[UPDATED] Venezuela Investigates Maritime Accident on Migrant Route

An estimated twenty died presumably travelling to Trinidad and Tobago in a small boat.

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Venezuelan migrants in a boat in November. (Reuters)
Venezuelan migrants in a boat in November. (Reuters)
By Paul Dobson
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Mérida, December 14, 2020 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan authorities have ordered a criminal investigation into the death of twenty people supposedly travelling to Trinidad and Tobago in a small boat.

While the details of the case remain unclear, a government communiqué reported that eleven bodies were discovered by local coastguard forces on Saturday evening seven nautical miles from the seaport town of Guiria, Sucre State, with three more washing up on nearby beaches on Sunday.

[UPDATE] On Monday afternoon, Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced that Luis Martinez, owner of the ship where the deceased allegedly traveled, had been detained, with six other arrest warrants issued in Venezuelan territory and an Interpol request.

"The Attorney General's office is committed to punish those responsible for these serious crimes," he wrote on Twitter. Saab pointed the finger at human trafficking "mafias" operating in Sucre and Trinidad and accused Port of Spain of complicity.

Unconfirmed local reports indicate that two young children and one month-old baby are among the deceased. On-the-ground photos show some of the bodies in an advanced state of decomposition. Police and coastguard forces continue to search local waters and beaches, and are coordinating with Trinidadian authorities.

Guiria is a well-trodden emigration stop-off for those looking to travel to the Caribbean archipelago, which lies less than 100 kilometres off Venezuela’s coast. It is also famous, however, for being a hub for commerce and exports, as well as for smuggling and organised crime.

While most reports conclude that the fourteen perished while attempting to emigrate, the Venezuelan government has stated that “a connection to organised crime in the area” is not being ruled out.

For his part, local deputy Robert Alcala has suggested that the deceased had been in a non-official migrant transport which left Guiria on December 6 with 30 passengers but had been “detained in Trinidad and returned to Venezuela.” The Trinidadian coastguard, however, was quick to refute that the boat ever reached its waters.

Regional and international organisations have joined cross-party Venezuelan voices in condemning the tragedy and demanding that justice be served.

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Trinidad and Tobago sits nearly 100 kilometres off Venezuela’s north-eastern coast. (BBC)
Trinidad and Tobago sits nearly 100 kilometres off Venezuela’s north-eastern coast. (BBC)

The United Nations estimates that over 5 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, largely in search of better economic conditions, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) put the total at 4.6 million this week. The figure has been subject of dispute, with Venezuelan opposition and allied governments using it to claim resources from international aid bodies. At the same time, some analysts claim that the figures do not take into account migrants who have returned or temporary migration.

Most recently, the UNHCR’s office estimated that 500 to 700 Venezuelans currently leave the country every day, mostly through unofficial crossings due to the Covid-19 pandemic closing most borders. As such, the report explains, they are more likely not to regularise their status and run a greater risk of “evictions, trafficking, forced labour or sexual exploitation” from organised crime.

It is estimated that between 25,000 and 40,000 Venezuelans have emigrated to Trinidad and Tobago since 2015, with the majority entering through the illegal maritime passage which costs an estimated US $300. Trinidadian authorities claim to have deported as many as 16,000, as well as granting work permits to another 16,000. Legal ferry routes between the two countries were halted many years ago, and expensive flight connections have been grounded by coronavirus lockdowns.

The weekend’s events in Guiria come less than a month after Trinidadian authorities deported 160 illegal Venezuelan immigrants. At the time, local police claimed that the decision was made in order to “protect its [Trinidad and Tobago’s] citizens.”

Similarly, in November, 16 Venezuelan children were controversially deported by Port of Spain on the same boat they had used to enter the country in violation of international protocols. However, the boat reportedly got lost at sea and was forced back to Trinidad after two days adrift. The children remain in a detention camp on the island and were recently granted a precautionary protection measure by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

A number of Venezuelan leaders have denounced heavy-handedness against Venezuelan immigrants by Trinidadian authorities, including in the detention centres and by the coastguard.

Bilateral efforts to safeguard the migrants’ conditions have increased in recent months, with two high-level meetings held since September to address the issue, as well as security, crime, human rights and human mobility. The second meeting came immediately after the attempted deportation of the 16 minors.

Nonetheless, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley has previously gone on the record as describing Venezuelan immigration as an “assault” and has promised to execute more deportations in the future.

Edited and with additional reporting by Ricardo Vaz from Mérida.