Venezuelan Pirates Rule the Most Lawless Market on Earth
Venezuela and the island of Trinidad are separated by only 10 miles of water and bound together by the most lawless market on Earth today. Playing out at sea and on the coasts, it is a roiling arbitrage—of food, diapers, weapons, drugs, and women—between the desperate and the profit-minded. Government is absent, bandits are everywhere, and participating can cost you your life. But not participating can also mean death, because the official economy of Venezuela is in a state of collapse, and the people are starving.
I’d planned to travel to the fishing villages of Venezuela’s northeast coast, in the state of Sucre, to see how the people there were managing amid violence and deprivation. I settled on the villages along the Gulf of Paria, an inlet of the Caribbean abuzz with stories of smugglers, contraband, and pirates. Clearly there were risks: On both of my previous reporting trips into Venezuela, I’d been detained for “illegal reporting,” first for interviewing an emergency room doctor without government permission and then for talking with mourners at a public cemetery. And that was before the onset of food riots, which began in Sucre in the summer of 2016, and also before fishermen began getting murdered by pirates.
By the time of my trip, in late August, Venezuela had descended so far into chaos that I decided to move my focus across the narrow Gulf of Paria to Trinidad, where, immediately upon arrival in the capital, Port of Spain, I went to the fisheries ministry with a tourist map of the islands. I explained to an official there that I was a reporter interested in fishermen and wanted to know where to find the most scenic spots. After patiently listening to an overview of the island’s marvels, I asked him to show me where the smugglers are. The official drew his fingers south down the coast to Cedros and Icacos, a pair of fishing villages close to the shores of Venezuela. I went there directly.
On the Cedros waterfront, next to the pier, I found a group of men lounging under palm trees. I asked them about the smuggling business. “I’m Mr. Flour, and this is Mr. Rice,” said Carlos, a burly truck driver, by way of introducing himself and a friend. Within minutes he was unlocking a cargo van to show off sacks of flour ready to be shipped to Venezuela. Five dollars’ worth of flour in Trinidad, Carlos said, was worth $20 across the gulf.
I spent that first morning interviewing Venezuelan fishermen who had just made the two-hour journey across the flat waters to Trinidad. They were bringing in contraband cigarettes, cocaine, even a small zoo of wild animals including agouti—a rodent whose meat appears on local menus—and coiled anacondas. But animals are complicated. They bite, have to be fed, and might die. Thus many smugglers prefer guns, vodka, and especially gasoline. The Venezuelan government so deeply subsidizes gas that even after a 1,300 percent price hike last year, a gallon costs less than 40¢—about a sixth of the price at the pump in Trinidad.
Once they sell their contraband in Trinidad, these former fishermen bring a new commodity back to their country: diapers. Dozens of smugglers are dealing in boxes of Huggies and piles of Pampers. They say that back home they’ll get three times what they pay in Trinidad, and demand is so high they maintain waiting lists. “I can trade the diapers for medicine,” Karen Cubillan, a Venezuelan woman who shuttles between Trinidad and Venezuela while working the diaper arbitrage via online sales, told me by phone. “Diapers are like bars of gold. People stash food and diapers as if they were money.”
On the shore I met Gabriel, a 30-year-old Venezuelan fisherman who was loading a rickety wooden boat with infant formula and diapers. Gabriel still fishes: He’d arrived from Venezuela in the morning with a load of shrimp and sold his catch to waiting buyers. But he was about to become more than a fisherman; this would be his first smuggling run, and he admitted to being frightened. “The pirates take the motors and steal the food of people coming in to Venezuela from Trinidad who want to feed their families,” he said. “And it is not just civilians we classify as pirates. The Venezuelan Coast Guard and National Guard are also involved in this. We are more afraid of them than the actual pirates.” Over the past two years, dozens of Venezuelan National Guard members have been arrested for collaborating with smugglers. In a single sweep in September 2015, 50 were rounded up on criminal charges.
Twenty years ago, the villages of eastern Venezuela were home to a robust fishing industry, including the world’s fourth-largest tuna fleet. Industrial trawlers and hundreds of smaller boats worked the waters. In a good month, 10,000 tons of tuna were brought in to local ports, as well as boatloads of sardine, shark, crab, and octopus. Ships from Asia sold their catches to local plants, which froze and stored them by the hundreds of tons. When boats needed repairs, captains took them to the shipyard in the town of Güiria, where vessels from South America, Asia, and the U.S. could all be found in dry dock. Towns such as Carúpano were home to such a flourishing industry that the stench of fish drifted downwind for miles. “You knew you were close when the air began to stink,” recalled Cubillan, who lived there for a decade.
