expert told InSight Crime that, in other cases, "young intermediaries" based in Delta Amacuro may encourage girls to leave for the Caribbean country. According to Moreno, those targeted are typically given a telephone number and told they must wait in Tucupita’s Bolivar Square at a specific time, before being taken to Trinidad and Tobago.
Stage Two: Transportation
Despite borders being closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Organization of American States (OAS) reported the outflow of Venezuelans to Trinidad and Tobago had continued through irregular, and often life-threatening, means. Migrants illegally traveling to the nation on a voluntary basis have been known to fall into the hands of human trafficking rings while at sea, according to an investigation by the Venezuelan NGO Fundaredes. Pierre confirmed to InSight Crime that undocumented migrants may end up being trafficked during their initially voluntary transit, in some cases through the use of force.
At the transportation stage, states located closest to Trinidad and Tobago are again the main players.
OAS General Secretariat Commissioner for the Crisis of Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees, David Smolansky, revealed at least 4,000 women had been trafficked from the city of Güiria in Sucre state to the island nation. In Güiria, captors put victims into hotels or clandestine houses where they are fed, dressed and in some cases, where they undergo surgical operations, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory found.
Others have sailed from the town of Irapa in the municipality of Mariño, which is 40 kilometers from Güiria. According to Mark Bassant, a journalist at Guardian Media Limited, Irapa is a strategic place for the trade.
Tucupita, in Delta Amacuro, is another major hub from which criminal gangs organize the transfer of women, Bassant revealed. Moreno confirmed that boats set sail from coastal areas of the municipality, such as Volcán, Palo Blanco and Agua Negra. He added that those recruited further inland in the state’s municipalities of Casacoima and Antonia Diaz often travel directly to Trinidad and Tobago via river routes.
Stage Three: Exploitation
Bassant told InSight Crime that members of gangs involved in the trade had said the women typically arrive at Trinidad and Tobago’s southwestern peninsula. Beaches in Icacos, Cedros, Erin, Moruga and Chaguaramas are typically used as entry points, he added.
InSight Crime also learned from a local media source based in Trinidad and Tobago that traffickers have made deals with private beach owners to facilitate their illicit operations. While the source was unable to provide the names of specific beaches, they added that there are taxis contracted by boat owners waiting at the coast to transfer women arriving from Venezuela to bars that are at least one hour away. Some stay in the south while others head to the central region -- many to the borough of Chaguanas, where demand thrives.
On the other hand, some victims find that Trinidad and Tobago is not their final destination. Pierre told InSight Crime that women and minors trafficked from Venezuela may stay in the island nation for weeks or months before being shipped as far as Eastern Europe, North Africa and Spain. Bassant confirmed victims may also be sent to other countries in the Caribbean, such as the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Antigua, to be exploited once again.
A Thriving Trade
Without a doubt, sex trafficking is a problem facing other Caribbean nations, albeit on a significantly smaller scale. And Venezuelan nationals have consistently been targeted.
Just last month, Venezuela’s ambassador to the Bahamas, Rafael Dominguez, revealed authorities had rescued a victim at risk of being sexually exploited on the island. The young woman had allegedly been kidnapped after initially arriving to the country voluntarily.
Venezuelans have also been targeted by sex trafficking networks operating in the Dominican Republic. In December, the Caribbean nation’s Attorney General’s Office announced it had rescued 51 victims of human trafficking, among them Venezuelan nationals. Just a month earlier, authorities detailed how they saved 12 Venezuelans who were being sexually exploited in tourist venues, in the eastern province of La Altagracia.
Elsewhere, networks dedicated to trafficking women from Venezuela to Aruba and Curaçao have been dismantled. In 2019, TalCual reported on how Venezuelan nationals may be tempted into the trade, attracted by misleading advertisements offering "a weekend of free entertainment" in Margarita, Los Roques, Aruba or Curaçao; opportunities to learn English and false openings at modeling agencies.
Meanwhile, Jamaica and Saint Lucia – like Trinidad and Tobago -- are classed as "Tier Two" zones for human trafficking by the US State Department. The department assesses each country using one of four tiers based on government efforts to eliminate human trafficking. A Tier Two ranking means a particular country is making some attempt to curb the trade, but does not fully meet minimum standards to target such operations.
Despite its current ranking, Trinidad and Tobago’s illicit sex trade is characterized by particularly high demand when compared to its Caribbean counterparts.
During an eight month human trafficking investigation in the region, stretching from July 2019 to February 2020, Pierre and Rodríguez discovered Trinidad and Tobago had the highest demand for sexual services and prostitution when compared to other English-speaking countries in the Caribbean, according to an article Pierre wrote for the Jamaica Observer.
