Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Güiria: The Day After

Residents of this Sucre state town embody the drama migrants in the Eastern border have to face, and they tell us how they're taking the tragedy from last December—and why they continue to travel, whatever it takes, to Trinidad

“How would you describe life in Güiria?” was the first question I asked.

“Dramatic,” they said. 

“A real tragedy.” 

“Each day is harder than the last.”

“There’s no future here, there are no opportunities,” says Claudia*. “Did you see the list of those recovered from the sea? They were all young.”

For Claudia, a Güiria local, most people bring food to the table thanks to the informal economy: “I have two sons, they finished high school, and they don’t have any opportunities here. Güiria’s main road has been completely filled with street vendors, selling just about anything since dawn. It doesn’t make you a lot of money, but at least you can get a meal a day.” 

This isn’t the only path young people are taking, though; some are climbing the ladder through crime:

“Joining a gang gives you social currency,” says Carlos. These gangs make the rules in their areas: they decide who goes in and out, and it’s forbidden in some sectors to file complaints to the authorities; if you want to complain, it has to be to the gang itself. Carlos explains that in each area, these gangs have settled in certain places: “They call them ‘the base’, and to get there you have to go through the hoodlums who grant access, and control is so tight that that’s where you file the complaints. A woman can complain that her husband is hitting her, which is ironic because that same woman could get killed for speaking ill of gang members. You can also report criminals from different gangs.” 

Andrés, a young man from Güiria, saw how some of his classmates joined the gangs. This doesn’t only happen with boys; many of his female friends sought a way to move up their social standing by getting closer to thugs.

According to ENCOVI, 75% of homes in Sucre suffer from severe food shortage. In the face of that reality, drug dealing sprang up, and Paria is the ideal spot to export from Venezuela. But those gangs that deal in drugs, also deal in people.

A Sea of Sorrows

This isn’t the way things have always been in Güiria. The most populated town in Paria, Eastern Venezuela, right on the coast, Güiria used to be a happy town, peaceful, bustling, well-known for its kind people, their carnivals and tourist attractions, such as the place where Columbus set foot on American soil for the first time in 1498, when the admiral thought he was near the river of Eden.

Drug dealing sprang up, and Paria is the ideal spot to export from Venezuela. But those gangs that deal in drugs, also deal in people.

The region’s main activities were fishing, and coffee and cocoa production. This is why, in 1968, construction for the Puerto Pesquero Internacional de Güiria (Güiria International Fishing Port) began, the first of its kind in Latin America, which made its residents take off into the future when the port began operations in 1970. Years later, PDVSA came along to exploit the huge natural gas reserves in the region, and along came foreign companies, hotels, and jobs. “We had a diverse economy and our town had great potential,” Carlos says.

When the port was expropriated in 2006, its decline began: “PDVSA came to the municipality and took over some areas of the port, but didn’t invest anything. Whatever’s left is in ruins,” Carlos tells me.

This is why, in 2016, trips to Trinidad became a thing, with people looking for food or medicine. Gangs have made it tough for food producers, extorting the farms that are left and the truck drivers on the roads so, by 2017, people were staying for longer periods in Trinidad, to work for a few months. Soon, it became clear that the best option was to just settle on the island.

Everyone knows the boats used for these journeys and their captains, you can contact them easily. The fare goes between $300 and $400 a head on a fishing boat that will take you to Trinidad in about three hours, when the engines are working well. Luis, a man from Güiria now residing in Trinidad, explains how these trips are so common, they’re almost legal: “The government has always known about these boats. Some have even made money out of the situation, until the first boats went missing. After that, some people ended up in jail. But, as you can see, things remain the same.”

The first boat that capsized on record set sail on February, 27th, 2017, six people from Sucre going for food in Trinidad to then sell it in their town. On their return to Venezuela, the engines were filled with oil from a nearby spill and broke down. The travelers were adrift for 43 hours, and three Venezuelans died while waiting for rescue, dragged by the currents. Neither the Coast Guard nor the National Guard went out to look for them. The survivors swam and remained afloat for almost two days, covered in oil.

Yet the following year, more people chose to stay abroad illegally. “We can’t renew or get our passports, and most of us don’t even have an ID card,” Claudia explains.

See, when a boat docks at any port of Trinidad and Tobago, migration officers put a stamp on your passport and establish for how long you can stay. The absence of this document has resulted in people “renting” their passports to others who resemble them. Some make the trip without any type of identification and get to Trinidad empty handed, hoping for the best.

“In Güiria, you won’t find many young people, the few that remain want to leave; the people staying are those who’ve lived here all their lives,” Andrés says.