The 1998 election of President Hugo Chávez led to a radical new structure for the industry. Chávez nationalized it and expropriated hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of ships, ports, shipyards, and canning factories. He also promised to retrofit the processing plants to accommodate small-scale fishermen. In 2008, Venezuela introduced a joint venture with Cuba known as the Socialist Joint Venture Industrial Fisheries of the Bolivarian Alliance. Chávez promised that this company, stocked with seized assets, would “eliminate the chain of intermediaries so that the product, at accessible prices, is available to the low-income population.”
But the fishing industry withered under Chávez, and then under Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded him as president in 2013. The warehouse in Güiria burned down and was never rebuilt; the ship repair facilities were shuttered after a few years in government hands. Venezuelan ships not seized by the government were quickly reflagged in Nicaragua, Panama, and Ecuador, and much of the government fleet now lies in port, awaiting repairs and scarce spare parts. From 554,000 tons of fish caught in 1997, the year before Chávez started his revolution, the catch in 2015 had fallen almost 60 percent, to 226,600 tons, according to the Caracas-based Foundation for Sustainable and Responsible Tuna Fisheries.
In 2015 seven major tuna processing plants declared a state of emergency, citing a chronic shortage of the fish. Three thousand workers lost their jobs, according to Jorge Bastardo, union leader at the La Gaviota canning plant in Cumaná. Even when tuna was brought to shore, aluminum was in such short supply that a central cannery was converted into what the government dubbed “the pouchery.” It failed. The public never warmed to the idea of buying plastic pouches filled with watery tuna.
In Cedros, I began searching for a fishing crew that would allow me to join them in a trip out to sea. First I approached four fishermen, knee-deep in the water, as they launched a boat, and asked to ride along. One muscular man drew his fingers knife-like across his neck. Another yelled at me to leave. A police patrol then stopped the photographer who was with me. While they checked his passport, I kept moving.
After several hours walking the beach, I found Navin and Ricky, two Trinidadians in their late 20s who declined to give me their last names. They agreed to let me join their expedition in exchange for gas money. They packed their small fiberglass boat with lines of hooks and half-frozen sardines for bait. The craft was shaped like a long canoe and powered by a single outboard motor. There was no shade. The only technology aboard was an old flip phone Ricky used to activate a primitive messaging service. There was no paperwork, no registration, and no sign of Coast Guard boats, border patrol missions, or even a harbor master. As fellow fishermen helped push their craft through a pile of empty rum bottles and shards of coconut husks into the warm Caribbean, Ricky stopped them for a moment to screw the propeller back on the outboard. He took it off every night. “This makes it harder for thieves to get away with the boat,” he said.
As we left the coast of Trinidad, a solitary fisherman stood in his anchored boat. He stared at us while pulling in a net that contained a single silvery fish, maybe the size of his palm. He looked at the flopping fish and tossed it back into the sea, as if it were a bother. I was reminded of a conversation a day earlier with a leader of the local fishing cooperative who told me that fishermen are hired to work as the eyes and ears for narcos and thieves. “They have walkie-talkies and call the bandits when we go out,” he said. “If the bandits rob and steal from us, then they get a commission, a percentage.” He said he’d been “taken” four times.
At sea, the typical Caribbean camaraderie of fishermen has been replaced by suspicion and fear. The farther from shore we motored, the more vigilant Navin and Ricky became. Nothing is more unsettling on these waters than the sight of a craft approaching fast from the Venezuelan coast. A speedboat with multiple 200-horsepower outboard motors—the fishermen call these boats “go-fasts”—reaches the middle of the gulf in minutes.
Many of the pirate gangs use Güiria as their base. They go to sea with masks, automatic weapons, and crates of ice to preserve the fish and shrimp they steal from fishermen. This air of experience on the water leads many fishermen to suspect that some of the pirates were themselves once fishermen. The pirates often take not only the catch but also the motors, leaving the crews adrift. When they want the boats as well, they shoot the fishermen or force them to jump into the water before speeding away. Dozens of local fishermen have been murdered in the past two years, leading the Trinidad and Tobago newspaper Newsday to call the area the “Gulf of No Return.”
