Venezuela - You Have to Pay to Reach the Horizon

Since the borders to Colombia and Brazil are packed and there is minimal access to foreign currency to reach other desirable destinations, crossing to Trinidad and Tobago is one of the most accessible routes for those in distress seeking to flee Venezuela. Relocating them is the business of the 'coyotes' who are based in the states of Sucre or Delta Amacuro, while cheating them is that of the boatmen, fishermen, smugglers and security forces that haunt them.

26 August 2018
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Tucupita is the capital of the state of Delta Amacuro, the territory of eastern Venezuela where the Orinoco River spreads through the hundreds of branches of a large delta before taking its waters to the Atlantic Ocean. But Tucupita is also a deteriorated, desolate and inhospitable town.

The house fronts have been losing their color and the santamarias of the businesses —as the metal folding bars to close business premises are known in Venezuela— remain down most of the time. Only once a month a truck arrives in town stocked with butter, flour, pasta, rice and mayonnaise. That same day, the shelves are empty again. Milk is not available for sale anymore and the supplies of Chinese merchants, who were in every block, have been closing their doors. A restaurant to recommend to those who wish to celebrate a special date and a hotel, which maintains a privileged service in the midst of scarcity, barely survive. Almost all the inns of the Lower Delta went bankrupt and most inhabitants of the city depend on salaries from the Government of Delta Amacuro or the Ministry of Health. Tucupita survives by moonlighting.

Illegal emigration began to be one of the most lucrative businesses in the area since last year.

Scarcity covers them as well as the inhabitants of the rest of the country. Every morning, there is a line of passers-by in a couple of bakeries hoping to buy bread of the day. Some young people show packages of flour or rice to be paid in cash only to those who pass by their side. There are just a few taxis because the cost of maintaining a car is higher than what can be produced by providing the service in Tucupita.

Despite the widespread poverty of a place with no charm, guests constantly check in and out of Tucupita lodgings. People spend several days there but hardly leave their rooms during the day. They wait for hours sitting on the stairs or in the corridors to the rooms for rent. "That one will certainly go to Trinidad," the employees whisper.

Illegal emigration began to be one of the most lucrative businesses in the area since last year. The departure of people without passports to neighboring Trinidad and Tobago – an English-speaking twin islands - is quoted in US dollars - like all those mentioned in this release - and each police corps charge bribes a vaccine to turn a blind eye to the departure of boats.

Hope Behind Bars

Guillermo Lares left three months ago with his son-in-law Fidel Rojas to Trinidad and Tobago. Fidel did not make ends meet as a construction worker to feed his wife Luisa Lares and their ten, seven, five and two-year old children.

Luz Mary López, Guillermo's wife and Fidel's mother-in-law, says that on the second day on the island, they were both were arrested in Trinidad and Tobago. She managed to find out what happened through a cousin of Fidel, who had also migrated to the island. She has only seen her husband in videos via WhatsApp and other social networks where dozens of Venezuelans under arrest on the island asked the Venezuelan Government to at least help them by deporting them to the country. However, in three months, no Venezuelan authority has contacted the Lares family, and poverty is undermining the family. "All year long we have been eating lentils that arrive in the Clap box [Chávez government's subsidized food distribution program in popular areas] only. My husband left to feed our grandchildren," says López.

The number of Venezuelan citizens entering the island without a passport has been increasing since 2017. In April 2018, an airplane with 82 people deported from Trinidad and Tobago captured the attention of the media. Since then, some videos have leaked in which Venezuelan immigrants are seen clashing with Trinidadian policemen who threaten to throw tear gas bombs, or crammed into rooms while demanding the Venezuelan Government of Venezuela to intervene for their release, as they did not commit serious crimes.

News about the animosity against Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago has crossed from shore to shore. Before the recent deportation of Venezuelans, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, reminded the Trinidadian Government of its obligation to comply with the treaty of the 1951 Refugees Convention establishing the non-repatriation or expulsion of people who need international protection, regardless of how they entered the territory.

