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A photo taken on board the Ana Maria before it disappeared.

Suzanne Sheppard

The last time Ana Arias saw her daughter was on a Sunday night more than a year ago. Late on April 14, 2019, two teenaged girls came to her home and asked to speak with 15-year-old Luisiannys Betancourt.

Dressed in home clothes and slippers, the girl left with Unyerlin Vásquez, 16 and her 17-year-old cousin, Omarlys Velásquez to visit a relative nearby. They made a brief stop at Unyerlin’s home. Her mother, Amarilis Velásquez, said Luisiannys was introduced as a friend from high school.

The last known sighting of the trio on Venezuelan soil was at 10 pm walking along a busy street in Cumaná, capital of the state of Sucre.

Velásquez said she got a telephone call ten days later from a young woman who introduced herself as Maria and told her: “Didn’t you know that your daughter was going to Trinidad? Well, the ship sank and they drowned.”

When the girls did not return home on the night of April 14, they were reported missing. Their relatives were eventually told the teens were on board an overcrowded boat, Jhonaily José, which overturned in the Gulf of Paria on April 23, 2019. The vessel was en route from the port of Güiria to Chaguaramas in Trinidad when tragedy struck.

Another vessel, the Ana Maria, disappeared 23 days later in eerily identical circumstances at the same location off Venezuela’s Isla de Los Patos.

Among the passengers on that vessel was Kelly Zambrano who had arrived in Güiria just a few days earlier from Rubio, Táchira state, on the opposite end of Venezuela.

She was encouraged to go to T&T by a friend, Romy María Martínez Rodríguez, who told her she could get a job paying US$1,000 a month.

Arrangements were made with a man, identified as Ramón Franco Martínez, alias “Moncho”, to travel to T&T on board the Ana María.

Before she left Venezuela, Zambrano called her brother, Jeison Gutiérrez, and told him she was staying at the Plaza Hotel with other young women who were also making the trip and had paid US$200 for the trip on a boat which would be captained by Alberto Abreu.

The women were later moved to another hotel, Timón de Máximo, where food was delivered to their rooms, and they were prevented from talking to their families.

Zambrano managed to sneak a call to her brother and told him she wanted to leave “because she was scared,” Gutiérrez told a Venezuelan newspaper. They spoke again shortly before her departure on the afternoon of May 16.

When Gutiérrez heard nothing further from his sister, he became worried and contacted the friend who had convinced her to go to T&T, Romy María Martínez Rodríguez.

She told him: “I don’t know anything about her, the boat sank and everyone died.”

Missing at sea

It has been more than a year since two boats loaded with migrants reportedly overturned and sank in the Gulf of Paria on the way to T&T.

No traces have been found of either of the vessels or the bodies of any of the 60 people feared drowned, although air and sea searches were mounted by Venezuela’s Guardia Nacional and the T&T Coast Guard.

Since then, authorities on both sides of the Gulf have been silent about the incidents and what became of the handful of survivors who were reported to have made it back to Venezuela.

The captains of the two vessels also survived. One of them is in prison in Venezuela. The other, Alberto Abreu, was rescued in the waters off Trinidad and taken to Grenada where he was hospitalised but disappeared after a few days.

There have been conflicting accounts of what happened with the vessels.

An official report from the authorities in Güiria dated April 24, 2019, states: “Information was received from several citizens belonging to the town of Güiria, Valdéz municipality, that yesterday, a boat with the name Yonaily José left bound for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago with 35 passengers on board. Said vessel overturned due to the strong waves near the Isla de Los Patos and it sank. Two were rescued in the Boca de Dragón area. A boat is has been deployed to rescue the missing passengers.”

Records from Venezuela’s National Organization for Safety and Rescue (ONSA) show that the sea surf on that night was just 0.5 meters and the wind was about 22 kilometres an hour, which would not have been strong enough to flip the vessel.

The search for survivors was called off after ten days on May 3, with 28 of the passengers missing and presumed dead.

Sailors familiar with the choppy waters in the Gulf of Paria, in the narrow strait between T&T and Venezuela, dispute reports that two overloaded boats and their passengers could completely disappear. They say the current in Boca del Dragón, the point where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea meet, enters and leaves the Gulf of Paria approximately every six hours.

Debris from the overturned vessels and the bodies of victims would have been taken by that current to places along the Venezuelan coastline like Cabo Tres Punto and would have eventually washed up at Carúpano.

