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(TRINIDAD GUARDIAN) — Maria Theresa, a 19-year-old nursing student from Tucupita, saw the promise of a new beginning.
Like other places in Venezuela, the economy of her small town in the Orinoco Delta had collapsed, causing thousands of residents to flee.
Maria saw her chance when a friend told her about people who could take her to find a better life in Trinidad.
Some traffickers, an organised network of Trinidadians and Venezuelans, promised Maria and her friends that they would loan them money for the trip. When they landed in Trinidad, the same people would find them jobs as hairdressers or housekeepers.
So, one night in January, Maria climbed onto a pirogue from a hidden inlet on the Orinoco River. About six hours later, she landed in an area she believed to be Chaguaramas, where she and other passengers on the boat were met by a man they didn’t know. From there, they were taken to a house occupied by other migrants.
For three days, Maria and eight other Venezuelans were crammed into a room where daylight barely crept in. Their passports were taken from them and they were fed a diet of Crix and water. One day, they had no food at all.
It was only then Maria realised that the traffickers had sold her a lie.
On the third day, the door to her room opened and one of her handlers told her to get pretty; that some visitors would be arriving soon. Maria was confused and afraid but did as she was commanded.
When a strange man came in and leered at her, she understood her fate.
“They said that we (were) going to be prostitutes and if we didn’t like it, it didn’t matter, because they brought us here and we had to do it.”
Dressed in a green track suit, Maria gave this detailed account from a safe house in Petit Bourg.
“I would have worked in any job because there is nothing in Venezuela. There is no opportunity. You can’t survive. But not prostitution,” Maria said, burying her face in her hands.
BONDAGE DEBT PAID WITH SEX
Venezuela’s economic collapse has triggered an exodus of some five million people from the South American nation. By some estimates, some 60,000 have sought refuge in Trinidad.
A three-month Guardian Media investigation has revealed how human traffickers have swooped in to prey on Venezuelan women seeking economic survival. These traffickers have placed hundreds of young women into modern-day sex slavery.
The networks involve an entangled web of Trinidadian and Venezuelan traffickers who smuggle these women, corrupt police officers who facilitate the trade and protect wrongdoers, and immigration officials who often times take bribes to turn a blind eye to the women’s exploitation. Underworld Venezuelan figures with illicit arms and Asian criminal gangs are often part of the criminal networks.
The illicit sex trade seems to span the entire country, from the remote port of Cedros to high-rises in Westmoorings, where sex slaves—some as young as 15 years old—are held against their will, locked in rooms and forced to have sex with men. Some victims are drugged so older men can have their way with them.
The traffickers routinely take these women to bars and nightclubs in search of clients. The younger the women, the higher the price.
For a 30-minute session, traffickers charge $300, about the price of a doctor’s visit. The rates double to $600 for an hour. For the entire night, the trafficker pockets $6,000.
The women are given a mere pittance to survive. They are forced to work night after night until their bondage debt is erased; a debt owed to traffickers for their passage to this country.
These women are trapped in a cycle of debt with no relief in sight. And the traffickers find ways to keep the women enslaved by adding the cost of food, clothing, shelter, medical and protection fees to the original figure.
SIX YEARS LATER, NO CONVICTIONS
Since the inception of the Counter Trafficking Unit under the Ministry of National Security six years ago, only 56 people—a little more than nine a year—have faced the courts for this offence, according to a top law enforcement official. To date, no one has been convicted, authorities say.
In the last six months, police have made some high-profile arrests, but human rights activists contend that not enough is being done.
The recent arrests include:
On February 6, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith lead an operation that rescued 19 young South American women from two homes in Westmoorings and a restaurant along Ariapita Avenue. The young women, ages 15-18 years, were locked in rooms and made to take drugs and have sex with men for money. Police also rounded up at least 18 suspects for questioning. A Chinese man, Jinfu Zhu, and his 23-year-old Venezuelan accomplice, Solient Torres, were later charged with 43 sex charges under the Sexual Offences Act. The young women, mostly of Venezuelan nationality, were later taken under the State’s care and kept in a safe house.
Mere days after this major bust, a 24-year-old Venezuelan woman who had escaped from human traffickers was recaptured by them in Diego Martin. Police intercepted the alleged traffickers along the Solomon Hochoy Highway in the Claxton Bay area. Battered and bruised, the shaken woman was taken to the Woodbrook Police Station. Akeem James, a 28-year-old special reserve police officer and 39-year-old Kevin Houlder a truck driver were later arrested .
In October last year, a 19-year-old Venezuelan woman was severely beaten in a house in Debe. A video of the beating was posted on social media by her alleged perpetrator who berated her. A Diego Martin man, Avalon Callender was later charged with kidnapping and wounding with intent.
Authorities acknowledge that the human trafficking problem involving sex slavery is a massive one.
Minister of National Security Stuart Young said the rescue of the 19 women last February had triggered a flood of tips about illegal activity involving human trafficking across Trinidad and Tobago.
