Maritza witnessed this situation. She
describes how the police would come to the house, where she was being held
together with about 50 women, and select some of them to take them on a “date.”
Fernanda also witnessed several times the visit of police officers at the place
where she had to offer sexual services. “There was no problem with the police
because he (her captor) befriends with all of them. The police are fully aware
of what happens in those houses,” she says.
From time to time, there are police raids
that intervene sexual exploitation centers, but this does not guarantee progress
in fighting the crime. “In fact, some interviewees stated that high-profile
raids may be exaggerated to make it look like the Government is doing something,
but there are no real and serious procedures and protocols in place to address
human trafficking,” Caricom’s research says about the cycle of impunity in
Trinidad and Tobago.
One of such high-profile raids took place in
November 2019, at the Yihai Entertainment Sports Bar in the Cunupia area, where
46 trafficked Venezuelan women were found. Among the detainees was a policeman.
In February of the same year, as reviewed by local media, another officer had
been arrested together with a Venezuelan man for being involved in trafficking
of minor girls.
This journalistic team requested the
Trinidad Police to give information about these cases and, so far, no response
has been obtained.
The lack of prosecution of the cases fuels
the victims’ fear of meeting again with those who sexually exploited them. In
fact, some have been threatened by their captors from prison. Zurima says that
the criminals she had reported contacted her on Facebook or called her on the
phone. They told her and other informers that they would kill them if they
continued with the accusations.
Eventually, she was forced to drop the case.
“We had no protection whatsoever. We feared that if we ruin those men, they
would follow through with their threats. They have a lot of money and weapons.
We had no protection from the police. We told them about the threats and they
warn us to make the right decision, because otherwise the men would be out on
bail,” Zurima says.
The report prepared by the Parliament points
out that the slowness of the judicial procedures conspires against the
possibility of imprisoning the culprits. The victims “are not willing to wait
years for trials to be initiated and completed.”
The vulnerability of Venezuelan immigrants,
who risk deportation if arrested, also favors human traffickers. In the last two
years, U.S. State Department reports have emphasized that the government of
Trinidad and Tobago does not effectively screen illegal immigrants or refugees,
as it does not establish whether they have been victims of human trafficking and
if they require special protection before arresting them.
This particularly affects the Venezuelan
population that has massively migrated to the island in recent years. At this
time, according to figures from the Organization of American States, there are
40,000 Venezuelans on the island, but only 16,000 have a regular migratory
Activists, survivors and reports, like
Caricom’s, agree that trafficking victims have been imprisoned for up to three
to five years on irregular immigration charges, after they are accused of being
illegally in the country or on criminal charges, such as drug or weapon
possession. These cases have occurred after the women are found in police raids.
The Counter Trafficking Unit (CTU), created
in 2013 to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases and also to provide
assistance to the victims, is not, however, immune to accusations. Lack of
investigation, follow-up and even abandonment of cases, precarious conditions in
shelter houses, lack of psychological care to victims, and little transparency
in resources, are some of the complaints that activists and trafficking victims
make about this office. Since 2017, CTU has not reported its budget, based on a
report by the U.S. State Department, although there is an evident drop in the
allocation of resources for victims.
Reina experienced the shortcomings
firsthand. Although she reported to CTU that she was kidnapped, drugged and
raped, her case fizzled out, she says. After four months of statements, in which
she and another victim of the same criminal group gave the name of their captor,
nicknames of the criminal gang and even photos, officials of this institution
told her that they did not consider her a victim and, thus, there was no open
case. They had to leave the protection house where they were staying.
This journalistic team requested an
interview with Alana Wheeler, director of CTU, to verify these claims, but she
said that she is not authorized to give statements.
Deportation, without police and judicial
resolution of the cases, is often the fate of Venezuelan women once they leave
the trafficking networks. An official document, which the journalistic team had
accessed to, described the passengers of a “humanitarian flight” to Venezuela in
late 2020, and contained information about an 18-year-old victim who was
Different organizations handle information
about at least six other adolescent victims of sexual exploitation, who were
deported - one of them pregnant - in the first months of 2021. Lilia, the
17-year-old teenager taken in Maturin, was repatriated at the beginning of the
year, after having spent 13 months in a detention center for adolescents and in
the home of a foster family.
Reina affirms that her complaint was not
only abandoned, but also manipulated. “I told them everything that happened.
That he (her captor) acted aggressively when he drank or took drugs, and that,
on one occasion, he pulled a gun on me to make me have sex with him. But then I
was able to read that CTU wrote in the file that I voluntarily had sex with him
every day. It was nuts,” she says. In the end, Reina was also deported to
(*) The names identified in this report with
an asterisk have been changed for security reasons.
**This story was written by Marielba Núñez
and Claudia Smolansky for Armando.Info and CONNECTAS, with the support of the
International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in the framework of the
Investigative Journalism Initiative of the Americas.