However, another chilling account has surfaced of what transpired that night. A survivor, speaking anonymously because she has been threatened, said in the middle of the ocean, the boat’s engines were switched off and a short while later the vessel was surrounded by men on jet skis and in another boat.

The men, who were armed with rifles and spoke English, ordered the passengers into the other vessels. Some of them jumped into the sea and were either pulled out of the water or abandoned as drowned, the young woman said.

A similar account was given by another anonymous witness, who was aboard the Ana María.

“The boat did not overturn. The engines were turned off and some jet skis and another larger boat arrived to take people away,” he said.

Then there is the account of Abreu, the man who was in charge of the Ana Maria when it reportedly capsized.

There were 33 migrants on board when it sailed from Güiria at 4 pm on May 16. Abreu was not originally the captain but took charge at the last minute.

He was rescued by Robert Richards, a fisherman from the Virgin Islands, who spotted him 30 nautical miles from Trinidad, floating in a life jacket and clinging to a diesel fuel tank.

Photos of the dramatic rescue were posted on the Twitter account of Carlos Valero, a deputy in Venezuela’s National Assembly, who is part of the opposition team investigating what became of the two boatloads of migrants.

In a social media post, Richards wrote: “We found this young man 30 miles offshore of Trinidad in some sporty sea conditions fighting for his life, he had been in the water for 19 hours, while we were bringing our new boats back. He was on a boat that sunk the night before with 20 other people on board, so far no other survivors, they were on their way to Trinidad to buy food because their home of Isla De Margarita, a Venezuela island has limited food that’s very expensive, it’s a very sad thing going on there GOD bless the lost ones.”

Richards took Abreu to Grenada, where he was admitted to a hospital. While there, Abreu asked for asylum claiming political persecution. Grenadian officials discovered that he was facing human trafficking charges in Güiria but by then Abreu had escaped from the hospital.

He resurfaced three months later in a Facebook video in which he claims: “When we were crossing Boca de Dragón, on the journey between Isla de Los Patos and Chaca Chacal, two waves of three or four meters flooded the boat and then turned it over. That happened at about seven o’clock.

“A cousin of mine and I held on to the water bottles. In the dark, it was impossible to see clearly what was happening. While we were there two boats passed by, we yelled and whistled at them, but they didn’t see us.”

Members of T&T’s Venezuelan migrant community claim Abreu is hiding out in this country and has been spotted at fast food outlets in Port-of-Spain.

A senior official at the Ministry of National Security, who spoke off the record, said they have not received any information about Abreu being in Trinidad and have not been able to verify reports that he was involved in human trafficking.

Human trafficking networks

In recent years there has been an upsurge in the number of migrants from Venezuela seeking illegal entry into T&T to escape deteriorating economic and political conditions in the South American country.

Well before that, however, human traffickers had been actively operating between the two countries. Boats transporting sex trafficking victims to T&T earn between US$3,000 and US$12,000 per trip.

Traffickers lure teenaged girls and young women from coastal communities, including Cumaná, Carúpano, Maturín, and other nearby towns with promises of high-paying jobs.

Güiria, a port city located a short boat ride away from Trinidad’s north-west coast, is the main operating base for human traffickers. Operatives transport women and girls there from other parts of the country and bribe officials to look the other way, according to a report compiled by the country’s National Assembly.

“Anyone who finds a woman for prostitution in Trinidad can make up to US$300, and the more they find, the more they make,” said a young man familiar with the inner workings of the criminal enterprise.

He earns US$200 to forge passports for people trying to leave Güiria illegally.

There are small hotels around the city that are used to house the women and girls before they are sent to T&T. The trafficking network includes people who use their vehicles to move them around. They are given accommodation and food until the quota of women to be shipped on small fishing boats is reached.

Gang leader Vaughn “Sandman” Mieres, who was murdered after the two reported boat tragedies, was identified as the T&T link in the cross-border criminal network. From a heavily fortified compound in Las Cuevas, Mieres was in charge of operations to smuggle the victims into the country via secret landing points along the north coast.

Shortly after 2 am on July 24, eight heavily armed gunmen overpowered and killed two of Mieres’ bodyguards and stormed his two-storey house at School Trace. Mieres and his wife were shot at close range and died instantly.

Between April and June 2019, more than 80 Venezuelans have died or disappeared in the Caribbean Sea in three shipwrecks, Venezuelan authorities have confirmed.