THE WORLD TAKES NOTICE
Several international agencies have focused on the sex trafficking problem during their investigation of the Venezuelan migrant situation in Trinidad.
Melanie Teff, who is UNICEF UK’s senior humanitarian advocacy and policy adviser, recalled interviewing about 50 Venezuelan victims who recounted how traffickers entrapped them into lives of sex and drugs.
In an interview with Guardian Media, Teff said, “We heard about these women and girls reading advertisements for what seemed like jobs in bars that did not appear to be prostitution. Their documents are taken away leaving them trapped in a foreign land.”
Teff said the heightened despair of these Venezuelan women left them at the mercy of heartless traffickers.
“They want to survive and send back money to their families, who they feel a responsibility to support. If they are not allowed a way of being legal in Trinidad and Tobago, then they are going to be at much greater risk of being exploited,” she said.
‘COPS INVOLVED IN HUMAN TRAFFICKING’
PCA director David West confirmed receiving many reports about police officers being involved in human trafficking and holding girls and young women captive.
Young girls are at the mercy of rogue police officers, West said.
“These young girls do not know the system and therefore they are afraid to report it,” he said.
West said that the PCA had received a significant number of complaints in 2019 when compared to previous years.
“It is very worrying, the stories that the girls tell are…,” West said, pausing to compose himself.
A father of two girls, West said, “I do not wish it on anybody’s daughter, what they have allegedly done to those girls.”
West said victims should know that his agency will investigate complaints against officers. “Come to the PCA and we will take their complaints and investigate the matter and bring those perpetrators to justice,” he said.
Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith said he could not comment on pending investigations into police officers involved in human trafficking.
Griffith said he was moving quickly to adopt policies to target and stamp out corrupt cops with the introduction of polygraph tests.
“Like any other kind of illegal activity human trafficking we will treat through sting operations,” Griffith said. “If they don’t (stop),we will get enough evidence to put them behind bars.”
‘YOU’LL BECOME PROSTITUTES’
Cases involving Maria and other women implicate police officers who not only held them captive but facilitated sexual exploitation of the women.
Maria was adamant that an officer was the mastermind behind the human trafficking ring that held her captive for almost six months.
Another woman who was held at the house in Debe, south Trinidad, said a police officer routinely raped her and forced her to have sex with customers. “He collected and kept all of the money.”
Guardian Media spoke to their victims…
Like Maria, Jumarie Carolina fled poverty and starvation in her home town of Caracas.
She endured a nine-hour journey from her home to Tucupita. Carrying only a knapsack, she boarded a ferry to Cedros.
A friend from her home town told her of the opportunities in Trinidad. The island at the Southern tip of the Caribbean was described as an ideal escape from the crumbling Venezuelan society.
At Cedros, she met a man identified as James who picked her up and took her to a house in Princes Town. James told her she would be there for a few days before she could start working as a waitress at a nearby bar.
After three days, one of the traffickers entered her room and raped her. Over several days, he repeatedly raped her. “He would force me to take (marijuana), then rape me,” said Jumarie, tears welling up in her eyes.
James made it clear that she owed him $1,000 for the trip and would have to work as a prostitute to repay him.
He bought her a backless halter-top and tight-fitting jeans and took her to a well-known San Fernando nightclub frequented by men, from all walks of life; hoping their money could buy them a good time with young Spanish-speaking women.
Whenever Jumarie seemed unwilling to comply with James’ wishes, he would threaten to harm her family while brandishing his firearm, she said.
Jumarie said she knew she had to escape. A taxi driver hired by James to take her to and from the club was her only connection to the outside world. One evening, she asked him how much it would cost to take her to meet a Venezuelan friend in Port-of-Spain. He agreed to help her.
After hearing Jumarie’s story, her friend—determined that it would be too risky to keep her—contacted another woman who gave Jumarie refuge.
But it seemed as though she was unable to escape James’ reach. He sent a series of menacing messages, showing pictures of her family members in Venezuela, she said.
“You can’t hide here and you can’t hide in Venezuela,” he told her via text message.
Jumarie had initially agreed to take Guardian Media reporters to several locations where men had abused her. But on the day of the meeting, Jumarie texted a friend, “I’m gone. He will find me.”
She then left on a boat from Cedros.
One day in February, Maria escaped from her captors when she jumped through a bathroom at a bar in Woodbrook. She ran as fast as she could with no idea of where she was headed. She met some Venezuelans on the street and borrowed a phone to contact a friend. Maria ended up in the same safe house as Jumarie.
After exchanging stories, Maria and Jumarie realised they were victims of the same sex trafficking ring. They had even stayed in separate rooms of the same Debe house rented by the police officer.
The single-storey house, painted in brick red, had raised concerns among local residents who pointed out that the house’s windows had been plastered over and robust steel door kept occupants inside.
Many neighbours told Guardian Media how Spanish-speaking women would leave the house at night and return in the wee hours of the morning.
