The Venezuelan crisis has scattered five million of the country’s people across the globe.
Like other places in Venezuela, the economy of Tucupita, a small swampy town in the Orinoco Delta had collapsed, causing thousands of residents to flee.
Maria Theresa, a 19 year old nursing student, saw her chance for a better life when a friend told her about people who could help her move to neighboring Trinidad. All she needed to do was get on a wooden boat that would take them across the Gulf of Paria.
Some Venezuelans loaned Maria and her friends money for the trip. When they landed in Trinidad, the same people would find them jobs as hairdressers or housekeepers.
So, one night in January, Maria climbed onto a pirogue from a hidden inlet on the Orinoco River, one of the world’s great waterways. About six hours later, she landed on Trinidad’s north coast where she and other passengers were met by a man they didn’t know. From there, they were taken to a house occupied by other Venezuelan migrants.
For three days, Maria and eight other Venezuelans were crammed into a room where daylight barely crept in. Their passports were taken from them and they were fed a diet of crackers and water. One day, they had no food at all.
On the third day, the door to her room opened and one of her handlers told her to get pretty and that some visitors would be arriving soon. Maria was confused and afraid but did as she was commanded.
When a strange man came in and leered at her, she understood her fate.
“They said that we (were) going to be prostitutes and if we didn’t like it, it didn’t matter, because they brought us here and we had to do it.”
“I would have worked in any job because there is nothing in Venezuela. There is no opportunity. You can’t survive. But not prostitution,” Maria said, as she buried her face in her hands.
By some estimates, some 60,000 refugees like Maria have sought refuge in Trinidad. Many women and young girls—probably thousands of them—are human trafficking victims who are forced to work as prostitutes. Authorities in Trinidad and Tobago agree that the women and girls are trapped in modern day sex slavery by human trafficking rings.
They are victims of transnational criminal networks. Trinidadian and Venezuelan traffickers smuggle the women. Corrupt police officers facilitate the trade and protect wrongdoers. Immigration officials often times take bribes to turn a blind eye to the women’s exploitation. Underworld Venezuelan figures with illicit arms and Asian criminal gangs are often part of the criminal networks.
The traffickers routinely take these women to bars and nightclubs in search of clients. The younger the women, the higher the price.
For a 30-minute session, traffickers charge TT (Trinidad and Tobago) $300, about the price of a doctor’s visit. The rates double to TT $600 for an hour. For the entire night, the trafficker pockets TT $6,000.
The women are given a mere pittance to survive. They are forced to work night after night until their bondage debt is erased; a debt owed to traffickers for their passage to this country.
These women are trapped in a cycle of debt with no relief in sight. And the traffickers find ways to keep the women enslaved by adding the cost of food, clothing, shelter, medical and protection fees to the original figure.
Seven years ago, Trinidad’s Ministry of National Security founded a Counter Trafficking Unit to deal with the upsurge in human trafficking cases. In the first six years only 56 people—a little more than nine a year—have faced the courts for this offence, according to a top law enforcement official. To date, no one has been convicted, authorities say.
In the last year, police have made some high-profile arrests, but human rights activists contend that not enough is being done.
On February 6, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith lead a high-profile operation that rescued 19 young South American women from two homes in Westmoorings and a restaurant along Ariapita Avenue. The young women, who are from 15 to 18 years old, were locked in rooms and made to take drugs and have sex with men for money. Police also rounded up at least 18 suspects for questioning. A Chinese man, Jinfu Zhu, and his 23-year-old Venezuelan accomplice, Solient Torres, were later charged with 43 sex charges under the Sexual Offences Act. The young women, mostly of Venezuelan nationality, were later taken under the State’s care and kept in a safe house.
