CHAGUARAMAS, Trinidad and Tobago, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Unemployed and without food to feed his family, Venezuelan construction worker Robert Monterosi says there is only one way he can survive – dodging customs officials to sell smuggled goods in neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago and stock up there.
A political crisis and crippling five-year recession in Venezuela, a once prosperous South American country, have left its people jobless, battling poverty and struggling with chronic shortages of food, medicines and other basic necessities.
For Monterosi, the nearest grocery store with stocked shelves is 45 miles (70 km) away, across the open water in Trinidad. But he needs to raise cash for those supplies.
He sails across the Dragon’s Mouths strait with tamarind and coconuts to sell, so he can buy food, cooking oil, diapers and other necessities to take home.
Monterosi is one of a rising number of small-scale smugglers running between the coasts of the two nations, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation, who risk not just law enforcement but also local gangs seeking to profit from them.
They travel on hired fishing boats from Guiria in east Venezuela to the Trinidadian village of Chaguaramas.
“I can’t find work because nobody has money to pay,” Monterosi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the parking lot of a grocery store in a Chaguaramas marina, having paid a local “watchman” TTD 2,500 ($376) to offload his cargo. “(In Venezuela), there’s nothing – no milk, no medicine, no vitamins, no antibiotics,” said the father-of-three.
The self-described “watchman” for the marina and adjacent fishing village – a Trinidadian who refused to give his name – said he charged Venezuelan boats TTD 200 as a daily landing fee.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation saw the man’s associates exchange cash in U.S. and Trinidadian dollars with Venezuelan men in the fishing village where the boats land with customs officers and local police turning a blind eye.
“I’m running this whole marina,” said the Trinidadian, who has worked there for about two decades, adding he did not fear recrimination as the Venezuelans could not legally sell their wares or declare them to customs.
“You have to have your quarantine license, and they have no license to bring nothing into the country,” he said.
Although smuggling has a centuries-old history in this part of the world, smuggling across Venezuela’s land and maritime borders has accelerated to unprecedented levels with more workers like Monterosi joining the illicit trade.
In recent years dozens of members of Venezuela’s National Guard, which protects the country’s borders, have been charged with collaborating with smugglers, including drug traffickers, but experts said small-scale trade is on the rise.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation sought comment from the Venezuelan government and from the Venezuelan embassy in Trinidad and Tobago but received no response.
Monterosi said the economic crisis in Venezuela was crippling him and families like his.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have emigrated in the past year as the country spiralled deeper into recession and hyperinflation, fuelling discontent. About 125 people died last year in anti-government protests.
By the end of 2017, more than 1.5 million of Venezuela’s 30 million people had moved into neighbouring countries and beyond, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. As of late May, close to 710,000 had sought asylum or residency abroad, it said.
But in May, President Nicolas Maduro won re-election for six years in a vote the Venezuelan opposition, the United States and other Latin American nations decried as a sham that cemented an autocracy that has devastated the economy.
Inflation in May alone was 110 percent, according to the opposition-led National Assembly, and the bolivar currency fell 98 percent against the U.S. dollar in the past year, making the minimum wage equal to a handful of dollars a month.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the closest country to Monterosi’s hometown across the Gulf of Paria, about 2,250 of his fellow citizens have petitioned for asylum, according to the UNHCR.
Monterosi would like to do the same, he said, but his three sons do not have passports and so would not be considered legitimate asylum seekers.
That leaves him making regular trips on a tiny fishing boat despite the risk. A weekly ferry service between Guiria and Chaguaramas was suspended in 2014 due to the economic situation in Venezuela.
The local customs office, located in the same shopping complex as the grocery store, processes a steady stream of trucks off-loading cargo ships and the occasional luxury vessel that sails into the upmarket Crews Inn Yacht Club.
“We are not seeing any uptick in boat traffic from Venezuela,” said a customs official, who declined to give her name.
She referred the Thomson Reuters Foundation to the Customs and Excise Division, which did not respond to requests for comment.
“We are aware something is happening there,” said Sergeant Francis Samaroo of the Chaguaramas Development Authority police department.
But he said overlapping responsibilities with national law enforcement and border security, as well as an understaffed police force, meant the undeclared imports and open-air extortion had not been addressed.
Back at the yacht club, a marina employee, who declined to give his name, said the fishing boats arrive daily, but the customs service ignores them.
“They don’t even fish anymore,” he said of the local fishermen who find it more lucrative to sell rides in their boats between Venezuela and Trinidad. “They just shuttle back and forth.”
Smuggling between the mainland and Trinidad is nothing new, according to Daurius Figueira, a University of the West Indies criminologist who specialises in the Caribbean drug trade, but Venezuela’s economic crisis has changed the dynamic.
“There is a hierarchy on the route now,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, describing a flow of drugs, arms and women as well as agricultural produce.
“You have professional traffickers who continue to operate that route, and then you have low-level persons with very small amounts of cash resources who want to enter in on the route into Trinidad for their own purposes,” he said.
People like Monterosi are at the bottom of the pecking order, he added.
“Those who seek to bring commodities over here to sell are the lowest of the lowest in the hierarchy – and a lot of them find themselves victims of criminal depredation,” he said.