The Trinidadian Prime Minister, Keith Rowley, was not daunted by the appeal. In fact, he emphatically replied, "We cannot and will not allow UN spokespersons to turn us into a refugee camp."

But none of this discourages those on mainland seeking to emigrate.

Misery is a Market

Guillermo and Fidel sailed to Trinidad and Tobago together with 21 people to look for work and send money to their family. Every week, numerous boats with such passengers cross to the island from Tucupita. In the areas of Palo Blanco and El Caigual, where indigenous people of the Warao ethnic group live in extreme poverty, 30 minutes from the center of Tucupita, fish are sold on the street, the only legal sustenance in the area, because the business of illegal traffic of immigrants, merchandise and women is booming among misery.

Twice a week, in the early morning, at least four of the boats that leave get lost in the waters of Macareo River. They make a stop at Punta Pescador to wait for the semidarkness to camouflage the crossing Venezuelans, until they reach Icacos beach on the southwest coast of the island of Trinidad, only eleven kilometers away from Venezuela.

At El Caigual, nobody openly admits that there are boats for rent to sail to Trinidad apart from the four companies that engaged in making the trip to that country for years. But everyone requests to those who ask to leave their phone number in case they "find out" about something.

And they will do it. At least four organized groups are engaged in bringing immigrants from the areas of Pedernales, Palo Blanco and El Caigual for one hundred dollars per person. The boats do not set sail until there is a group of at least ten passengers.

Among those seeking to embark, the most famous coyote —Mexican word now used here to refer to the organizers of the crossings— is a woman who seems to be 70 years old, although she assures that she has not passed the age of 50. She claims to be a businesswoman, who has fifteen employees, engaged in doing trips for the past six years. "All the security forces have been involved in my business, saved for Sebin [Bolivarian Intelligence Service, political police], but I already controlled them. I will need to start charging more for the trip per person because they already asked me $ 200 for each trip made. At least, the rest of the police charges in bolivars, one hundred million per trip. How much would I earn if I continue to maintain five police forces?" she laughs. The Sebin would indeed arrive looking for the grandmother-coyote in a rural house where the travelers hide their belongings until the boat is ready to leave.

She started her business at a time when tourists crossed the strait to vacation or party in discos. "Then people also traveled illegally, but they spent just one weekend there. They partied in Carnival or Easter and returned, but now, people begged me to take them there because they have sick family here and have no means to pay for medicines. I do this because I like to help. I'm helping," she justifies herself.

Business Peninsula

In Güiria, a port town in the state of Sucre, further north of the Amacuro Delta, is the other starting point to Trinidad. The nearby Irapa beach is only ninety minutes away from the island by boat. It is a 45-minute journey from Macuro, a small town on the eastern end of the Paria Peninsula, relevant in history for being the place where Christopher Columbus set foot for the first and last time in the continental lands of South America in 1498.

Tourism no longer exists, even though the mayor's office is trying to fix the squares and reinforce the motto "I love Güiria" to motivate visitors. There are no cars or taxis during the day. Everybody walks. The open market has 80% of the stalls without merchandise. They sell vegetables, greens, pre-cooked corn meal, and some personal hygiene items brought from Trinidad and Tobago.

(Photo: Gregorio Marrero)

In the fishing port of Güiria, which used to be the headquarters of one of the hemisphere's most powerful tuna fleets, remain the ruins of a butcher’s shop that burned down more than a decade ago. There are rusty boats struggling to stay afloat. It has been a long time since one of the two ferry companies that made trips to Trinidad and Tobago went bankrupt. At the moment, company Virgen del Valle continues to cover the route to La Trinidad with the only operating boat it has. "Here, those who are not up to something illegal do not survive," says a relative of the former businessmen who took tourists on ferries to the island.

Although there are no job opportunities, the presence of state oil company Pdvsa decreases, and grocery stores remain empty, on Friday nights a festive atmosphere seizes the port. Some 4x4 SUVs appear with speakers, woofers and stereo systems to keep the town awake all night. The young women wear their short dresses and the rhythm of reggaeton, salsa and bachata rumbles in every block until dawn.