Ryan Roberts, a Trinidadian I met as he cleaned his boat and unpacked his gear after a day on the water, told me about being attacked by pirates as he fished off the coast of Venezuela in 2015. Five armed men came upon him fast in a speedboat, ordered him to his knees, and interrogated him. “Do you speak Spanish?” they screamed. He shook his head no—most Trinidadians speak primarily English—and feared he was about to be executed. But as they motored toward the Venezuelan coastline, towing Roberts’s boat behind their own, he realized he had been kidnapped. For three days he was held in Güiria. “They go through your phone looking for a few numbers,” he says. “They talked to a person who knew me and began to bust shots in the air. And they said, ‘I got your friend! I got your friend! We want money.’ My friend thought they were fooling. That person called back my phone to see if it was serious, and I said, ‘Yes, I have been taken. I am in Venezuela.’ ”
After days of negotiations and frantic fundraising by Roberts’s extended family and friends, the pirates arranged to free him in exchange for a $46,000 ransom. Using WhatsApp, the two sides met in the open ocean. Roberts’s brother arrived with the cash, and the kidnappers brought the victim. Roberts’s brother threw the money to the pirates; Roberts jumped into the sea and swam for the other boat, guns trained on him the whole time.
Safely returned to Trinidad, he tallied his losses. “They took my boat, my engines, and my family’s life savings,” he told me. “I sometimes have flashbacks. I remember when they stick a gun in my ribs and they cock the gun.” I asked whether he had considered giving up fishing and searching for a safer alternative. He shook his head. “Not really,” he said. “That is how I make money. I am a fisherman.”
I saw few signs of law enforcement in the port or on the water. The Coast Guard station in Cedros, for example, had no ships or watercraft of any sort, and thus no way to patrol. I stood for a time with a uniformed officer at a tiny military base in town. He looked relaxed as he cradled his automatic rifle and watched a boatload of Venezuelans streaming up from the beach below his lookout point. “They come to shore and trade marijuana and cocaine for food,” he said. “Before it was for U.S. dollars, but now they trade for sacks of flour.” At night, Venezuelan bandits sneak ashore to steal nets, outboard motors, and fishing gear. “If they get caught here in Trinidad? They will get their heads chopped off,” he said matter-of-factly. “We don’t get involved. That’s just what happens.”
With the help of a local investigative reporter, I was able to speak with a Trinidadian smuggler who asked that I identify him as Chivo, Spanish for goat. He lived in a two-story rural homestead at the end of a dirt road in Cedros, and when I first met him, he was surrounded by coconut husks and workers harvesting coconuts by the hundreds. “Virgin coconut oil,” he called out, like a street vendor hawking his wares. But after a few minutes, Chivo dropped the act and explained that coconut oil was just a hobby—and a front. His true business is organizing runs across the Gulf of Paria, bringing in immigrants, guns, animals, cocaine, and women destined for prostitution. “The number of boats and activity has doubled in the last year,” he said. “Usually each smuggling boat was making one trip a day. Now we have them making three trips per day.”
We spent an afternoon walking along his 2-mile-long stretch of private beach. Chivo was a loquacious, well-spoken man who appeared to be in his 40s. He gently mocked the attempt I’d been making to blend in as a tourist. “The first day you arrived, three days ago,” he said with a smile, “my men called me and said there was a white boy asking lots of questions. They asked whether they should kidnap you.” He delighted in shocking me by quoting the prices he gets from criminal gangs for automatic weapons acquired from the Venezuelan armed forces: $7,000 for an AR-15, $40,000 for an FAL, $2 a round for military-grade ammunition.
Chivo described Güiria as an epicenter for drugs and arms smuggling. To move contraband past the government patrols off the docks, he said, his people just bribed members of the National Guard. “The U.S. dollar is a very big-talking dollar,” he said. “It’s known as the ‘green paper.’ You give them to each Guardia Nacional, and they are like billionaires in their country when you use the black market exchange rate. We pay them in dollars and diapers. Huggies. It’s a brand they don’t get in Venezuela, and they love it.”
Chivo referred to a bribe as la vacuna: the vaccine. He spoke of Venezuela’s current chaos with a professional detachment. He’d spent time there, and he had a fondness for it, but that was in effect a different country. Now it was simply an opportunity for him. “The crisis in Venezuela has had a great increase in income for the proprietors doing business here in Trinidad,” he said. “Venezuela has gone contraband. End of story.”