In addition to the two vessels that sank en route to T&T, a third boat, headed to Curaçao, disappeared on June 8. In that incident, 32 migrants were reported missing. That vessel had set sail clandestinely from the town of Aguide, in Venezuela’s Falcón state.

International Organization for Migration (IOM) Regional Director for Central America, North America and the Caribbean Marcelo Pisani said the incidents “highlight the desperate measures Venezuelans are willing to take to reach their destinations, even risking their lives at the hands of smugglers.”

More than 4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have left their country since 2015. Over 110,000 of them reside in the Caribbean.

Illegal entry

The disappearance of the Jhonaily José might have gone unnoticed in T&T were it not for the fact that some of the people on board were expected to be met here by relatives. Arrangements had been made to meet them when the boat docked at a secret location in Chaguaramas.

The plan was to arrive under the cover of darkness. The 70-kilometre journey from Güiria typically takes about four hours, so the boat was expected at 8.30 pm at the latest

People familiar with the route say vessels carrying migrants usually sail close to the coastline and get to the eastern tip of the Paria Peninsula around nightfall before embarking on the final 20-kilometre stretch through the Boca del Dragón (Dragon’s Mouth).

The Jhonaily José never arrived, although relatives waited almost the entire night. An alarm was raised in the local migrant community and after days with no word from their missing loved ones, a group of desperate relatives shared their story with Guardian Media.

By then they had heard multiple reports from Venezuela that the boat had sunk after being overturned by two huge waves.

The Ana Maria, the other missing vessel, sailed from Güiria at 8 pm with 38 people on board, including eight children and 27 women–well above its passenger capacity of 20 people. Most of them travelled without passports or any form of identification.

Investigations stalled

After an initial flurry of searches and investigations, law enforcement authorities in T&T and Venezuela have gone silent.

Three days after the reported sinking of the Jhonaily José, the Third Regional Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrests of 18 people, including owners and employees of three hotels in Güiria which had been identified as places where victims of sex trafficking were kept.

Charges were laid against nine of them and on April 30 they were transferred to the Carúpano Judicial Circuit and appeared before the 5th Control Court charged with human trafficking and related crimes. The accused were Beatriz Elizabeth Alcalá, 46, Deyson Alleyne Pimentel, 28, Daniela Luces Pimente, 19, Ornella Martínez Marcano, 26, Yaritza Morales Romero, 22. Dignora Romero Zapata, 40 and Ingrid Martínez Marcano, 28.

A few days later, near Bohordal, 80 kilometres from Güiria, the Guardia Nacional intercepted a car in which five adults and three minors were travelling. Franklin Tulio Marcano Belmonte, 42, José Manuel Marcano Mass, 49 and Luisanny del Carmen Villarroel González, 29, were arrested. The two women and three teenagers in the car with them had no passports or documentation and said they were on their way to Güiria.

Last November, Venezuela’s Public Ministry created a special police unit to deal with human trafficking. At that time, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said 71 people had been detained for those crimes between 2017 and 2019.

The Counter-Trafficking Unit, established in January 2013 and currently headed by Alana Wheeler, deals with all matters pertaining to human trafficking in this country.

But many months have passed with no word from either of these investigative bodies on the two missing vessels and claims that the passengers are in T&T, victims of human trafficking.

The issue is being kept alive by Venezuela’s National Assembly which has established an investigative commission to look into the two incidents. Members of the commission say they have repeatedly requested information from the T&T Government but are yet to get a response.

They also asked authorities here to provide them with the lists of people detained and rescued in police raids on sex trafficking operations to verify if any of were among those reportedly on board the two missing vessels. However, according to National Assembly deputy Robert Alcalá, the information has not been provided.

Alcalá was also unsuccessful in getting specific information about Luisiannys Betancourt, whose mother, Ana Arias, saw a photo published in a newspaper of a young woman who looked like her daughter.

Jeison Gutiérrez, Kelly Zambrano’s brother, came to Trinidad after hearing that a group of Venezuelans had been warded at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital following a raid at a brothel where suspected sex trafficking victims were rescued. However, he was turned away from the hospital and told only close relative who could prove family connections would be allowed to visit.

Relatives of the 60 missing migrants have formed a group and continue to search for their loved ones. Despite evidence they might have perished, they refuse to give up hope that one day they will return to them alive.