Juan Gonzalez is one of the citizens who seek information about his relative who disappeared in the Guiria shipwreck. One of his fellow church was among the passengers who boarded the ship Mi Refugio, which departed from the Sucre coast on December 6, to Trinidad and Tobago. Since December 12, when the first seven bodies appeared floating on the beach, his concern and displeasure increased.
People in the town said sweeping raids in fishermen docks and homes are carrying, with one boat patron in custody and several other men wanted. Instead of repression, Guiria wants the regime to help it bury their dead, they say.
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So far, Coast Guard has reported 27 bodies retrieved from the Güiria shipwrecks.
Sucre is one of the poorest states in Venezuela, according to the ENCOVI 2019 living conditions poll. Due to a complex humanitarian crisis, Venezuela is undergoing the largest exodus in the Western Hemisphere history, with some 5.5 million Venezuelans leaving their country since Nicolas Maduro first took over in 2013.
“We all know in Guiria that people are starving, that people are migrating from this country, from this town because they have nothing to eat. The people are desperate, and the solution is in the hands of the government,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was waiting outside at the Coast Guard dock in Guiria. He was talking, drinking coffee, and walking among the crowd of nearly 100 people who, like him, were begging for news about the fate of their loved ones.
The dock and the town were in turmoil since Saturday, December 12, when the first bodies got found. Scenes of weeping, terror, and despair repeated at every step. Five children, nine women, and 12 men. A tally of 26 tragic deaths reported on December 16. Entire families disappeared at sea.
González, a man that looks around 35, is convinced about who is responsible for this tragedy and stated without fear. “They (the authorities) now are putting pressure on the fishermen and the people of the town. That is the situation we are experiencing here. And instead of helping us, what we see is pressure from the police forces. They are going into houses, looking for culprits when they know who is to blame for what is happening with the Venezuelans. I am not afraid to say it because it is the truth. We have lost good and kind people, people forced to emigrate,” he said.
He was there because of his friend Angel Subero, a 27-years-old guy. “He was a healthy guy who now left two orphaned children. Someone offered him the seat in that boat to go to Trinidad to see if he could get a job to support his family. He risked his life, and now he is gone.”
Outside of shed number six of Coast Guard, there is a line of about 50 people. Some say they have been there for up to four hours. They wait to enter to identify the bodies of their relatives.
The task is not easy; many of the bodies are mutilated and in an advanced state of decomposition, making recognition difficult. “They let in one by one. Only a direct relative can enter to do the recognition of the body. And we can only be there for three minutes,” said a 14-year-old teenager who had to identify the body of her younger brother.
Confusion, anger, and pain
Guiria is a town of some 40,000 inhabitants, located in Sucre state, four hours away from Trinidad and Tobago by boat. There has been a constant relationship and exchange between both borders since both Venezuela and the island were colonies.
However, like the rest of Venezuela, Güiria is experiencing a deep economic and public-services crisis.
Abandonment and hardship can see before arriving in town proper. The road that goes from Carupano to Guiria is practically impassable. The bushes have grown in the place and swallowed the road.
The farms where cocoa was once grown are now empty. There is nothing to offer, the bushes are dry, and there are no more crops.
There is no domestic gas or gasoline in the villages along the road. A protest over the lack of gas blocked the road for a few hours. The road blocking protests are regular in Sucre state. While some protest because they have no way to cook, others carry firewood on donkeys to their homes.
The fuel crisis competes with the lack of food in Guiria. Next to the sign announcing have arrived at the village, a long line of vehicles welcomes visitors. There is a line of motorcycles and cars waiting for gasoline, which only is available once a month. Only 15 liters are sold per vehicle by the decision of the officers who control the distribution.
Guiria was one of the towns with a strong economic potential of the state of Sucre, just like Venezuela was once a big oil exporter country in the world. Now, Guiria, and the country, looks like a myth.
The shouts, cries, and pleas come from the dock. There is confusion, pain, rage. They have been waiting for hours to know what happened. The inhabitants do not understand what happened to their relatives.
Silence and Fear
People in Guiria are afraid of reprisals. Guiria is a hot spot for criminal violence. It is common to find decapitated corpses left by gangs in the public squares. It has happened before, when other boats bound for Trinidad and Tobago have been shipwrecked or disappeared by human trafficking or drug gangs, neighbors say. “They are threatened or killed. They prefer not to talk,” said one villager.
The people of Guiria are looking for information about their relatives who are still missing.
Others get forced to remain silent by the conditions in the area: Contraband between Venezuela and Trinidad is the livelihood of many people there. Moreover, in Guiria, as in other small towns in the country, everything is known.
Maribel Brito is part of the group of people gathered at the dock. She is the sister of Henry Brito, one of the two detainees, who, in turn, is the uncle of Nelson Luis Martinez, 20 years old, one of the disappeared.
“My brother got called for an interview, but he was left in detention and was insulted by the police. He came to identify the bodies. He is not a people smuggler,” the woman said.
Martinez has a sister in Trinidad who promised to help him get a job. “He did not have a job here, and he was doing nothing since he graduated from high school,” Brito said.
The small-town versions
In the absence of official information, comments, and rumors of what might have happened multiplying.
The people gathered in front of the Coast Guard, where the bodies recovered from sea are, say that they left on a boat on Sunday, December 6 and that they got expelled by Trinidad and Tobago authorities in another ship. Some said that the ship is Mi Refugio (My shelter), others said that the boat is Mi Recuerdo (My memories). Another group said that there are two different ships. Nothing is clear.
Governor Edwin Rojas is also uncertain about what happened to the boats. He explained that the vessels came out of an unauthorized dock in Guiria, and he has no way of knowing who was on it.
But people make their versions. Between waiting and waiting, seated in portable chairs and with snacks to muffle the noise of hungry as the hours go by, they talk among themselves about what could have happened.
They insist that the boat arrived in Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday night. They got detained and kept in port and forced to go back to Venezuela without gasoline. They point out to the Trinidadian authorities as those responsible for the misfortune.
Some try to find explanations in any detail. “The fact that the first bodies were found only six nautical miles from the Venezuelan coast means they were returning,” said the relatives, convinced that their relatives did set foot on the island territory.
That is why Guiria neighbors are demanding the truth from the authorities. They are fighting the military, deputies of the government of Nicolás Maduro, and officers of the Scientific and Investigation Police. They want to know what happened. They also ask them to expedite with the Trinidadian government a list of detainees on the island.
They say that most of them are family and acquaintances who left Guiria because they were hungry and needed to find a better life.
That is why, despite the danger and strength of the waters between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuelans go up to the boats, hoping to find what they could not find there.
Between 500 and 700 Venezuelans leave the country daily. Around the world, there are already five million Venezuelan migrants. The UN projects 8.1 million Venezuelans would have migrated by 2021, almost 25% of the total population of 32 million.
There are multiple risks in this transit. In 2019 alone, three boats were reported missing between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, carrying at least 80 people.
In Guiria, everybody knows, everyone lives and suffers from hunger. And hunger does not discriminate in the coastal town of Sucre state.