Mere days after this major bust, a 24-year-old Venezuelan woman who had escaped from human traffickers was recaptured by them in Diego Martin. Police intercepted the alleged traffickers along the Solomon Hochoy Highway in the Claxton Bay area. Battered and bruised, the shaken woman was taken to the Woodbrook Police Station. Akeem James, a 28-year-old special reserve police officer and 39-year-old Kevin Houlder a truck driver were later arrested.
In October last year, a 19-year-old Venezuelan woman was severely beaten in a house in Debe. A video of the beating was posted on social media by her alleged perpetrator who berated her. A Diego Martin man, Avalon Callender was later charged with kidnapping and wounding with intent.
Many law enforcement officials and others agree that the police raids are relatively rare. In many cases, police officers who run protection rackets tip off their associates to police raids that might be planned.
Several international agencies have focused on the sex trafficking problem during their investigation of the Venezuelan migrant situation in Trinidad.
Melanie Teff, who is UNICEF UK’s senior humanitarian advocacy and policy adviser, recalled interviewing about 50 Venezuelan victims who recounted how traffickers entrapped them into lives of sex and drugs.
Teff said the heightened despair of these Venezuelan women left them at the mercy of heartless traffickers.
“They want to survive and send back money to their families, who they feel a responsibility to support. If they are not allowed a way of being legal in Trinidad and Tobago, then they are going to be at much greater risk of being exploited,” she said.
Police Complaints Authority Director David West, the head of the agency confirmed receiving many reports about police officers being involved in human trafficking and holding girls and young women captive.
“Young girls were at the mercy of rogue police officers”, West said.
“These young girls do not know the system and therefore they are afraid to report it,” he said.
West said that the PCA had received a significant number of complaints in 2019 when compared to previous years.
“It is very worrying, the stories that the girls tell are…,” West said, pausing to compose himself.
A father of two girls, West said, “I do not wish it on anybody’s daughter, what they have allegedly done to those girls.”
Trinidad and Tobago’s poor record of prosecuting human traffickers might be the single reason why the United States Government believes Trinidad and Tobago has NOT met the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.
In a 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. explained that while the Trinidad government “demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period,” it remained at tier 2, of a three-tier system. The country shares this Tier 2 status with many of its Caribbean neighbours, including Barbados, Jamaica and St. Lucia.
In the Caribbean, one country stands out for its prosecution of human traffickers. Its record is by no means impressive, but it leads the pack when you stack it up against its neighbors.
That country is Guyana, Venezuela’s newly oil-rich next-door neighbor. By the end of the last quarter of 2019, Guyana recorded eight convictions in human trafficking cases. The South American country’s conviction rate in human trafficking cases could be among the reasons it remains at Tier one in the US State Department’s human trafficking report for a third consecutive year.
Even as Guyana makes strides in convicting human traffickers when compared to her regional neighbours, the conviction rate pitted against the number of trafficking victims rescued tells another tale. The Guyana Police Force investigated some 18 such cases for 2019, involving more than 130 alleged victims and some 50 suspects. Guyana’s senior security officials say it remains an uphill task to prosecute alleged traffickers. Among the challenges are language barriers and the lack of a witness protection program. Some 84% of the trafficking victims rescued are Venezuelans. It is widely known that Venezuelans fleeing the economic troubles of Guyana’s neighbours make an easy target for traffickers.
We spoke with a convicted trafficker serving 15 years for trafficking three Venezuelan women, including a minor.
Convicted of trafficking three women including a minor and withholding their travel documents, convicted trafficker 33 year old Savita Persaud speaking to CIJN from prison denied that she trafficked the women who worked from her Georgetown city bar. In June, Persaud, received a five-year jail sentence for trafficking the two adult women, confiscating their travel documents for the purpose of trafficking and 10 years for trafficking an underaged girl and the employment of a child on a premises that sells intoxicating liquor. She was also ordered to pay a fine of GYD (Guyana dollars) $4.5 million or US$22,500 in restitution to the victims. Even with what Police said is strong evidence, Persaud denied any wrong doing.
