Flashback—in April, 2019. Police officers, including the Special Operations Response Team, rescued four Venezuelan women who were being held captive.

Human traffickers have provided evidence linking local police who play a critical role in facilitating the trafficking ring between this country and Venezuela. In one instance, a trafficker has provided a series of correspondence between himself and a cop in T&T.

Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Gary Griffith told the Sunday Guardian that they have a list with the names of officers allegedly involved in human trafficking and they are being monitored by the Professional Standards Bureau (PSB) and the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

The latest information was contained in a CARIFORUM report about human trafficking in the Caribbean and Latin America, where Dr Justin Pierre, a human trafficking researcher looks at the involvement of law enforcement in the trade. The research was commissioned with the assistance of Caricom.

Dr Pierre sent out potential questionnaires to 342 suspected human traffickers in this region. Analysing and putting the data together took approximately nine months and was completed in late 2020.

According to the final report which was obtained by the Sunday Guardian, at least 51 Venezuelan human traffickers responded to the questionnaire.

This was the revelation by some of the traffickers, according to Dr Pierre’s 11-page report: “Some of the gangs in the Tucupita region comprise and, in fact, are headed and operated by law enforcement officers including some from Trinidad and Tobago.

“One alleged trafficker indicated that through his connection with elements in the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service, he has been assured of protection by some police officers who advise him where to enter the country.

“Those officers also provide patrol and security for the safe houses where the women are kept before being distributed across Trinidad and Tobago in trucks, cars, maxi-taxis, and vans.”

Tucupita, the capital of the Delta Amacuro region which lies just a few hours by boat from Trinidad’s Southwestern peninsula, was identified as a place where “human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes.”

The report indicated that a trafficker from that area—referred to as trafficker Y—alleged that a police officer from T&T—referred to as constable X—was a member of an organised crime network in Venezuela with strong links in T&T. Trafficker Y’s gang specialised in capturing citizens in Venezuela and transporting them to Trinidad and other countries for forced labour and to work as prostitutes.

Trafficker Y also claimed that the constable had paid them to procure women and young girls for his organisation, which meant “hunting them, luring them with false promises of a better life, making false representations to their parents and caregivers, and kidnapping.”

The local constable, according to Dr Pierre, was interviewed about the allegations made by the Venezuelan trafficker. The constable denied he was ever a member of any human trafficking gang. Questioned why a known trafficker would have his phone number, the constable stated that he did not know why, and that having someone’s phone number in one’s possession does not constitute a crime.

The constable was not aware, according to the report, that the trafficker had shown Dr Pierre a series of correspondence between both of them related to human trafficking activities between Venezuela and T&T.

A deputy of the National Assembly of Venezuela, who commented on this trafficking network said, “It is a network that uses the same strategy, offering false jobs and the possibility of earning money to people living in extreme poverty, and then clandestinely taking them out of the country and selling them to other criminal gangs.”

Cops under watch

When Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith was contacted about the content of the report and the concerns raised about the alleged heavy connectivity of local police officers in the human trafficking trade, Griffith said these police officers were being closely monitored.

Griffith said he could not deny the facts that police officers were suspected to be involved in such activity. “In fact, we have, via intelligence, a list of several police officers and we are monitoring their involvement in such. People may ask why we have not arrested them, but there is a difference between intelligence and evidence.

“South Western Division deliberately turns a blind eye to these illegal activities. There is a very big market here and there is a sick demand, there is also child prostitution and child pornography.”

Griffith said he was trying to implement systems to prevent this growing problem.

“We have officers taking voluntary polygraph testing, and those persons who refuse is a red flag and, in that case, we have no choice but to reassign them. We have to ensure these officers do not have the operational capability to compromise police investigations. These individuals are being monitored by the PSB, SIU,” he explained.

Last year Griffith transferred close to 40 police officers for refusing to take polygraph tests.

If officers fail a polygraph test, then the matter must be referred at the commissioner’s discretion to the Police Service Commission for action. A polygraph test to date is not admissible in court.

Epicentres of human trafficking

Deputies of the National Assembly identified three towns in eastern Venezuela where human trafficking to Trinidad occurs most frequently.

Apart from Tucupita, they pinpointed Guiria where there is an increase in criminal gangs that traffic weapons, drugs, food, people, and exotic animals, due to the proximity to the coasts of T&T.

Another town near Guiria, called Irapa was also identified as a port of departure for Trinidad. In Irapa there is a high influence of the culture of Trinidad, especially in its architecture and gastronomy. There is also a boom in drug, food, and people-smuggling to T&T.

The report identified several epicentres in the region for human trafficking which not only included T&T, but countries like Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua. However, the report stated, that “Venezuela has the dubious distinction out of this grouping as being the greatest supplier of trafficking victims to Trinidad and Tobago, USA and Canada.

The report pointed out that “Venezuela is seen by traffickers as their premier source of victims for Trinidad and Tobago.”

According to the report, the traffickers revealed that the Trinidadian population seemed to prefer women from Venezuela who are younger and of lighter complexion, as these women attracted a higher premium and financial return.

“Our research showed that many women sold as sex slaves first to criminal elements in Trinidad and Tobago and then to criminal elements in other countries.”

