The daily grind of coping under COVID-19 was interrupted with a surprise last weekend, when Moruga residents spotted Coast Guard patrols in the waters off that area.

“We didn’t see Coast Guard round here for the longest while,” said a resident.

The southern coastal strip is known to be among the 15 locations where undocumented migrants have entered T&T in increasing numbers in recent years.

These “landing“ hotspots have increased correspondent with unrest in Venezuela, particularly since the 2019 registration of 16,523 migrants and following COVID-19’s effects on mainland stocks.

The first T&T case of the Brazilian variant of COVID-19 discovered in a test sample from a Venezuelan national expedited efforts to confront illegal immigration.

Thursday’s revelation that the first case of the Indian variant was found in Brazil has made it more urgent. India has recorded 26 million COVID-19 cases and 291,000 deaths. The Indian variant, which has high potential for contagion, has spread to 44 countries

Reuters and other agencies reported that Brazil is doing everything possible to prevent spread of the Indian variant, which was first identified in the north-east state of Maranho.

The first case involved the crew member of a cargo ship from South Africa who was airlifted to a Brazilian hospital.

At a May 2 media briefing, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds detailed measures to tackle maritime border security, citing a report that confirmed certain beaches were active illegal entry points. The report revealed “clear information” on T&T citizens facilitating border breaches.

Intelligence officials and residents of communities around beaches bear out Hinds’ report.

Last week, Hinds told Guardian Media the Coast Guard and T&T Police Service ( TTPS) operations are ongoing. Police Commissioner Gary Griffith also spoke on the issue.

Moruga, the furthest point

While there were reports last Friday that “trading” is still active on the south coast, on Tuesday, some in Moruga said they have noted more police presence in the area.

However, they admitted some culprits favour “more lucrative employment” than traditional fishing. Illegal migration has been taking place for more than 12 years but increased last year. Moruga is often the furthest point east for arrivals of undocumented migrants.

“Four, five boats working contraband,” a resident said. “It’s a few fellas. Even though people saw Coast Guard recently, fellas gone out this week.

“Foreigners paying (US)$200, or more to come in. Boats carrying 15 people was bringing 23 to 30. Even coming up La Ruffin river, all in Morne Diablo, Los Iros, Quinam, people come through.

“When these fellas leave at dawn, they coming back in the night … all this time so (7.20 pm), three trips weekly, even daily.”

Arrivals fit the economic migrant profile: 99 per cent youths, mostly women, some children.

“Boats from this point pick them up from river banks and small islands on the mainland where the locals there help them.”

Another resident added: “Last year, plenty were coming in other places, bringing things to sell, including guns, drugs.

“Vehicles waiting for them when they come. Man does have lookouts on the road checking if police around. From here, they going Arima, Princes Town, all south.”

Intelligence sources filled in the blanks. In one southern coastal community, a family runs the “business.” Some network with mainland connections importing guns and drugs. Some of the group married foreigners who are now living here. All transactions are done in US dollars.

Communities along this coastline have legal and illegals involved in pineapple and other farming activities.

In recent times, some migrant men have been seeking employment as in done in some Mexican-US border towns, where they gather and await pickup for jobs. Up to recently, groups of foreign men were seen near Matilda Junction early mornings, awaiting people looking for cheap labour. That has been on hold following the recent lockdown.

South-West business frontier

Mayaro MP Rushton Paray said there are approximately 2,000 Venezuelan migrants in his constituency and surrounding areas.

Westwards, migrants began landing at Icacos and surrounding areas following the 2019 closure of the Cedros port.

Councillor Shankar Teelucksingh said: “There was no tracking them. That’s where the problem began. Illegal migration is now the new business here.”

He hopes migrant labour will be used to rehabilitate the cocoa, coconut and dairy industries.

“Since a Venezuelan boat capsized off Guiria last year, not as many come.

“But there are still numbers, including reports that last week Friday night, some were seen at a particular beach,” Telucksingh said.

Intelligence sources say Icacos is turf for middle men in the “movement” business, controlled by local groups and some Venezuelan players.

Along with some T&T boats, Venezuelan vessels do drop-offs. Chatham was a recent site.

Sources note the high level of organisation involved in the illicit activity, including transport. Busy—sometimes guarded—social media networks support migrant efforts to enter the country. Arrivals fan out around T&T, where relatives who are here legally or communities of undocumented migrants are located.

Oropouche East MP Roodal Moonilal said he has heard from constituents that the migrants “enter through family contacts and networks.”

Coming through the Bocas

Opposition Senator Damien Lyder said he is concerned about border loopholes posing health risks.

He took photos and video he took last October and in March and April of vessels with Venezuelan flags entering at northwest sites although the country’s borders are closed. Men on boats that were docking wore no masks.

Videos showed vessels coming through the Bocas in March, not too far from Coast Guard Headquarters.

“People come and go, buying stocks,” he said

Lyder wondered about last Friday’s arrival of a Venezuelan fishing boat at a Chaguaramas cove.

“Borders closed, SoE on but no sign of authorities,” he said.

“We have reports of Venezuelans evicted in Marabella unable to pay rent after job loss. They will likely lodge by others, increasing numbers and COVID possibility but once borders remain porous, COVID, like illegal migrants, will be here. The situation is now ultra-urgent.”

Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said coastal patrols have intensified. Some officers have been reassigned to known landing sites and a police/army inter-agency task force has been formed.

The TTPS’ Maritime Unit will soon be operating at certain distances with Coast Guard and other unit. TTPS riverine boats have intensified patrols.

T&T Guardian’s political column recently suggested that security agencies consider use of idle marine resources to supplement coastal security. Government subsequently announced that patrol vessels purchased from Australia will arrive in July.

Paray suggested that idle tugs from private companies be militarised in a nightwatch maritime wall to deter illegal entries

Officials from local companies agree there are idle available resources which can be used, particularly barges for marine security platforms. They noted that T&T’s deep pool of technical and machine shop expertise to build vessels locally.

“Trinidad and Tobago has always been a manufacturer of work boats. The sector is ready to help.”