Yosqueili was 16 years old when she and her cousin were offered $2000 so they could travel abroad, send money to their families, buy clothes, and live somewhere where “plenty of food” was promised. She was born in a Güiria barrio, in Venezuela’s Paria peninsula, and the offer meant way more than anything she had ever had in a life plagued by shortcomings and poverty.
On the night of April 23rd, 2019, she boarded a boat with 37 other people, and found out what was her real destination: a brothel on the island of Trinidad.
Too much weight, a defective boat, and an unskilled captain wrapped in a human trafficking ring resulted in a catastrophic shipwreck in Boca Dragón, an area known for its rough, unforgiving tides.
Yosqueili was one of nine survivors. She held on to a gas canister for two days, the beginning of a nightmare that didn’t end with her rescue. She told herself once and again that she’d never go out to sea, not even to the beach, and just embraced her mother tightly. Yosqueili’s mother, Keyla, is a 38-year-old local member of the militia, who went straight to the Prosecutor’s Office, along with a group of people, to request an investigation against those involved in the prostitution ring taking the girls to Trinidad. Thirteen people were arrested then, including two National Guard officers, her daughter’s kidnapper, and his girlfriend.
But pressing charges against the trafficking ring had disastrous consequences for Yosqueili and Keyla.
The Town’s Business
Residents in Güiria know the town isn’t safe. The peaceful appearance and warm and colonial streets of this seashore area is underscored with citizens who prefer to remain silent, afraid of retaliation.
On the night of April 23rd, 2019, she got on a boat with 37 other people, and found out what was her real destination: a brothel on the island of Trinidad.
There isn’t just one human trafficking ring working on attracting women to take them to Trinidad and Tobago as prostitutes. Many are involved in this business and at different levels. 25-year-old René (not his real name) is in charge of falsifying passports for those trying to leave Güiria for Trinidad illegally. He does that same job for those who traffic underage girls to bars on the Antille island for $200.
“The boats leave at all times of day, secretly. For the most part, no more than ten are on the list they show to the authorities when arriving in Trinidad, but there’s a lot more people on the boat, mostly girls. After they leave La Playita dock, they stop at other local ports for more passengers,” René says.
His job is to find people with passports and write down those names on the list, to comply with a formality of sorts so the boat can actually dock at a Trinitarian port, usually at Chaguaramas.
“Anyone who finds a woman for prostitution in Trinidad can make up to $300, and the more they find, the more they make,” René claims. “That’s why they focus on teenage girls and younger women in other places along the Venezuelan coast like Cumaná, Carúpano, Maturín, and other nearby towns.”
“Many of the women know they’re going to Trinidad,” says Rosmy, a former secretary who used to recruit women looking to make money on the island. “Not all of them, but several do. They have to send nude pictures, like a portfolio, showing off each part of their bodies. The potential buyer in Trinidad has to approve them and see if they need some kind of surgery. They pay for those touch-ups, clothes, housing, cell phones, and food, but the girls must pay it all back with work. Only then they can begin to work on their own.”
In Güiria, everyone knows there are small hotels that only house young girls before they are sent to Trinidad. The network includes people who use their vehicles to move them around. Once they arrive at the town from their respective communities, girls are given accommodation and food, while the quota of women to be shipped on small fishing boats with few (or none) safety measures is reached.
They Came Back for Her
Yosqueili and her cousin Inés were taken to one of those hotels the first time. On the afternoon of April 22nd, 2019, they were both sitting in front of their house when Nano, an acquaintance of her cousin, asked them if they wanted to go to Trinidad to work at a store. He would pay for the tickets.
They have to send nude pictures, like a portfolio, showing off each body part. The potential buyer in Trinidad has to approve them and see if they need some kind of surgery.
Without telling anyone, they agreed and he picked them up that same night, driving them to the hotel. Once inside the room, Nano and his girlfriend forbade them to talk on the phone or look out the window. They would have sailed that very night, but the boat had issues.
While Keyla was looking for her daughter all over town, Yosqueili was locked up until the following night. On April 23rd at 11:00 p.m., they made it to sea and it was only then, after listening to other women talk, that they found out they were being sex trafficked. The sinking of the Jhonaili José boat the following day saved Yosqueili from that fate. But when she accused her captors and gave details of the human trafficking ring, she became exposed to other dangers.
She was summoned endless times to the Prosecutor’s Office, in Carúpano, Venezuela’s eastern coast, a three-hour bus ride from her hometown. This was a trip they couldn’t often afford since they barely had enough money to eat.
“I had to go because they threatened me with arrest,” the teenager said in interviews that took place in 2019.
She wanted to go live with her grandmother in Caracas, but the judicial process prevented it. Neither she nor her mom wanted to stay in town out of fear of what could happen to them. And that’s how 2020 came along. Two weeks after the quarantine imposed by Nicolás Maduro’s administration began, a group of people entered Keyla’s humble home.
“They had clubs and knives, they hit me and my daughter. They told her: ‘come with us and we’ll leave your mom alone.’ I ran out to look for the police, but they didn’t listen to me. I went back home and they had taken my daughter, she wasn’t there.”
None of the authorities paid attention to Keyla’s complaint. A few days later, some acquaintances told her that the girl was in Trinidad. “She was taken by people working with those she accused,” the mother claims.
During the last week of April, Yosqueili managed to call for a few minutes, using another girl’s phone:
“Mom, I’m in Trinidad. They sold me for $300.”
That’s all Keyla heard.
You can read this story in Spanish on Cinco8.