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Trafficking, shipwrecks blight Trinidad-bound Venezuelans

Ana Arias (R), 40, mother of Luisannys Betancourt, who disappeared in a shipwreck en route from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago on April 23, 2019, looks for pictures of her daughter in a computer  at her house in Cumana, Sucre State, Venezuela
Ana Arias (R), 40, mother of Luisannys Betancourt, who disappeared in a shipwreck en route from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago on April 23, 2019, looks for pictures of her daughter in a computer at her house in Cumana, Sucre State, Venezuela Federico PARRA AFP
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Güiria (Venezuela) (AFP)

Ana Arias breaks down in tears when she cooks chicken soup. It was her 15-year-old daughter's favorite dish.

"They ripped her from my arms," said Arias as she remembers the last message her daughter Luisannys sent her before embarking on a fateful journey to Trinidad and Tobago.

It's a journey that many Venezuelans have undertaken in a bid to flee poverty, but it's one that has resulted in dozens disappearing.

"Mama, I love you, I miss you a lot," wrote Luisannys on April 23, 2019, hours before disappearing.

Sitting in her living room in the town of Cumana, in the northeastern state of Sucre, with an old portrait of the curly-haired and olive-skinned Luisannys dressed in the blue uniform and cap she wore at primary school, Arias told AFP she suspected her daughter was "sold" by human traffickers.

These "mafias," as opposition lawmaker Robert Alcala calls them, make money from illegal immigration, sending desperate people on the roughly 100-kilometer journey from Guiria in Sucre to Trinidad in barely seaworthy boats.

"The women are exploited sexually and the men in rough jobs" on farms or in factories, said Alcala.

Arias, currently in isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, has waited months for investigators to produce something.

"No-one answers," she says.

A week before that final text message, Luisannys left home with school friends, ostensibly to buy a shirt.

Arias never saw her again. The last she heard of her youngest of two daughters is that she boarded a boat that sank.

- 'Desperation' -

Hundreds of would-be migrants have disappeared over the last two years making the clandestine journey from Venezuela to Trinidad, Curacao or Aruba.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said this "shows the desperation" of those fleeing Venezuela's economic collapse.

The UN says almost five million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, with 24,000 heading across the sea to Trinidad.

Contacted by AFP, authorities on the island nation, which requires visas for Venezuelans, declined to comment.

Neighbors saw Luisannys being forced into a car, according to Arias, who two days later received a phone call.

It was Luisannys saying her captors were demanding the $200 they'd paid for her to release her.

Arias, a 40-year-old seamstress, broke down in tears.

Police traced the call to Guiria, where her alleged kidnappers took her for a manicure.

The manicurist told Arias her daughter, whom she recognized by two deformed fingers damaged by an electric shock when she was a child, was "crying a lot."

Arias said she'd never heard her daughter, who wanted to be a nurse, talk about migrating.

"She lacked nothing," said Arias. "Maybe she was tricked, coerced or brainwashed."

The day the tragedy happened, Arias received an anonymous phone call: "Your daughter drowned.... the boat she was in sank."

Arias, who clings to the hope her daughter is still alive, travelled six hours from Cumana to Guiria where she showed pictures of her daughter to survivors of the wreck, which had 33 people aboard.

A woman told her that her daughter was crying and begging to be allowed to stay.

"You decide, get on board or die," she was told.

Only one corpse was found, and it wasn't Luisannys's.

The public prosecutor has charged six women and three men with trafficking people for "sexual exploitation."

- 'Negligence' -

The numbers may be down due to the coronavirus lockdown but still boats continue to leave Venezuela for nearby island nations, said Alcala.

On May 16, 2019, the "Ana Maria" boat sank with Andy Villegas aboard.

His 54-year-old father, Isidro Villegas, a sailor, spent three days at sea looking for him.

He's accused the state of "negligence."

Enrique -- not his real name -- plans to leave for Trinidad once the coronavirus emergency is over.

The 31-year-old vegetable seller, who works in the Guiria market where the smell of fish is mixed with spices from Trinidad, sold an electric guitar, camera and computer to cobble together $300 for his passage.

He feels let down by the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Although he admits it's "inevitable" to feel scared, he's putting his faith "in God."

Arias is another leaning on her faith.

She keeps a photo distributed by the public prosecutor showing 12 women following a raid. One has her face covered by her hair.

Arias prays her daughter will come home one day.

"It's her," she says.

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