The three women, all Venezuelans, worked at the Liquid Love bar located in Georgetown. They occupied rooms rented by a trafficker, those rooms were located above the bar.
They were expected to provide waitress services as a cover while they used their rooms to provide sexual services to clients. Persaud would benefit from that that arrangement.
The Guyana Police Force through Acting Crime Chief Michael Kingston confirmed that the women were forced into prostitution by Persaud. Persaud benefited from each transaction, between US75 and US$150.
Not much is known about the victims. The women rescued by the police were reportedly placed in a shelter for trafficking victims. They would remain there until their testimonies were needed. In the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court where the matter was heard in-camera, the adult victims testified by Skype.
Venezuelans are among the highest numbers of alleged victims rescued by the Guyanese authorities. According to the Ministerial Task Force on Trafficking in Persons report out of the 245 alleged victims rescued, 162 were Venezuelan nationals. In 2019, the Guyana Police Force raided several bars and hotels and rescued more than 65 alleged victims; more than 50 were Venezuelans. In March 2019, Guyana’s Ministry of Citizenship estimated that there were some 30,000 Venezuelans living in Guyana.
Rosalinda Mercano, a 24-year-old Venezuelan, wanted to escape the economic hardship gripping her country. She paid US$500 each for herself, her husband and son to cross the border from Venezuela into Guyana in the hopes of finding a job. A month later, Mercano, a mother of one, sought jobs to earn a living. An employer looking for a bilingual store attendant asked her to come to the capital city, Georgetown, while her husband and son remained at the border. Once in the city, Rosalinda was taken to the home of the storeowner she was expected to work with.
Rosalinda’s new boss was not a storeowner but in fact operated a road side stall selling perishables. At their home, Rosalinda was not permitted to contact her family once she started working. She was paid a meager US$23 for the three weeks work.
Rosalinda explains that being a young woman and Venezuelan in Guyana means you are labeled – people believe you are a prostitute. She says many girls have no choice because they want to send money to their families.
”They promised me a salary but I was treated like a slave,” Rosalinda says.
On the outskirts of Georgetown, on the East Bank of Demerara, Biker’s Bar is a popular watering hole where foreign prostitutes work and live on the premises. A local businessman who asked for anonymity, said that some of the women are hired by middlemen who pass the orders to the more experienced women who teach the new employees how to become better at their jobs to earn more money.
The bar gained prominence in local media reports in August 2018 when 27 women were detained by the police on suspicion that the owners were operating an illegal prostitution business in the residential community where the bar is located.
Superintendent Jairam Ramlakhan of the Guyana Police Force told the local media that 25 of the 27 women were Venezuelans. At another bar in the community of Diamond, a Guyanese employee reported that the women are offered jobs at the entertainment spot as waitresses but their bosses forced them to become prostitutes.
The employee said the girls lived at homes owned or rented by the bar owners who dictate their every movements, telling them when they could arrive and leave work—and who they would have to have sex with.
The vast majority of human trafficking victims from Venezuela almost never secure justice from their Caribbean neighbors.
Like Maria Theresa, the 19-year-old nursing student from Venezuela who escaped her captors when she jumped through a bathroom window at a bar in Woodbrook in Trinidad. She ran as fast as she could with no idea of where she was headed. She met some Venezuelans on the street and borrowed a phone to contact a friend.
Maria was taken to a shelter where she met another trafficking victim named Jumarie. After exchanging stories, Maria and Jumarie realized they were victims of the same sex trafficking ring. They had even stayed in separate rooms of the same house rented by the police officer. The single-story house, painted in brick red, had raised concerns among local residents who pointed out that the house’s windows had been plastered over and robust steel door kept occupants inside. The same house was the scene of several questionable incidents over the last year, including the viral video of the beating involving the Venezuelan woman.
Both women have returned to Venezuela, but almost every day new women and young girls from Venezuela arrive to take their place. And the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago is yet to prosecute anyone successfully.
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