(Photo: Gregorio Marrero)

On the boats transporting immigrants, nobody dares to speak or point out. "There is already a shortage of drugs here. It is copper which generates money," says an inhabitant who prefers to remain anonymous. The metal, the new trendy merchandise, is quoted at four dollars per kilo. "The thermoelectric plant (opened in May of this year) is being dismantled. They leave us without electricity at all times. The mafias and security forces do not care about harming the population," he says.

To reach the Trinidadian coasts from here, immigrants take advantage of the rides or lifts of those who traffic in boats with all kinds of merchandise. It is not just copper or people. Honey is quoted at $ 15 dollars, brooms at $ 4.40, a kilo of white cheese a kilo of shrimp at $ 5, while the bottle of Bajo Cero, a popular vodka brand in Venezuela, costs $ 15.

The boats apparently leave legally; at least, most passengers are seen with a passport. Those who have crossed the waters assure that their identity documents are taken to Saime - the Venezuelan identification and immigration agency - to have the exit stamp without the need for travelers to be present. They set sail in the early morning. "Everyone here is an accomplice. Even the Inea [the National Institute of Aquatic Spaces, which controls maritime traffic] gives a report with the dispatch to the attendant without seeing the crew. There is no way to stop the boats. When you arrive in Port of Spain [the capital of Trinidad and Tobago], you get off and leave without problems, while the owners of the merchandise are checked in immigration," explains the same informant.

Driven by Hunger

Sixto Marcano had never written a letter to his wife in the fifteen years they have together. Not even before, to woo her. Today, she rereads several letters that he wrote by hand and sent to her. She sees the image or facsimile of the letters on the screen of her Canaima computer—also known as Canaimita, the laptop distributed by Chávez’s government among children, for educational purposes— in Tucupita. Handwritten letters is the only way he has to communicate from the maximum security prison where he is confined in Trinidad. Another inmate, who has been in prison for thirteen years, sends him a digital file with the photo of the sheet where Marcano has written to his wife.

The wife replies to Marcano from the capital of Delta Amacuro with the shipment of the photo of his six-year-old daughter, taken at her graduation ceremony when she was promoted to the first grade of elementary school. At the same time, she sews a navy blue pants and a white shirt because she has no money to buy the new school uniforms. She avoids answering how many times a day she gets something to eat.

In November of last year, Marcano confirmed in Venezuela that he had already lost 20 kilos (44 pounds) of his regular weight because his salary as a construction worker was not enough to keep his weight or that of his family members. They ate once a day only. On February 10, he decided to migrate. Since he did not have a passport or money to pay for a ticket to another country, he decided to get on a boat that would take him to the most accessible destination, Trinidad and Tobago, which was only four hours away - between land and sea journeys – from home. The barrier was the one hundred dollars of the passage, but someone borrowed them. Once settled in Trinidad, he could pay off that debt and start sending money to his family. His two brothers-in-law had migrated first and were the ones who encouraged him to cross the waters. Today, all of them are detained.

"He worked for three days only and was immediately able to send me ten million bolivars," recalls the wife he left on dry land. The amount is equal to $ 1.6 based on the official exchange rates recently announced by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. "The first thing I did was buying groceries, filling the fridge that was empty. I did not buy meat to make the money last, but I did buy a chicken, as we had not eaten one at home for a while."

But Sixto Marcano was arrested in Trinidad on February 22, at five in the afternoon, when they raid the residence where he lived. His two brothers-in-law managed to tell what had happened in the night, but a few days later, the police returned and took them and two other people as well.

Genesis Marcano, Sixto's oldest daughter, 22 years old, also migrated to Trinidad in last year’s November to be able to support her six-year-old son. But after what happened with his father, she decided to return to Venezuela in April.

The day she was going to return, they arrested her. 

