How The Refugee Crisis In Venezuela Has Led To Lucrative Sex Trafficking Rings By Criminal Networks, Including Corrupt Businessmen, Police and Immigration Authorities.
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago–
The Yihai Entertainment Sports Bar in Cunupia has the markings of an illicit operation. Garish murals outside depict scantily-clad women in Playboy poses with come-hither looks. Inside, men cozy up to dozens of young female Venezuelans, some in their early teens.
Locals had long suspected that the operators of Yihai were running more than a “sports bar.” On November 27, their suspicions were confirmed when a special operations unit of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service raided Yihai, arresting seven suspects, including a police officer. Authorities said they rescued about 50 women and girls, many of whom were locked in rooms.
Investigators said the establishment was being used as a “storage unit” for girls and young women who are taken to bars across the country where they are forced into prostitution. The women were brought to Trinidad by men described as major players in human trafficking. Police disclosed that they were seeking a national of an Asian country to help with their investigation into Yihai.
A six-month investigation by the Caribbean Investigative Journalism Network, in partnership with Guardian Media Limited, has discovered that dozens of places like Yihai operate in plain sight—under the noses of police and immigration authorities. These illegal operations are seldom raided mainly because their operators are connected to corrupt immigration officials—who facilitate human trafficking—and police officers who run protection rackets and even tip off their patrons about when police raids might be planned.
How Refugees Become Sex Slaves
Sex trafficking involving women from neighboring Latin American nations has existed for decades in oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago—and other Caribbean nations. But the criminal practice has exploded in the last few years as organized crime networks have moved in to exploit thousands of girls and young women who are among the five million refugees fleeing economic collapse in Venezuela. Many of the victims are among some 60,000 Venezuelans who have sought refuge in Trinidad.
The criminal networks involve an entangled web of Asian criminal gangs and Trinidadian and Venezuelan traffickers who ferry victims seven miles across the Gulf of Paria to the twin-island nation.
The illicit sex trade seems to span almost every district in Trinidad and Tobago, from rural villages to upscale neighborhoods, where sex slaves—some as young as 14 years old—are held against their will, locked in rooms and forced to have sex with men. Some victims are drugged so older men can take advantage of them.
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 about US$50, about the price of a doctor’s visit. The rate doubles to US$100 for an hour. For the entire night, the trafficker pockets US$1,000.
The women are forced to work night after night until their bondage debt –owed to traffickers for their passage—is erased. Traffickers find ways to keep the women enslaved by charging them for food, clothing, shelter, medical and protection fees.
Melanie Teff, who is UNICEF UKs senior humanitarian advocacy and policy adviser, recalled speaking to at least 50 Venezuelan victims who recounted how traffickers entrapped them into a life of sex and drugs.
Teff, who conducted a study for Refugee International in late 2018 about the situation these Venezuelan women face in Trinidad, said, “We heard about these women and girls reading advertisements for what seemed like jobs in bars that do not appear to be prostitution. Their documents are taken away, leaving them trapped in a foreign land.”
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.
Lured by False Promises
Maria Theresa, a 19-year-old nursing student from Tucupita, saw the promise of a new beginning. (She recounted her story in a recent interview with Guardian Media.)
Like other places in Venezuela, the economy of her small town in the Orinoco Delta had collapsed, causing thousands of residents to flee.
Maria saw her chance when a friend told her about people who could take her to find a better life in Trinidad.
Some traffickers, an organised network of Trinidadians and Venezuelans, promised Maria and her friends that they would loan them 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. About six hours later, she landed in an area she believed to be Chaguaramas, where she and other passengers on the boat were met by a man they didn’t know. From there, they were taken to a house occupied by other 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 Crix and water. One day, they had no food at all.
It was only then Maria realised that the traffickers had sold her a lie.
On the third day, the door to her room opened and one of her handlers told her to get pretty; 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, burying her face in her hands.
Cases involving Maria and other women implicate police officers who not only held them captive but facilitated sexual exploitation of the women.
In Maria’s case, a police officer was the mastermind behind the human trafficking ring that held her captive for almost six months.
Another woman who was held at the house in south Trinidad, said a police officer routinely raped her and forced her to have sex with customers. “He collected and kept all of the money,” she said.
Cops Involved in Human Trafficking
David West, director of the Police Complaints Authority, confirmed receiving many reports about police officers being involved in human trafficking and holding girls and young women captive. West said that the PCA had received a significant number of complaints in 2019 when compared to previous years.
Young girls are 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.
“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.”
Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith said he could not comment on pending investigations into police officers involved in human trafficking.
Griffith said he was moving quickly to adopt policies to target and stamp out corrupt cops with the introduction of polygraph tests.
“Like any other kind of illegal activity human trafficking we will treat through sting operations,” Griffith said. “If they don’t (stop),we will get enough evidence to put them behind bars.”
Griffith founded the SORT team, in part to circumvent corrupt officers in the police service, which some senior TTPS officials estimate make up 10 percent of the force.