The expert reported that, unlike other countries, such as Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, where human trafficking had been on the decline due to governmental efforts, demand for sex and prostitution in Trinidad and Tobago is being driven by a high rate of local consumption, especially in the borough of Chaguanas.
Pierre told InSight Crime that this demand had increased around 10-fold in recent years.
An investigation by the Caribbean Investigative Journalism Network (CIJN) published at the end of 2019 found the island nation’s illicit sex trade spans almost every district, from rural villages to upscale neighborhoods.
Sports bars may be used as a front for those profiting from the trade. The CIJN revealed authorities raided the Yihai Entertainment Sports Bar in Cunupia at the end of 2019. There, seven suspects were arrested and around 50 women and minors were rescued, many of whom were found locked in rooms.
Investigators claimed the bar had been used as a "storage unit" for minors and young women taken to bars across the country, where they were reportedly forced into prostitution, according to the CIJN.
Interviews conducted with traffickers for Pierre’s 2020 report revealed the local population in Trinidad and Tobago seemed to prefer women from Venezuela, who were younger and of a lighter complexion, as such individuals allegedly attract a higher financial return.
On occasion, women are found working in the trade by choice, mainly to send money home in light of Venezuela’s ongoing crisis.
Others remain trapped in a lucrative industry where, in some cases, corrupt officials collaborate with brothel owners to ensure the trade continues to operate smoothly.
Corruption Beyond the Coast
In July 2020, it was widely reported that officials in Trinidad and Tobago had been planning to implement drones and a newly-formed coastal police unit to crack down on human trafficking between the two nations. Last December, Prime Minister Keith Rowley suggested "stiffer penalties" for those involved in the trade were to come, following a shipwreck which killed over 20 people.
Venezuela has also been attempting to strengthen its response through developing preventative measures and enhancing official training, while calling for greater international cooperation to target human trafficking.
However, the trade is intrinsically facilitated by official corruption -- from coast to coast.
Bassant revealed law enforcement officers in Trinidad and Tobago and military officials in Venezuela form the nucleus of networks operating between the two nations.
Last year, Fundaredes denounced an international human trafficking organization in which public officials linked to the management of Venezuela’s ports and members of state security forces reportedly participated. The NGO added that, while in some instances officials may not have direct involvement in such rings, they are complicit in turning a blind eye to trafficking operations.
Months later, Pierre revealed some trafficking gangs in the Tucupita region were headed by law enforcement officers, including corrupt authorities from Trinidad and Tobago.
Across the coast, further acts of corruption fuel the trade.
The US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report for Trinidad and Tobago suggested government officials had been facilitating trafficking by accepting bribes from brothel owners to transport victims to various locations.
Last month, the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian shared how the nation’s police commissioner, Gary Griffith, had claimed a list is being kept with the names of officers allegedly involved in human trafficking, in order to monitor their activities.
Last year, Stabroek News reported more than two dozen local police officers were under watch by the country’s Police Service Professional Standards Bureau, after being implicated in a human trafficking ring connected to Venezuela.
Pierre told InSight Crime that while only a small minority of Trinidad and Tobago’s police are involved in the trade, some had been known to collaborate with traffickers through using safe houses to smuggle victims during transit.
Beyond the transportation of victims, corrupt law enforcement officers in Trinidad and Tobago have also been known to permit the nation’s lucrative illicit sex trade to operate under their watch.
The CIJN’s investigation of Venezuelans being sexually exploited found dozens of venues that had been operating under the watch of police and immigration authorities.
According to the investigation, such venues are rarely raided, predominantly because their operators are connected to corrupt immigration officials and police officers who run protection rackets. Owners may also receive tip-offs from police, ahead of pre-planned raids.
Is Rescue on the Way?
In the case that authorities successfully break up operations dedicated to the trade in Trinidad and Tobago, victims face a range of prospects.
In its most recent Trafficking in Persons report assessing the island nation, the US State Department found just 34 victims of human trafficking had been identified during its reporting period between 2019 and 2020. All but one of the victims were Venezuelan nationals.
The report shared how Trinidad and Tobago’s government provides victim care services together with NGOs, including accommodation, counseling, legal aid, consular services, medical and psychological services, reintegration for domestic victims and relocation for foreigners.
However, it warned that, following police raids of venues associated with the illicit sex trade, authorities have been known to detain foreign victims for violating immigration laws, in some cases without screening for trafficking indicators. Even when unlawful acts associated with the sex trade have occurred as a result of trafficking, victims, rather than traffickers, have been punished.
There have also been cases of authorities in Trinidad and Tobago sending those exploited by the trade back to Venezuela.
After a raid in late 2019, victims were sent to immigration detention centers or deported directly back to Venezuela, according to the CIJN.
Meanwhile, when it comes to traffickers themselves, authorities in Trinidad and Tobago haven't made any convictions to date, as the plight of victims continues.