According to the 2011 census, Güiria had 40,000 residents. Today, according to local authorities, no more than 25,000 remain. Data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that around 20,000 people from Güiria and the Gulf of Paria are in Trinidad.

Like Luis (a fake name), who has been living on the island since 2019.

Life on the Other Shore

“I’m a gymnastics teacher, I graduated as a machinist from the Universidad Marítima del Caribe and I had a carpentry workshop, but still couldn’t provide for my two daughters. I knew a few people in Trinidad, so I decided to come,” Luis explains. “The day I came, there was another teacher as well, it was during Easter break, and after a week here I found a job in carpentry. I’ve been working ever since.”

He says that, like in any other place, there are good and bad people, and that the one spreading xenophobia is the Trinidadian government.

After a year on the island, he hasn’t had any issues with Trinidadians. He says that, like in any other place, there are good and bad people, and that the one spreading xenophobia is the Trinidadian government. Luis believes he’s been able to stay out of trouble because he tries to keep a low profile: “I don’t go to bars, I avoid problems by not going to any public places because I know that, as a migrant, I don’t have any rights here.”

Migration laws in Trinidad and Tobago establish that migrants with little to no resources, who are a burden to public funds, are forbidden to enter the islands. Neither can those who the State considers to be “idiots, imbeciles, weak of mind, people who suffer dementia, and psychopaths,” homosexuals and people with “immoral conducts” are also barred.

Luis says that the authorities don’t even acknowledge the refugee card given out by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR): “People who have their card, they get pulled over on the street and they tear the card up, then they get deported or detained. I know people here that have been deported like that.”

In spite of it all, he has managed to improve: “To go to another country in the region, where you don’t have to stand in line, with running water every day, internet, no power outages, it changes your life; and I’m better financially too, but it does affect me emotionally. I haven’t seen my daughters since I came.”

Many Venezuelans have been imprisoned in the Trinidad and Tobago Detention Center for Immigrants. There are many complaints about the abuse migrants have endured, ranging from sexual favors in exchange for better conditions, to starvation.  Andrés says that, in late 2019, a video was leaked, showing one of his old classmates who had gone to Trinidad: “From what you could see, she was being forced to be there. She was with another girl and several guys. Then, at the end, the men started making fun of her, saying that they weren’t going to pay.” It’s estimated that around 4,000 people have been victims of human trafficking in Trinidad, according to David Smolansky, OAS Commissioner for the Venezuelan Migration Crisis.

34 Candles

At 10:38 p.m. on Saturday, December 12th, Rocío San Miguel, president of NGO Control Ciudadano and an expert in military matters, reported on Twitter that there were 19 bodies of Venezuelans who drowned on the coasts of Sucre. Since then, they‘ve found 34 corpses.

On December, 18th, a corpse was found: “It was my friend’s. His head was missing, we recognized it from a tattoo.”

None of the authorities have cleared up the events: the Venezuelan regime blamed the criminal gangs that work the area and, allegedly, are “linked to the extremist Venezuelan mafias.” The Trinidadian government claims that the Coast Guard hasn’t intercepted any boats coming from Güiria. But families of the victims and deputy Carlos Valero said that the authorities sent back the boats that made it to shore.

After the bodies from the tragedy were found, the ANC-appointed prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, informed that the boat owner, Luis Alí Martínez, had been arrested, accused of human trafficking. However, for those in Güiria and Mr. Martínez’s relatives, this is nothing but scapegoating. Neighbors talk of several of Martínez’s family members who died on that boat. Luis, from Trinidad, said that among them were three of Martínez’s sons and a granddaughter: “It’s a witch-hunt. A friend who takes food from Trinidad to Güiria told me that he would stay put until things calm down, out of fear for being judged for having a boat and making trips.” 

These events moved the entire country. On December 6th, a close friend of Claudia and her family went to her house to say goodbye: “He hugged me before he left. He had been in Trinidad for two years and had come back to pick up his daughters and wife, they would spend Christmas together on the island. Then the days went by and no one heard anything.”

On Saturday, the bodies started to wash up ashore. On December, 18th, a corpse was found: “It was my friend’s. His head was missing, we recognized it from a tattoo.”

The town residents speak of how some people would go to the pier to pick up bodies and fishermen would go out to sea to look for victims. When the townsfolk gathered at church on December 14th, they cried and honored their dead, wrote the names of the victims on pieces of paper and prayed. Every resident put a candle on the floor, in memory of their fellow countrymen, giving a last goodbye to the victims of a humanitarian crisis that has expelled over 5.6 million Venezuelans from their country.

*The names of the Güireños who agreed to participate in this piece with their testimonies were changed to protect their identities.