Rogue Officers Culpable
Senior officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told CIJN that in many cases, human trafficking was being facilitated by a broad swath of law enforcement officers—from coast guard, police and customs officers who ensure the women arrive on land safely and transported to designated houses across the country. These law enforcement officers are paid handsomely by the traffickers after the women reach their final destination.
The same officials said some police officers, for the right price, work with brothel owners to ensure that police raids do not take place at their establishments.
A reporter for CIJN visited several bars to document the pervasiveness of human trafficking in the country.
*At the China Clipper restaurant and bar in Siparia, male patrons chatted with Venezuelan women who on this night offered their services for about US$90 dollars for thirty minutes. Walking hand in hand, the patrons and Venezuelan women departed to rooms upstairs. One of the women told CIJN that she came from Caracas to make some quick money. “It is hard in my country and I really need the money to send back for my son and family,” she said.
*At the infamous Villa Capri bar in San Fernando, which has been raided several times over the past ten years, women from Venezuela and Santo Domingo worked the floor. Men were seated on crudely-made wooden benches running along the walls. Women leaned against the bar, waiting for business. A Dominican woman, who seemed to be about 25-years-old, said she had no choice but to work in the sex trade. She said she couldn’t say more because she was under guard on the premises.
*At the 4 Play bar in San Fernando, a girl in her early teens propositioned patrons. It was nearing the 4 a.m. closing time. At one point, some 15 girls and young women descended the stairs. Once outside, several cars driven by prospective clients drove up. Some of the women were swooped away almost immediately. Others, including the teenage girl, were left to wait around.
*After a CIJN reporter observed a similar operation at the Copacabana Club in the center of Port-of-Spain, a senior police officer called him to say that the reporter could jeopardise an undercover operation. The officer has been linked to questionable characters. On October 31, eight weeks later, police raided the establishment and arrested several women on suspicion of prostitution, lewd dancing and being in this country illegally. A top police official said some were sent to the Immigration Detention Centre while others were deported to Venezuela.
Law enforcement officials and immigrant activists say that bar owners frequently trigger the raids when they need a new set of women. By calling the police to arrest and deport the women, they are no longer responsible for their care and upkeep.
In the last year, police have made some high profile arrests. In February, police cracked a massive sex trafficking ring involving Chinese nationals and at least 19 young South American teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19. In one raid in the upscale neighborhood of Westmoorings, several young girls were rescued. Police said they were drugged and forced to have sex with old Chinese men in their 60s and 70s. A Venezuelan woman and two Chinese nationals were later arrested and charged for a series of sexual offences.
Authorities believe they had smashed what they considered a major underground sex trafficking ring facilitated by several Chinese nationals operating legitimate businesses.
But immigrant activists and others agree that a lot more needs to be done.
Not Meeting Minimum Standards
In its 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. government said Trinidad and Tobago has not met the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.
The report stated that due to lack of screening, “the government penalised some trafficking victims, including children, for immigration offenses as a result of the trafficking crime. It did not adequately screen migrants, asylum-seekers, or refugees for trafficking indicators, including among Venezuelans.”
The government “decreased the amount of funding for victim services and did not provide adequate victim care in some cases,” the report stated.
Despite the grim report, the last year represented an improvement because the government “demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period.”
Trinidad remains at Tier 2 of a three-tier ranking system.
Trinidad and Tobago shares this Tier 2 status with many of its Caribbean neighbours like Barbados, Jamaica and St. Lucia. According to the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report Guyana has attained Tier 1 status. The UNHCR reports that the Government of Guyana fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking through “serious and sustained efforts by increasing funding for victim assistance, identifying and assisting more victims for the third consecutive year, and opening and operating a trafficking shelter outside of the capital area.”
Another reason for this status is Guyana’s prosecution rate for the trafficking of persons. The report outlines that in 2017, the government reported four new trafficking investigations (two for sex trafficking and two for labor trafficking), 17 prosecutions (12 of which were initiated in previous reporting periods), and two convictions; compared to 19 investigations, 19 prosecutions, and two convictions in 2016. The court sentenced both convicted traffickers to three years imprisonment and required one trafficker to pay restitution to one victim.
According to Alana Wheeler head of Trinidad’s Counter-Trafficking Unit, 35 people have faced the courts for this offence since the inception of the Counter-Trafficking Unit (CTU) six years ago under the Ministry of National Security.
However, although persons involved in trafficking have been arrested and charged, Trinidad has yet to convict any offenders.
The US recognised that there was increased anti-trafficking training for officers with investigations launched against three potentially complicit officials.
The report also took note that a new intelligence task force was started to improve investigations, while a new memorandum of understanding between its children’s authority and an anti-trafficking unit was put in place to better protect child victims.
Trinidad and Tobago should undertake more “proactive victim identification and screening among migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. Improved cooperation between the Counter Trafficking Unit, prosecutors, and NGOs to raise the number of cases that go to trial, as well as an increase foreign language services so that victims can have more options to communicate their dangers,” the U.S. report stated.
The U.S. report also made a stark declaration: “Corruption in police and immigration has been associated with facilitating prostitution and sex trafficking.”