Crime News South America

Organized Crime Targets Venezuelan Refugees

A new report has highlighted how organized crime groups are preying on Venezuelan migrants, turning the region’s biggest displacement crisis into a lucrative criminal opportunity.

More than 7 million Venezuelans have been displaced from their country in the wake of a long-term economic crisis that was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, according to a report by the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants in Venezuela (Plataforma de Coordinación Interagencial para Refugiados y Migrantes – R4V), those migrants are being exploited for profit in at least seven countries of Latin America and the Caribbean: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Aruba, and Curacao.

Here, InSight Crime analyzes the report’s findings and reviews the multiple dangers organized crime groups pose to Venezuelan migrants.

Migrants Victimized
The outflow of Venezuelan migrants provides criminal groups with constant opportunities. According to the report, migrants are often recruited by crime groups and put to work in the lowest rungs of the organization, carrying out tasks like selling contraband. But these low-level positions have high-level risks, placing migrants into interaction with other criminals and increasing the chance of them falling victim to human trafficking.

Despite a plentiful supply of victims, criminal groups have begun recruiting migrants from within humanitarian shelters that host transit populations, the report found.

Once recruited, migrants are forced to work across the drug trafficking supply chain. Migrants have been forced to work harvesting coca leaf and transporting drugs between countries by boat or as human couriers. In cities, migrants are used to often used sell drugs.

Human smuggling networks across Latin America have profited and expanded from the high demand for their services in Venezuela. These groups offer “packages” that include travel from Venezuela to Chile or Argentina then through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, or Brazil. The packages also include lodging, transportation, and smuggling through dangerous routes that cross national borders.

These zones are also active areas for human trafficking networks, which kidnap migrants. Venezuelan migrants have been found to be victims of human trafficking in at least 11 other countries, both in Latin America and further afield. As unauthorized migrants, the victims are unable to report their situation or seek help, further adding to their precarity.

Most victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation are women and girls. They are predominantly recruited through social media and false job offers to work in private residences, restaurants, or as hairdressers. Once the women arrive to the destination country, the criminals take their documents and force them to provide sexual services to “pay” for their transportation and accommodation. Some victims are handed over to groups like the Tren de Aragua, who further exploit them.

Migrants are also victims of labor exploitation in the agricultural industry, in jobs like harvesting, and in construction and domestic work in countries such as Brazil, Aruba, and Curacao.

Who Profits From Misery?
Many types of criminal groups profit from the exploitation of migrants, from transnational networks to local clans, according to the report.

Among the groups identified are those with a transnational reach, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), and dissident groups of the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), known as ex-FARC mafia. Others include large-scale gangs such as Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua and Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), which are present in several countries in the region.

The report’s authors noted that the presence of family clans and smaller criminal gangs, some of Venezuelan origin, is important at the national and local level in countries including Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia.

While most of these groups simply take advantage of the migration routes that pass through their territory, the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst for the growth of criminal groups associated with migrant smuggling and human trafficking, including the aforementioned Tren de Aragua, which has expanded to other countries.

Violence a Common Strategy
Migrants who are recruited and exploited by organized crime groups are exposed to harrowing levels of violence, threats, forced disappearance, and homicide.

According to the report, Venezuelan migrants are frequent victims of forced disappearance, with border regions being particular points of danger. Human traffickers often move victims along perilous routes, and frequently abandon them.

Some disappearances occur in regions where armed groups are battling for the control of territory, others in the context of sexual violence. Human trafficking is a leading cause of migrant disappearances, while victims of labor exploitation in bars in Aruba and Curacao, and mining areas of Bolivia and Brazil, have disappeared, the report stated.

Migrants who have been recruited by criminal gangs also run the risk of being killed in clashes with other gangs. Around 1,000 Venezuelans were murdered in Colombia during 2022, according to preliminary figures from Colombia’s National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses). Violent deaths connected with drug trafficking disputes have also taken place in Brazil, according to the report.

And migrants whose status means they cannot use the formal banking system have been victims of threats, physical violence, or kidnapping by loan sharks in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia.

Source: insight crime