Women and Children Last

Yoarlin Amares Rojas, 18 years old, migrated on March 5 with five other women and no one heard from her again in a month. Her mother, Arlina Rojas, 37, feeds her one-year-old granddaughter, Yoarlin's daughter, with bottles made of liquefied pasta and the food that comes in the Clap boxes, if it arrives.

When Yoarlin was able to call, she warned that on March 8, barely three days after her arrival, she had been arrested. The authorities found her in a house where she was hiding since she was "sold" to a Trinidadian. She was sentenced to pay $ 3,000 within a certain period or, otherwise, spend three years in jail for the crime of being an illegal immigrant.

"A woman came here offering her a job and telling her that she would lend her money for the trip, and then she could pay the debt little by little. That woman had a brother in Trinidad who sent the boat to take the girls," says Arlina, her mother.

(Photo: Gregorio Marrero)

In another nearby home, they tell a similar story. It is the story of Norlismar Cedeño, of 26 years of age, and mother of a 10 and a 7-year old. Norlismar migrated three months to Boa Vista, in the border department of Roraima, in Brazil, to raise money that would allow her to buy medicine for her mother, who had two strokes. After that adventure in the South, she returned to Venezuela and was offered to be taken to Trinidad and Tobago, a week of lodging and food while she got a job. Her cousin Edianny Alvarado, 24 years old and a mother of two 3-year old twins, and two neighbors left with her.

They were recruited in the same way as Yoarlin. When they arrived in Trinidad and saw that they would be forced to prostitute themselves, they fled. That same night, they were arrested by the Trinidadian police in a house where they spent the night. The mothers complain that, although their daughters said that they wanted to prostitute them, their complaints have not been addressed by the authorities.

(Photo: Gregorio Marrero)

Carmen Herrera, 49 years old, is the mother of another arrested woman, who used to live in Tucupita. She says that her daughter told her on the last call from jail that she had been hospitalized before because she was beaten for "misbehaving" inside the prison. Something that Carmen, of course, has not been able to verify.

A man, who was detained for two years and was deported in April after serving his sentence, claimed that women are mistreated in detention centers. "Men and women were separated by a tin wall, and there was a net above. We could climb and see them. They asked for help for us to protest when they were mistreated. I got to see how they beat a pregnant woman," he said.

In Güiria, they offer a slightly different version about sexual recruitment. A man who until a year ago was engaged in attracting women explained, under the condition of remaining anonymous, that each recruited woman entails a cost of 800 dollars, 200 of which correspond to his own fees for the task of persuading girls and sending them to Trinidad. The rest goes to the transfer logistics. He states they all know their intended job when arriving and that they barely stay for an average of three months on the island.

Censorship prevents detainees from telling what they live or eat in jail

The Venezuelans who are arrested and brought before Trinidadian courts often face the dilemma of paying up to $ 1,500 in fines or serving a sentence behind bars. The penalty can vary from six months to three years in prison, at the discretion of the judge on duty.

International calls are not allowed in the men’s jail. However, some have managed to smuggle cell phones that they share to send WhatsApp messages. It is unknown how many have crossed and remain illegal. They have recorded and written the names of each detainee in videos and letters to make a handmade census and distribute it among their relatives through WhatsApp in the hope that the information will reach the official Venezuelan agencies, like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to motivate them to act.

The first list of 174 arrested men that was made public was made in prison by hand. The inmates took a photo of her. They sent it to her relatives, who spread it on social media. But every day, more and more Venezuelans go to jail and the figures and identities change. The unperturbed government of Trinidad and Tobago neither informs nor makes statements.

Female inmates do have regular access to a telephone number which their relatives from Venezuela can call to, also by WhatsApp, twice a month. Each conversation is monitored by a Trinidadian prison officer. Censorship prevents detainees from telling what they live or eat in jail. To the contrary, the authorities instruct those who call from Venezuela to avoid stories about the political situation or the crisis in the South American country. The pretext… to "not alter those deprived of liberty."

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