‘Pay the ransom, or we’ll chop off their hands”.
That’s the ultimatum issued after Venezuelan pirates abducted five Trinidadian fishers along with a 16-year-old boy in late January. Their ransom was set at $US200,000.
It’s the sequel to Pirates Of The Caribbean nobody wanted: cash-strapped Venezuelan fishermen are resorting to highseas robbery and ransoms to put food on their family tables, following in the footsteps of the Somali pirates who have made shipping off the Horn of Africa so fraught.
Moreover, organised crime gangs have sensed an opportunity to seize control of a seaway that offers a fast-track highway for the drug trade to the United States.
Pictures of the Trinidadian captives sitting on a floor and surrounded by men with weapons were circulated on social media to back up the threat.
Also supplied was a voice recording: one of the captives was heard pleading for his family to sell their cars, boats and houses to raise the cash. In the background, an Englishspeaking person can be heard prompting the plaintive captive in what to say.
All of the fishermen come from the village of Morne Diablo in southern Trinidad.
Their families are fearful of their fates.
“My son is just 16 years … I still can’t believe this is happening,” Ambrose Jaikaran told Trinidad’s Newsday.
“He loves fishing and usually goes to observe and learn the trade with the older men in the village.
“I did not think that on Sunday morning when he left that would have been the last time I was going to see him again.
“I have read about this in the newspaper, where fishermen are kidnapped, but I never thought it would have reached home. I am so scared, what they are going to do my little boy?”
The mother of another of the fishermen was desperate.
“They said if they don’t get the money … they are going to start to cut off their arms and show it to us. Oh God, no!” Jassodra Arjoon said.
“Where are we going to get that money from? I am begging those in authority, please don’t let them kill my son. Please.”
I have read about this in the newspaper, where fishermen are kidnapped, but I never thought it would have reached home Ambrose Jaikaran
The scene is becoming increasingly common: a young mother brings her malnourished children to a soup kitchen in a Venezuelan slum.
It’s already full of dozens of children and their unemployed parents who have no way of feeding them.
Around them, Venezuela’s economy is in meltdown.
Its government is mere anarchy.
Some cling to the few remaining jobs. Others rely on cash sent in from relatives working overseas.
But more and more are resorting to any means necessary. And that means the drug trade — and the ancient art of piracy.
SINS OF MADURO
All the while, the country’s illegitimate president, Nicolas Maduro, struggles to maintain his grip on power. He maintains there’s an international conspiracy, led by the US, to discredit him and topple him from power. Venezuela’s economic crisis, he insists, is entirely the result of sanctions and sabotage.
The opposition, however, blames the country’s hyperinflation, collapsing services and scarcity of necessities on Maduro’s socialist policies.
Amid it all, millions of Venezuelans have fled to neighbouring countries.
Maduro has managed to retain his grip on power with the support of Venezuela’s vital military leaders. However, in recent weeks, more than a thousand border troops have abandoned their equipment and defected to neighbouring Colombia.
Behind them, they’ve left a growing power vacuum.
Venezuela’s pirates have relearnt the trade last seen in these waters some 300 years ago. They time their attacks to just before sunset, giving them enough light to do their deed before slipping invisibly into the growing gloom.
Some commentators have pinned much of the blame on what remains of the nation’s tuna fishing fleet. It’s an industry that collapsed under the mismanagement of a nationalisation scheme.
Their target is usually the tiny island nation of Trinidad, just 16km off the Venezuelan coast. But the entire Caribbean Community (Caricom) of 15 island nations is feeling the heat.
FIGHTING THE THREAT
Executive director of the Caricom Implementation Agency of Crime and Security (IMPACS) Major Michael Jones told Trinidad’s Newsday the region needed to expend more effort on maritime security.
“We’re working collectively on a maritime strategy not only to address the issue of piracy or armed robbery but, essentially, the maritime environment is one which is of critical importance to the entire region. We use it for food, transport, in your (Trinidad’s) case you all have offshore platforms for the oil sector, so the protection on the marine environment is even that much more critical.”
But some allege their attackers are the Venezuelan Guardia Nacional (National Guard), using patrol vessels and military weapons in international waters.
“This is happening too often,” Trinidad fisherman Marvin Farria complained.
“They come in our waters and hold us, and when they hold us, they call for money. If you don’t have it, they will carry you down and lock you up in Venezuela. If you could pay on the waters, you get back your boat and engine and whatever else they seize from you.”
Trinidad local government representatives say they had heard of many incidents where Venezuelan authorities detained men until they paid a $US15,000 “fine”.
“Why is the authority turning a blind eye to this situation?” demanded councillor Shankar Teelucksingh. “Why is the National Security Minister with the 360-degree radar allowing unidentified, armed vessels to come into our waters and harass our citizens.”
Most attacks are at a much smaller scale.
It pits fisherman against fisherman, with the raiders stealing everything from outboard motors, fuel and nets through to the day’s catch. However, there’s another group of pirates who want to clear the traditional fishing grounds.
Predomi nant among Venezuela’s growing fleet of pirates are members of drugtrafficking gangs based in the coastal district of Arismendi. It’s a major hub for South America’s drug trade.
It has also experienced a recent dramatic upsurge in homicides.
“This is related with the expansion of organised crime into these areas to control drug trafficking to the islands and the Caribbean Sea,” the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV) reports.
The Insight Crime analysis group says these pirates seek to establish new smuggling routes out of eastern Venezuela and clear the waterways to ease their shipments of Colombian cocaine and marijuana.
“They steal the engines so fishermen cannot continue sailing in the area where they could witness drug trafficking operations, which now take place in complete impunity,” Insight quotes an OVV spokesman as saying.
Attempts to fight the pirates through local law enforcement and judicial agencies rarely get off the ground, the report says, as drug money is used to buy their collaboration.
“The pirates have speedboats with powerful engines, allowing them to move drugs, weapons and any other illegal merchandise from Sucre to Trinidad in just a few minutes and, if necessary, subdue any who cross their path by force,” an unnamed journalist is reported as saying.