Scantily dressed, she seemed barely out of high school, yet her curvaceous frame a sight to behold.
But it’s a body that houses turmoil often too much for Maria to bear and over which she has no control.
The dream of earning more money brought the bright-eyed,Venezuelan woman to Trinidad and Tobago three months ago on an “illegal” journey by sea. During the six-hour crossing, she wondered how she would be able to take care of elderly people in nursing homes, especially since she had no formal training. She had been offered a job in a nursing home.
When Maria got off the boat at a deserted shore, with a structure barely larger than the home in which she grew up being the only sign of human habitation, her dreams of a better life were promptly shattered.
Three months later, Maria is in debt to her ‘recruiter’, and working in a bar as a prostitute. Her days are consumed only by a desire to return home to Venezuela.
Maria is among hundreds of young Latin American women who have been lured to Trinidad and Tobago over the years by operators of a thriving human trafficking industry. Venezuelan women have become especially easy prey on given the country’s worsening socio-economic status.
Believed to be a multi-million dollar operation — second only to the illegal drug trade — human trafficking in TT is said to be a well-orchestrated scheme involving members of the business community, law enforcement officials, influential persons in the society and others seeking to earn some quick cash.
Women are usually brought into the country via the southern peninsula, specifically Icacos, Cedros and other neighbouring fishing villages. A row of boats beached on shore, children playing happily on the sand, small parlours selling sweets and savouries, men preparing their gear for fishing — residents say beneath the idyllic veneer of seashore serenity, the illegal sex trade flourishes with a vengeance.
It is not uncommon to spot a Venezuelan national or several, in villages along TT’s southernmost region since the South American country and this country do enjoy long-standing relations. But aside from the family connections, many more people are coming ashore for economic reasons. An official at the Customs and Immigration Building in Cedros estimated that at least 100 persons arrive at the port every week.
“Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela have a trade and economic history. But there are also family ties, there is a lot of inter-marriage in Cedros.
“They (the Latin Americans) come easily by boat and are known to enter the mainland, shop and carry back items. So, there is a trade and family relationship because the men here marry the women there. Children are born there. Cedros has Spanish-speaking persons because Venezuela is just a short distance away.”
There is also the business of sex.
The official described as a “cultural thing” what he said was Trini men fondness for Latin women.
“The men in Trinidad who are into commercial sex are attracted to Latin American women who fetch a different price to probably other types,” the official ventured, also revealing that for many teenaged boys in TT, sexual initiation takes place in a brothel with a Latina.
“That is a part of the (TT) culture,” the Customs official said.
He said many of the women do have the required documentation to enter TT while others attempt to elude the authorities in hope of seeking a better life in this country.
“Sometimes, we have had to return women because they failed to clarify the reasons for coming to Trinidad,” the official said.
“Their body language can usually tell if they are lying but in some cases they are coached by the persons coming to collect them on how they should answer. Some of them are even looking for men to marry them.”
The Sunday Newsday discovered that upon arrival in TT, the women are usually housed at brothels masquerading as nightclubs and hotels.
A visit to known “clubs” in south Trinidad showed them to be surrounded by especially high concrete walls and from the exterior, one can see barricaded windows, surveillance cameras and ferocious dogs but nothing to suggest that these are dens of iniquity.
The Port-of-Spain “club” where Maria is forced to work is licenced as a hotel and bar. On a Saturday night, it is filled with throngs of patrons, loud music and cold beers. On Sundays, business is much slower: it is usually regarded as a day for family.
Maria’s “work” usually begins at 7pm and ends around 4 am the following day. On a good night she can earn hundreds of dollars, depending on the needs of her clients. Most of this money will go to her “recruiter”.
Official statistics on the impact of human trafficking in TT are hard to come by but there appears to be a growing demand for underage girls — a development which is engaging the attention of the Counter-Trafficking Unit (CTU).
Established just two years ago as the government’s formal response to human trafficking, the CTU claims some progress. CTU’s Deputy Director Alana Wheeler claims reports to the unit have been increasing.
“Last year, we investigated 35 reports and already for the half of this year, we investigated 35 reports,” she said in an interview at the CTU’s headquarters at Felipe House, corner of Park and Abercromby Streets, in Port-of-Spain.
She said that since the formation of the unit, some 20 trafficking victims have been rescued, 25 percent of which started off as smuggling cases.
Some 13 persons were charged with human trafficking in those incidents, she said.
“What we also found out is that of the 20 cases, the majority were sexual exploitation and that would be Venezuelan, Dominican Republic and Columbian nationals,” she said.
Wheeler anticipated that reports will increase given the unit’s ongoing sensitisation workshops in the various police divisions, other fora and through its hotline, which was launched in March.
The CTU categorise the women in two groups: those who may have been duped into thinking they would receive a better life in this country and those who would come here deliberately to engage in prostitution, largely to support people they have left behind in Latin America. In the latter, many of the women are not even aware that prostitution is illegal in TT.
“What we have found is that because of the economic crisis in Venezuela, there is an increase in the number of girls coming to Trinidad. Of course, it is a financial need and some of these girls are university students and they are lured here to earn US dollars,” Wheeler said.
The women, some of whom are single mothers, may stay in the country for a period of two weeks to a month to get money to buy basic commodities such as toilet paper, rice and flour, before returning home.
“These are considered luxury items in Venezuela right now,” Wheeler said. She noted, though that TT customs officers sometimes confiscate the goods when the women are being repatriated to their country. Wheeler noted that human trafficking was organised crime, saying there were persons facilitating the trade “on both sides.”
“You have corrupt officials, public officers, who also facilitate the crime,” she said, reminding that two police officers have been charged with human trafficking since the establishment of the unit.
One of the police officers, PC Valentine Eastman, was charged in April 2013, with transporting three Columbian women to a brothel in Marabella into prostitution. Eastman, a policeman with 23 years service, was slapped with ten charges under the Trafficking In Persons Act 2011. At the time he was charged, two years ago, Eastman’s case was the first human trafficking matter in the English-speaking Caribbean.
“The police provide protection at the brothels and clubs. They do the moonlighting at these places and even give tip-offs when there is going to be a raid,” Wheeler said. She said sex with the women may also form part of the officer’s payment scheme. “It (human trafficking) is corruption and that is worldwide,” she said.
She said, though that TT, was intent on doing its part to eliminate the threat to existing and potential victims.
The Trafficking in Persons Act, which was proclaimed in January 2013, proposes hefty penalties for public officers found guilty of human trafficking.
Part Five of the legislation, Criminal Offences and Related Provisions, states that any police officer, customs officer, immigration officer, member of the Defence Force, member of the Prisons Service, or any other public official found to be liable for any offence under this Act, he or she is liable on conviction or indictment to imprisonment for 25 years.
In addition, the legislation states that a person who, for the purpose of exploitation, incites, organises or directs another person to recruit, transport, transfer or harbour a child in TT, commits the offence of trafficking in children and is liable on conviction or indictment to a fine of not less than $1 million and imprisonment of not less than 25 years.
Saying that “special concessions” were made in the legislation to address errant public officers, Wheeler said the fines for offenders were “higher than many other jurisdictions.”
Saying that much more needed to be done to combat human trafficking, Wheeler said the CTU does plan to employ more staff to facilitate the increase in the number of investigations coming to the unit.
The CTU now has a full-time staff of 15, comprising Wheeler, an administrative officer, seven police officers, three immigration officers, a senior legal officer and a communications specialist.