According to the data obtained for the region of the Caribbean and Latin America, for human trafficking operations, Venezuela recorded the highest at 15 per cent, followed closely by Brazil and Haiti with 11 per cent, the Dominican Republic and the USA (ten per cent), followed by Mexico (eight per cent), French/Dutch Antilles (six per cent), Peru (five per cent), Trinidad and Tobago (four per cent), Canada and Colombia (four per cent), Guyana (two per cent), Jamaica (one per cent), and other (seven per cent).

During an interview for this report, Deputy of the National Assembly, Robert Alcala spoke of the increase in crimes related to human trafficking in the west of Venezuela, specifically in the states of Sucre and Delta Amacuro. the deputy warned that there is a complicity between military officials and organised crime gangs to kidnap Venezuelans and sell them to T&T.

The deputy also said that in Eastern Venezuela, the coastal towns of Guiria and Irapa are places that are frequently used clandestinely for human trafficking.

The figures of people trafficked in 2011 in comparison to 2019 were staggering according to data compiled by the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica in Venezuela. In 2011 in Delta Amacuro the estimated missing or trafficked victims were 1,042 but by 2019, that rose exponentially to 8,568. In Delta Amacuro’s capital of Tucupita, the figures were also astounding—in 2011 some 932 people were missing or trafficked, while in 2019 that surged to 7,250.

Challenges combating human trafficking

The report stated that according to data obtained, roughly 80,000-120,00 people are trafficked or smuggled through the Caribbean annually.

Curbing human trafficking has posed mounting challenges over the years. Some of the major challenges faced include:

*wide gaps in immigration and border control for ease of forced migration

*lack of adequate intelligence on the organised criminal network

*international drugs/ money laundering/prostitution/trafficking with viable demand and supply forces

*high demand for sex and prostitution services among the local population

*ease of regional and international travel, which facilitates the movement of traffickers within the region

*lack of an established profiling system (who is a human trafficker)

*low conviction rate of human traffickers in the region

*victims are not willing to testify against their alleged trafficker

*porous, unsecured borders in the region

*inadequate police training and education on the subject in the region

*and complicit and corrupt public officials, including police officers, immigration officers, and other government officials

Through the lens of a prosecutor

According to the report, there are no overnight fixes for these challenges and there are also potential problems that prosecutors face in these matters.

Human trafficking is regarded as a ‘money-making’ venture, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that all involved, especially a corrupt law enforcement official, may be participating to make money. The prosecutor may find these officials would be liable for ‘being part of a criminal organisation” based on their designated role of providing protection and informing traffickers of the vulnerable parts of the border to ensure entry.

A prosecuting attorney, “given this evidentiary material surrounding the alleged corrupt conduct of constable X,” would consider as a possible outcome the following offences:

(i) perverting the course of justice; (ii) corruptly soliciting money/corrupting accepting money or gifts;(iii) bribery;(iv) aiding and abetting the offences under the Trafficking in Persons Act; (v) accessory before/after the fact; (vi) Illicit enrichment; (vii) conspiracy; (viii) money laundering; (ix) breaches of offences provided under trafficking in person legislation modelled on the United Nations template.

The report indicated that a prosecutor in T&T would have to prove any of these crimes beyond a reasonable doubt and the issues would have to be ventilated in a criminal court. “Of course, a viable prosecution would have to come from detailed investigations that have gathered evidentiary material covering the ingredients of the particular offence.”

What’s the solution?

Dr Pierre recommended that a series of things must be done at various levels to prevent and minimise human trafficking and rescue those who have been trafficked. The report stated it must be a “well-resourced effort at every level—including policy, financial, sensitisation and education—both locally at the lowest community level and at the intra-regional and international levels. National government budgets must have dedicated financial and governance frameworks to effectively craft policy and work with international donors to move the needle in the right direction and to maintain it for the long haul.”

‘Public officials either involved or turn a blind eye’

The complicity and corrupt activities of public officials in human trafficking is a major challenge according to a senior official in the Ministry of National Security who has read the recent report prepared by Dr Pierre.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Sunday Guardian, “If they are not participating or facilitating, many turn a blind eye to the illicit activities of their colleagues.” The official addressing the issue about the demand by Trinidadian men for light-skinned women from neighbouring Venezuela said, “The Trinidad and Tobago male population prefers Latin American women, not just Venezuelans. So women from Colombia and the Dominican Republic also appeal to them, it is just that it is cheaper and easier to bring women from Venezuela than from Colombia and the Dominican Republic.”

The senior official disagreed with the report’s notion that there were “challenges to combat human trafficking including low perception and awareness.” The official said, “INTERPOL the US Government and others have done a lot of work in the Caribbean over the past five years to train stakeholders and to raise awareness and several countries have moved from denial to acceptance. Hence most Caribbean countries enacted Trafficking in Persons (TIPS) laws between 2006 and 2016.

The report also indicated there was “inadequate police training and education on the subject in the region,” but the official disagreed. “Again, much work had been done to train and build capacity in the region via regional donor-funded projects implemented by INTERPOL, the US Government and others. That is why countries that receive Tier 3 and Tier 2 watch list ought to take heed of international donors and assistance,” pointed out the senior official.”

The senior official also highlighted another issue that has been plaguing the region. “Human and financial resources is sadly lacking for agencies to effectively respond to human trafficking. There is also a need for more effective collaboration and coordination at national and Caribbean levels.”

The official questioned what is Caricom doing about human trafficking?”