GameChangers 2018: Venezuelan Migration a New Gold Mine for Organized Crime

Turbulence reigned in 2018, but there was one constant: the flow of Venezuelans fleeing their country. The unceasing migration has left thousands of people homeless, penniless and ripe for exploitation by organized crime groups.

The boom in the forced migration of Venezuelans has lasted for more than two years. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that approximately three million people have left the country during that time. Most migrants go to Colombia and Brazil, Venezuela’s closest neighbors. Others go to Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama, Mexico and the islands of Curaçao, Aruba, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Among this massive and uncontrolled exodus, innumerable criminal economies and illicit businesses have emerged. The situation has turned the migrants into a commodity. And a rapidly spreading criminal industry is feeding on them with significant potential to replicate the perilous coyote experience between Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

The Hungry and the Enslaved

Poverty, hunger and limited access to health services and medicine have been the engine driving the mass migration of Venezuelans, and it is only accelerating. In 2017, 87 percent of the Venezuelan population was living in poverty, according to the National Survey of Living Conditions of the Venezuelan Population (Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida de la Población Venezolana – ENCOVI), making it easier for criminal organizations to exploit them.

Most notably, Venezuelans often become victims of modern slavery and its various incarnations, such as sexual and labor exploitation. In 2018, Venezuelan non-governmental organization Paz Activa reported that there had been 198,800 victims of human trafficking as of 2017 in its publication Human Trafficking, Forced Labor and Slavery (Trata de Personas, Trabajo Forzoso y Esclavitud). Paz Activa has further warned that the figure could reach 600,000 in 2019.

The United States singled out Venezuela as a country that is not making any effort to combat human trafficking and to protect victims. Meanwhile, Colombian authorities say that human trafficking has increased along with Venezuelan migration.

This year, dozens of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced labor networks that specifically target Venezuelan migrants have been dismantled from ColombiaPeruPanama, and Mexico, to the Dominican Republic and numerous countries in Europe.

Informal and Criminal Economies

Cúcuta is the principal corridor along the expansive border Colombia and Venezuela share. Some 40,000 Venezuelans pass through the city each day. Waves of people lug suitcases and balance packages on their shoulders as they flow into a prolific informal economy. Here, everything from cellular phones to “canaimitas” (laptops the Venezuelan government distributes to its schools) to even hair can be bought or sold.

The market for hair is particularly vibrant. As soon as they set foot on Colombian soil, Venezuelans can sell their locks for up to 100,000 Colombian pesos, which is approximately $30. In Venezuela, this amount equates to five months’ worth of minimum-wage income. The hair is used to make natural extensions that are then sold online for up to $200.

This passageway is just the first step in what is fast becoming a major corridor of migration-based organized crime. InSight Crime sources stated that a prostitution structure operates at that very point in the border, luring young women and children from the moment they arrive at the Colombian side of the Simón Bolívar bridge. They are temporarily housed in tractor-trailers, then transported to different departments throughout Colombia. Some even make it to Panama.

While it could not be confirmed through fieldwork, various regions of Colombia are notorious for having a large presence of sex workers who come from Venezuela. Cases of the sexual exploitation of Venezuelan children have also been reported in tourism enclaves like Cartagena and Santa Marta.

Borders Closed, Criminal Floodgates Open

The situation that has grown up around the Venezuelan migration has begun to significantly impact the greater region. In 2018, Latin American governments held at least two summits specifically to find a solution to the problem. The crisis is also one more on a growing list of issues tied to the already complicated migration situation affecting Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

Despite the meetings and other efforts, leaders from across the continent seem to have no effective means of tackling this crisis. Instead, the immediate reaction from many of them has been to close their countries’ borders in an attempt to squelch the growing migratory flows.

US President Donald Trump is one of the strongest advocates for that option, having proposed numerous strategies to essentially shut down the border between the United States and Mexico. Others in the region seem keen to follow his example or use it as cover for their own callous policies.

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Written by Ronna Rísquez and Josefina Salomón