05/28/2024

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Venezuelan Women at Risk From Expanding Trafficking Rings

Venezuelan Women at Risk From Expanding Trafficking Rings

Venezuelan Women at Risk From Expanding Trafficking Rings

On November 29, 2022, the Monagas family heard from Lismar Monagas for the last time. Since then, the family has lived in uncertainty about what has happened to Lismar, a 21-year-old Venezuelan woman who, at the time, was living in Peru and being controlled by a group with ties to human trafficking. 

Lismar left Venezuela on October 16, 2021, without any warning. Her grandfather, Leonel Monagas, learned afterward that Lismar, who he had raised as a daughter in the neighborhood of El Cementerio, a working-class sector located in the west of Caracas, had left the country irregularly, without a passport, by bus. 

It was the first time Lismar had left Venezuela. She was happy and hopeful. She documented her journey through Colombia and Ecuador in videos and with video calls to her family. Leonel, however, feared the worst. And he was right: unbeknownst to her, Lismar had been captured by a human trafficking network. 

“The first few days she told me that they gave her things and clothes, and I told her that this was dangerous, and that they were going to charge her because I suspected why they had taken her,” Leonel said. 

Hundreds of Venezuelan women have fallen victim to human trafficking networks in recent years. But Lismar’s story shows how these networks are adapting new strategies, like increasingly recruiting victims beyond the Colombian border and increasingly using women to recruit. 

Falling Into Sexual Exploitation

Like the nearly eight million Venezuelans who have migrated, Lismar Monagas left her country to help her family — mainly her son, who is now eight years old, and her grandfather, Leonel. But instead of the situation she thought she was moving for, she became another of the many Venezuelan women victims of human trafficking. 

According to Mulier Venezuela, a non-governmental organization that studies the trafficking of Venezuelan women in Latin America, 415 Venezuelan women were rescued from trafficking networks in 2021. And that number has since increased. In 2022, the year of the most recent statistics, 1,390 Venezuelan women were rescued, of whom 294 were girls and adolescents.

But these are only the women who have been rescued and recorded. The actual number of trafficking victims inside and outside of Venezuela is likely much higher. Venezuela’s Minister of Interior and Justice Remigio Ceballos Ichaso announced earlier this year that authorities had dismantled 16 criminal gangs dedicated to human trafficking and rescued 55 victims. But these cases are generally underreported, so government data is usually just a fraction, as well as unreliable. 

SEE ALSO: Venezuelan Migrants Remain Easy Prey for Organized Crime

“The state does not report data for many cases of violence against women. This is part of the Venezuelan government’s policy of opacity, where they do not fulfill their duties,” Estefania Mendoza, a lawyer and coordinator for Mulier Venezuela, told InSight Crime. 

As the number of women trafficked has increased, trafficking victims are increasingly being recruited further from the Colombia-Venezuela border, like Lismar, in the center of the country. Due to the worsening economic crisis and the complex humanitarian crisis, criminals were pushed to seek victims in other areas, Mendoza explained. 

“This context is what increasingly makes the exploitation of people an alternative form of income for unscrupulous people,” she said.

The Collectors

For Lismar, it all began when a friend, who lived in the same neighborhood of Caracas as she did, offered her a job as a sex worker in Peru. The friend said she had all the contacts that would allow Lismar to earn money, and coordinated the logistics for her to leave the country on a bus departing from the terminal in Caracas. But although Lismar knew she was going to do sex work, she did not imagine that she would end up being a victim of sexual exploitation.

Throughout the region, it is common for women to recruit their peers. Although there is no data disaggregated by nationality, women account for 45% of those prosecuted for human trafficking in South America, according to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on human trafficking. 

Mendoza said this is because in general, women are the weakest link in sexual exploitation networks and so victims of exploitation are often forced to recruit other young women into the network. “[Women] use their gender and nationality to make a connection, to generate trust and recruit others,” she explained.

This modus operandi is becoming more and more common.

On March 12, 2024, the Scientific, Criminal and Criminalistic Investigations Corps (CICPC) officers rescued four young women in Táchira, a state bordering Colombia. It appears that they had been recruited by another previously recruited minor.

A CICPC official told InSight Crime that the unit also rescued four young women in 2022 in Aragua state who were recruited by friends. “They told them how much they earned doing sex work, and that they only had to take a few photos so they could go to Peru. That was a very notorious case,” said the official, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the press. 

In addition to recruitment by other victims, the economic crisis in Venezuela has led to cases where family members and close friends hand young women over to sexual exploitation networks, who, in desperation, agree to what are actually fake job offers out of necessity, according to police sources interviewed by InSight Crime. 

“We are not only talking about vulnerable migrant women being targeted, but also about women, girls and adolescents in Venezuela who are in a very precarious economic situation,” Mendoza specified. “Women’s bodies always end up being like a currency,” she said.

A Living Hell

When she arrived in Peru, instead of working with her friend, Lismar found herself in the hands of a criminal organization, which imposed a high-interest “debt” on her for the “investment” they had made to get her out of Venezuela, one of her friends told InSight Crime. She had to pay a daily fee, and if she did not make enough on any given day, the debt would grow. 

For months, Lismar was sexually exploited by the human trafficking network that took her to Peru. 

“They bought her clothes, put fake nails on her, and gave her money to buy makeup so she could work in a plaza. There were slow days when she had no business, and they would send her to a hotel in lingerie to be used by the men who visited. And when she did nothing, they took her away … to punish her,” her friend said.

Soon, her family learned that things were not going well.

“She started to change. She began to say that she had a debt and that they were making her do things against her will. That she wanted to pay that debt to come [to Venezuela],” said her grandfather Leonel. “On one occasion she called me crying, saying that she wanted to come home, that every day she had to be with three men … She had to pay 200 soles a day [$50] and when she didn’t make the money, it [her debt] grew,” he added. 

SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua’s Criminal Portfolio: Adapt or Die

But the debt was impossible to pay, and some time later, several of her relatives received extortion calls with death threats from a woman who identified herself as Oriana Hernández, and who was supposedly Lismar’s boss. In the messages, she demanded money to pay off Lismar’s debt in Peru. 

Although Hernández never mentioned the name of a criminal gang, Leonel and Lismar’s relatives turned to social networks, mainly Facebook, to investigate. They began monitoring Lismar’s friends in Peru.

“One of them identified herself as connected to Hijos de Dios (Children of God), and in some publications she included some train [emojis], so it is possible that they have ties to Tren de Aragua,” said one of Lismar’s relatives, who asked not to be identified. 

Tren de Aragua, the Venezuelan gang that has spread across the region, and one of its factions in Peru, Hijos de Dios, have been involved in the sexual exploitation of Venezuelan and Peruvian women for several years.

In December 2022, one of Leonel Monagas’ former neighbors, who is now based in Colombia and has ties to gangs in Peru, told Lismar’s family that she had been killed for failing to pay her debt. Peruvian authorities, however, have not confirmed the murder, nor do they have any trace of Lismar. 

Since the young woman migrated to Peru, her grandfather Leonel has had trouble sleeping. He divides his days between his work as a laborer and his efforts to find his granddaughter, whom he affectionately calls “cachito.” He takes some comfort in an arrangement of balloons that she sent him in June 2022 for Father’s Day in Venezuela, and listening to voice notes that Lismar sent him before she lost communication with her family. For now, he said, he will keep following any trail that could lead to his granddaughter. 

The post Venezuelan Women at Risk From Expanding Trafficking Rings appeared first on InSight Crime.