Venezuelan authorities have ordered a criminal investigation into the death of twenty people supposedly traveling 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.
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 km off Venezuela’s coast. It is also famous, however, for being a hub for commerce and exports, as well as for smuggling and organized crime.
While most reports conclude that the fourteen perished while attempting to emigrate, the Venezuelan government has stated that “a connection to organized crime in the area” is not being ruled out.
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.
At the same time, some analysts claim that the figures do not take into account migrants who have returned or temporary migration.
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 Corona-virus lock downs.
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 centers 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..
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.
Venezuela Analysis / ABC Flash Point Migration News 2020.