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Flashback November 2019. Members of the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) escort a group of women to a waiting police vehicle after a sting operation at the Yihai Entertainment Sports Bar, Southern Main Road, Enterprise .

T&T has the highest demand for sex and prostitution when compared to other English-Speaking countries in CARICOM, an extensive human trafficking report has revealed.

The demand for the flesh trade in T&T is estimated at 81 per cent when compared to other Caribbean countries. According to the report, the demand for sex and prostitution service is highest in the borough of Chaguanas.

The eight-month-long investigation into the illegal Caribbean trade carried out between July 2019 and February 2020 revealed that approximately 4,000 victims were trafficked in the last four to six years from the Güiria area in Venezuela to T&T, a trade that has been described as “modern-day slavery.” A teenage Venezuelan girl–Omarlys Velásquez–was among the thousands smuggled between the two countries. She was sold for the small sum of US$300 to be used for sex in T&T.

According to the report by human trafficking researcher Dr C Justine Pierre assisted by Nayrobis Rodriguez, around 43 per cent of all victims come to T&T from the state of Sucre.

Interviews with trafficking victims in T&T indicated that some knew each other from Venezuela, had gone to the same school, had played on the same sports team, and most importantly had come from the same region.

The researchers said it was apparent that there is a lack of awareness of human trafficking, especially in the rural and interior areas of countries in the CARIFORUM region, which includes Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and T&T. It was revealed that 63 per cent of the human trafficking victims came from the rural and interior areas.

The investigation, the researchers said, took them “down many dark roads and we interviewed many dangerous people, some of whom believed that what they were doing (human trafficking) was not a crime but just another business activity supplying a need for their clients.”

They interviewed key stakeholders such as teachers, store owners, students, boat captains, brothel workers, the unemployed, the authorities and officials, alleged traffickers, smugglers and intermediaries in the human trafficking ‘industry’ that supply victims to T&T, the Caribbean, the United States of America and Canada.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the report indicated, human trafficking continued unabated, “young women who do not know that their destiny is prostitution are still being trafficked to T&T.”

While in countries such as Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda human trafficking is on the decline due to high public advocacy by these governments, Dr Pierre’s report stated that “the demand for sex and prostitution in T&T is driven by a higher than usual local consumption rate, especially in the Borough of Chaguanas.”

Case of the missing Venezuelan teenager

Their investigation led them to the father of the missing Venezuelan teenager who had made a formal complaint to the authorities alleging that his daughter had been sold by a network that trafficked women to T&T.

The young child was 15-year-old Omarlys who drowned in the Boca Dragón Strait, an area of the sea between Venezuela and T&T, on the night she was being transported. If she had survived, her fate would have been sealed as a victim of human trafficking and prostitution in T&T.

Omarlys was travelling with her cousin, a 16-year-old girl named Unyerlin, who also drowned with her. Both teenagers had been captured by one of the many cartels operating from Güiria, a small fishing town in western Venezuela, the capital city of Valdez Municipality in the State of Sucre.

Investigations revealed that the young girls were aboard a small vessel called the ‘Jhonaili José’ travelling with 37 other people who also drowned. Small boats are one method used to transport traffickers and the trafficked victims out of small villages into larger vessels to be transported to Europe, Asia and North America. On that fateful night, the boat was heading to Chaguaramas.

The young woman and her cousin left their house that night. According to relatives, Omarlys had told her mother that she was going to do homework at a friend’s house. She had no suitcase or any of her belongings with her. She never returned home.

As alarming as the numbers are, it is the intimate stories that paint a true picture of the devastating nature of the illegal sex trade.

This is Omarlys Velásquez’s story:

While the heavily-depressed economic state of Venezuela has taken away many liberties, there are still some elements of fleeting freedoms to be found.

At the age of 15, the remaining freedoms of Venezuelan national Omarlys and her 16-year-old cousin were taken from them.

Leaving their house in Cumaná one night, without a suitcase or belongings, Omarlys told her mother that she was going to do homework at a friend’s home.

She never returned to her Sucre State home.

Men, part of the notorious human trafficking ring from Güiria, ripped them away from their families and their futures.

Awaiting them on the other side of the treacherous Boca Dragón Strait—the Dragon’s mouth—was a life of prostitution in the den, T&T.

The Search

With the two teenagers missing, Omarlys’ father—Omar, his wife and sister began searching for them.

There were whispers in the neighbourhood that the girls were kidnapped on a street not far from home.

Then Omar came across a Facebook post by a stranger named Maria.

She posted the girls’ names, reporting them as missing while travelling on a boat.

Pockets empty and full of despair, Omar and his wife travelled to Güiria hoping to locate their daughter and niece.

“Your daughter was sold for US$300 to a human trafficking ring,” they were told.

According to their findings, Omarlys along with four other young women spent a week in a shelter operated by the traffickers. There, they were kept in preparation for their journey by sea to Trinidad.

Desperately continuing his search, Mr Velásquez made a report about what he heard to the authorities.

Instead of assurances, he got threats.

“They only threaten us and tell us not to ask anything,” Omar said in an interview to human traffic researcher Dr Pierre.

Omarlys’ father was informed that in Güiria there were people in high authority who were linked to the human trafficking business.

The traffickers

A few weeks later, Omarlys’ father discovered the name of the man allegedly responsible for his daughter’s kidnapping, Tico.

With strong ties to Trinidad, Tico was allegedly a middleman who recruited girls for Asian human trafficking syndicates located in T&T. He kidnapped, trafficked and sold young women. Omarlys was one of many he’d done that to.

The two young women, together with three others, stayed for five days awaiting the trip to T&T at Tico’s house.

During interviews with Tico’s sister Elaiza, she denied that he was part of a human trafficking network. But, she confirmed the teens stayed at the home.

“Tico was friends with a woman named Maria who asked him to provide accommodation to these five girls who would travel to Trinidad and Tobago,” she said.

Elaiza insisted that her brother was only doing a favour, giving them a place to stay and some food.

She said that the young women who were in his house knew that they would travel to Trinidad.

They were seeking employment at a specific restaurant and nightclub, she claimed.

Tico travelled with the teenagers on the boat destined for Chaguaramas. The boat, however, never made it to Trinidad. Omarlys and her cousin drowned.

Of the 39 people who set sail on the Jhonaili José on April 23, 2019, only eight survived the boat accident. Tito was also among the list of those who disappeared.

By all accounts, the Venezuelan state did not participate in the search. The authorities in Güiria insisted that they did not have optimal boats or fuel to search.

The eight survivors were rescued by fishermen from a nearby town.

To the traffickers, Omarlys’ death represented a failed opportunity to capitalise on Trinidadian lust.

But she was a loving, obedient child who loved sports and dreamt of becoming a nurse.

Arrests

Following an investigation by the Public Ministry, nine people were arrested for human trafficking, including the boat captain who survived the accident and a sports teacher.

The two men helped kidnap women, handing them over to prostitution rings in T&T. Two national guards were also arrested.

Despite pleas from the victims’ families and several impassioned protests, the investigation into the trafficking ring stopped there.

Omarlys’ parents never got answers about the accident. Omarlys and her cousin’s bodies were never found. Nothing has changed

More than one year after the shipwreck off of Güiria, small boats with no safety conditions continue to illegally set sail to T&T.

Some make the trip hoping to escape the suffocating poverty in Venezuela.

However, these victims continue to be trafficked in exchange for food, medical supplies, and even household items and money.