Hundreds of Venezuelans Vanish in Perilous Migration Routes

On International Migrants Day, we need to remember the people who tried to migrate but disappeared in the land or the sea

Guillki Maika Torres, a Venezuelan woman of 38 years, was seen alive for the last time on December 1, 2023, in the Mexican municipality of Chapala, in the state of Jalisco. She left for work and disappeared. Her body was found two days later, buried at a nearby farm.

In the afternoon of December 9, a boat left the Paraguaná peninsula, heading to Aruba, with ten men on board. At the time of writing, its whereabouts are unknown.

There are too many stories like that, taking place for some time, but with no answers – and sometimes no bodies. The group Esperanza de Madre has counted 27 cases of disappeared Venezuelan migrants on the Colombia-Venezuela border, 11 on the Colombian side and four on Venezuela’s. Comité Nacional de Familias Víctimas de las Desapariciones y Trata en las costas de Venezuela Mayday (Mayday CONFAVIDT) registered 140 disappeared migrants coming on three ships from the Venezuelan states of Falcón, Sucre and Nueva Esparta. In October 2023, another ship coming from San Andrés island (a Caribbean archipelago that belongs to Colombia) to Nicaragua –the maritime alternative route to the Darién Gap that has been used by Venezuelans– also vanished. In San Andrés’ waters alone, around one hundred Venezuelan migrants have disappeared.

If we sum up these cases alone, 282 Venezuelan migrants have vanished without a trace: and not because they were involved in contraband, drug trafficking or that the ships just sank in the depths of the Cariaco Gulf. Many of those people were about to start on a new job or were going to a job interview. Others were employed abroad, and disappeared leaving their belongings intact. Or they were part of this pendular migration, where you come and go. We can assume that among the disappeared are persons who were taken or allured by human traffickers, while others were victims of kidnapping or who knows what in the middle of the sea: like a family of nine vanished, supposedly in Venezuelan waters, because the passengers planned to transfer to another boat at Patos island before reaching Trinidad and Tobago, according to Mayday CONFAVIDT.

The search for the disappeared is being carried out by their families. No one else seems to care. And finding their remains or whereabouts is extremely difficult. For instance, you need two governments to find them in the border axis Táchira-Norte de Santander. But the Petro administration closed the Border Management agency created by the previous government in Colombia, only to replace it with a Comisión de Vecindad e Integración that is just signing statements and commitments that benefit Gustavo Petro and Nicolás Maduro, not the migrants.

Meanwhile, collaboration in the search and investigation of our missing vessels has been minimal from the Netherlands and none from Trinidad and Tobago.

The Venezuelan State has refused to admit the claims from several Venezuelan women whose children disappeared in Colombia, while the Colombian authorities alleged they can do nothing if the claim is not first processed in Venezuela. So both governments throw each other the hot potato of missing people on the border, duplicating old dynamics of mutual negligence when it comes to solving problems in the border regions. There’s no sign that the security corps of Colombia and Venezuela are joining efforts to look into this issue. And with no investigation, any hypothesis is plausible. In the meantime, prejudice against Venezuelan migrants continues to grow.

On Venezuelan waters, the vanishing of ships doesn’t seem related to shipwreck, which commonly leave some trace. After the missing ships were reported to the authorities by relatives of their passengers and crew members, some have been threatened by gangs to stop searching and others were refused access to the criminal file or found that the cases were suddenly closed. This pattern is also taking place about the missing vessels in the maritime border between Colombia and Nicaragua.

What could have happened? The accidents can occur when boats stop in the sea to transfer passengers to another vessel, or land in clandestine ports. Traffickers can simulate the boats are about to sink to intimidate the passengers and could be dangerously negligent about their safety. 

Anyhow, in the absence of proper investigations, there’s no way of finding a pattern. But we know this is not just bad luck: some people are responsible for this, which means these are forced disappearances under the tolerance or consentment of the States involved. Maduro denies the magnitude and reasons of Venezuelan migration, while Petro believes that by reestablishing diplomatic ties with Venezuela the migratory influx will just cease and two millions of Venezuelans in Colombia will return home with Colombia’s help.

Today, we must remember that part of the 7 million and counting Venezuelans abroad never reach their destinations. To promote a regular, ordered migration is not enough. These people or their bodies must be found and identified. Those stories must be told.