The same house was the scene of several questionable incidents over the last year, including the viral video of the beating involving the Venezuelan woman.
POLICE OFFICER DENIES INVOLVEMENT
Both Maria and Jumarie claimed that an officer known as Hemant “Crix” Ramsumair, who had ties to the police officer known as James, rented the Debe home where they were once held captive.
People who live in the area said Ramsumair resided ten minutes away from the house in question.
Guardian Media approached Ramsumair a few weeks ago outside the Barrackpore Police Station where he worked. Ramsumair was asked to explain several incidents at the house, including the beating of the Venezuelan woman last October and the use of the property to enslave Maria, Jumarie and others.
Ramsumair had been suspended for some time from the police service because of a domestic matter and had only recently resumed duty. He acknowledged taking charge of the house about two years ago, but said he relinquished it after the beating captured in the viral video.
Ramsumair distanced himself from the alleged beating incident at the house and denied any part in any human trafficking ring that includes the involvement of police officers.
He chalked up the incident to nothing more than a lover’s quarrel. He said, “That was the guy’s girlfriend and something happened and he could not take it and that is the gist of it. Seriously.”
While Ramsumair claimed to have given up rental of the property, local residents contradicted that claim.
A relative of the owner, who resides in Canada, said they had been trying to evict Ramsumair for several months now without success.
Asked to comment on the assertions by Maria and Jumarie and their ordeal, Ramsumair said: “I would like to see that because I knew all the people who stayed there. They were my friends. They can’t say anything bad. I think I have a good relationship with one or two of the girls I know who came to Trinidad.”
When asked if police officers in the area were part of this illegal activity?
Ramsumair said, “No, that is not so. It could never be so.”
Ramsumair said he had never been under any investigation for human trafficking.
Ramsumair said, “Honest to God, I don’t know anything about the stuff, that prostitution thing. My family taught me better than that.”
In the last several months, dozens of Venezuelan women have entered the country in the hope of a new life. Many have been duped into sex slavery.
Unlike Jumarie who escaped, these women remain behind trapped.
What you can do
Concerned citizens who have information on victims or offenders of human trafficking can contact ‘Tips for Tips’ at 800-4CTU or 800-4288. This is a toll-free hotline service of the Counter Trafficking Unit (CTU) of the Ministry of National Security.
Trafficking victims are often lured into another country by false promises and so may not easily trust others. They may:
• Be fearful of police/authorities
• Be fearful of the trafficker, believing their lives or family members’ lives are at risk if they escape
• Exhibit signs of physical and psychological trauma eg anxiety, lack of memory of recent events, bruising, untreated conditions
• Be fearful of telling others about their situation
• Be unaware they have been trafficked and believe they are simply in a bad job
• Have limited freedom of movement
• Be unpaid or paid very little
• Have limited access to medical care
• Seem to be in debt to someone
• Have no passport or mention that someone else is holding their passport
• Be regularly moved to avoid detection
• Be aware: ordinary residential housing/hotels are being used more and more for brothels.
People forced into sexual exploitation may:
• Be moved between brothels, sometimes from city to city
• Sleeping on work premises
• Display a limited amount of clothing, of which a large proportion is sexual
• Display substance misuse
• Be forced, intimidated or coerced into providing sexual services
• Be subjected to abduction, assault or rape
• Be unable to travel freely eg picked up and dropped off at work location by another person
• Have money for their services provided collected by another person
Where all the work is done under the menace of a penalty or the person has not offered himself voluntarily and is now unable to leave. They may experience:
• Threat or actual physical harm
• Restriction of movement or confinement
• Debt bondage ie working to pay off a debt or loan, often the victim is paid very little or nothing at all for their services because of deductions
• Withholding of wages or excessive wage reductions
• Withholding of documents eg passport/security card
• Threat of revealing to authorities an irregular immigration status
• Their employer is unable to produce documents required
• Poor or non-existent health and safety standards
• Requirement to pay for tools and food
• Imposed place of accommodation (and deductions made for it)
• Pay that is less than minimum wage
• Dependence on employer for services
• No access to labour contract
• Excess war hours/ few breaks
Teff: There’s a solution
While law enforcement may have a protracted approach, Melanie Teff thinks other umbrella authorities have a crucial role in offering other solutions to this endemic problem.
“The key thing here is to allow these women to obtain residence and work permits and ensure they can apply. Once they can work legally and their kids can go to school, for these refugees and asylum seekers administration at a domestic level through the international convention that Trinidad and Tobago signed up to are translated into Trinidad and Tobago domestic legislation, that is important,” Teff argued.
• Hema Ramkissoon is the top editor for the Guardian Media Limited’s broadcast division. She has been with the company for more than a decade. Hema is the host of CNC3’s Morning Brew programme which highlights policy and policymakers in T&T.
• Mark Bassant heads the investigative desk at Guardian Media Limited. He has more than two decades of experience in journalism and is a graduate of Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He has won six Caribbean Broadcasting Union awards for Best Investigative Reporting in television.