In the South American nation of Venezuela, in both good times and bad, the trafficking of misled teenage girls into forced sexual exploitation in neighboring Trinidad and Tobago has been a lucrative organized crime racket since the early 2000s.
Now that the oil-rich socialist nation is suffering economic turmoil, and tens of thousands of people are migrating out of the country, the racket in exploited Venezuelan girls, allegedly with the cooperation of public officials, has turned deadly.
A boat called the Jhonnas Jose, ferrying 28 to 33 people, mainly girls corralled by racketeers to work as prostitutes, sank on April 23 in the Gulf of Paria after leaving the northeastern Venezuelan port city of Guiria on its way east to the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, according to Agency Press-Franchise. Rescuers recovered the body of a 16-year-old girl and counted only nine survivors with as many as twenty missing.
Then, on May 16, a small boat, the fishing vessel Ana Maria, with about 29 people packed aboard, mostly young women and children, went down almost without a trace. Its Venezuelan captain, identified in news reports as Alberto Abreu, was reportedly the sole survivor, found at sea clinging to wreckage. Abreu, who escaped to Granada supposedly for medical treatment, has a previous conviction for human trafficking.
The tragedies exposed a sex trafficking racket in Venezuela that has existed for a decade and a half but has recently flourished, as Venezuelans grow desperate for work during the country’s worsening financial crisis, reports the website InSight Crime.
Last year, InSight, an organized crime investigative news service, described Venezuela as “a mafia state” because of pervasive criminal activity taking place at the top levels of its national government, from the vice president to the ministers of defense, agriculture, interior, energy, prisons, intelligence, the military, National Guard and other agencies.
Sex trafficking racketeers recruit Venezuelan girls, typically 15 to 16 years old, and lie to them about good-paying jobs available in Trinidad and Tobago. They transport them to Guira and force them to wait in hotels there. The teenagers are given free passage, shipped in the dark of night, in overcrowded, unlicensed boats to Trinidad and Tobago, then literally sold to a Trinidad gang (reportedly headed by a man named Vaughn “Sandman” Mieres) for as little as $300. They are obliged to serve as prostitutes in the Caribbean region. The racketeers can earn from $3,000 to $12,000 per boat.
An investigative commission for the Venezuelan National Assembly reported that these secret voyages, often in boats built to hold only 10 people, make their way with the knowledge and involvement of government authorities in both Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, where the coast guard charges $500 per boat to let them pass without legal documents.
Venezuelan law enforcement arrested a pair of soldiers in disputed President Nicolás Maduro’s National Guard and a maritime authority official on suspicion of being part of the scheme. Other alleged conspirators include the Trinidadian Coast Guard and even members of Venezuela’s own criminal investigation division. Police arrested and then set free several hotel owners in Guira where some of the trafficked girls allegedly stayed.
The traffickers reportedly enlist trusted people, from schoolteachers to neighbors, to entice the girls with the lure of jobs and money to make the boat trip to Trinidad and Tobago, where they are compelled to join the sex trafficking rings.
Organized crime is even more prevalent elsewhere in Venezuela. In the country’s southern region, illegal gold mining has attracted members of its National Guard as well as Colombian paramilitary groups operating across the border – the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Venezuela’s major economic downturn arrived as production from its state-run oil industry, once the source of easy riches, has dropped by 50 percent since 2014. Last January, President Maduro reclaimed power via the military after a disputed national election. Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly who has the backing of the United States, claimed victory and charged Maduro’s supporters with election fraud. Maduro still clings to power.
With its oil production curtailed, Venezuela has placed its hopes in the new boom in gold mining. But while pursuing gold, the National Guard, Colombian paramilitaries and crime groups known as “pranes” are responsible for murder, torture, extortion, forced labor and bribery, according to the Brussels-based NGO, the International Crisis Group.
“In vast areas of southern Venezuela, Colombian guerrillas, criminal syndicates and Venezuelan security forces compete for control of the gold mines, which provide funds to the cornered government of President Nicolás Maduro,” the Crisis Group wrote in a recent report.
“The main criminal organizations in the [southern] state of Bolivar are the [labor] unions or the gangs headed by the so-called pranes. A pran is the head of a criminal group that normally engages in drug trafficking and criminal extortion and often runs its operations from prison.”
PHILLY MOB SUSPECT: ‘YOU CAN’T BEAT THE TAPES’
New Jersey resident Joseph Servidio, a reputed associate of the Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra, did not know the man he was talking to was a government informant wearing a wire to record their conversations.
“[E]ighty percent of eyewitnesses got the wrong person, eighty percent, they, they look like the person,” Servidio said, “so without any other corroborating evidence, you know what I mean, you can even beat that, you can even beat that, you know, the things you can’t beat are the tapes with you saying it, that’s what you did, you know.”
Servidio spoke to the FBI informant on a recording made during a dialogue in 2017, according to federal prosecutors. He is charged in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, as are co-defendants Carl Chianese and Michael Gallicchio, with conspiring to distribute heroin, fentanyl and tramadol (all in pill form) and methamphetamine.
On the tapes, Servidio mentioned many times how he kicked up tribute payments from his illegal drug sales to Philadelphia Mob figures. He claimed he succeeded in “making my bones” – killing someone – at age 19.
Servidio also admitted to speaking to the wife of a friend whose son died from a drug overdose. “[W]hen I talked to her, she said, ‘You’re the only person that ever sold drugs that I love, I despise people because my son OD’d … she said, ‘Joe, please stop what you’re doing [selling drugs], you hurt people, people like you hurt people.’”
Servidio admitted to the informant that he knew selling drugs was wrong, but he had to. “It’s the most money I can make. I like to spend money.”
In a later conversation, Servidio said that a legitimate business he owned did not make a profit and he simply used it as a place to deposit his earnings from criminal acts.
“I’m a criminal, everything I do is criminal, I got to get out of it … I need like [$250,000] or year, or two, to break even … How am I paying the mortgage, how am I paying my business insurance, how am I paying all these others bills …”
He added later, “… there’s nothing better than making money. I make money every day, illegally.”
NEW RACKET IN ENGLAND: ‘WASTE CRIME’
Eliminating the middleman in garbage hauling is the latest racket for criminals in the United Kingdom, one that an English official described as “the new narcotics.”
While legitimate waste haulers pay about 400 British pounds per ton to remove rubbish and use that to pay about 200 pounds to a waste disposer, the crooks will accept 200 pounds for each ton and then just dump it on someone’s private property – country estates, farmland or industrial areas.
Illegal waste dumping costs legitimate British garbage businesses about a billion pounds in revenue each year, plus the loss in government tax money, according to U.K.’s Environment Agency.
“It feels to me like drugs felt in the 1980s,” Sir James Bevan, who heads the agency, told NBC News. “The system hadn’t quite woken up to the enormity of what was going on and was racing to catch up.”
In one case, criminals threw hundreds of tons of rubbish – from old refrigerators and mattresses to construction waste – over a wooded area next to a historic country estate about 20 miles north of London. The cost to clean up the estate was put at about 20,000 pounds, or $26,000.
U.S. REPORT DETAILS CORRUPTION IN ‘NORTHERN TRIANGLE’
A recently declassified State Department report to Congress revealed the astonishing amount of public corruption in the Central America nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle.
Accepting bribes, misspending public funds, money laundering and other crimes by upper-level government officials in the three countries “is endemic and systemic and among the foremost challengers these countries face,” the department reported.
In El Salvador, 11 former top government officials have been convicted and sentenced to prison within the past few years. Three of them are the country’s recent former presidents (Francisco Flores Perez, who served from 1999-2004, Elias Saca, 2004-2009, and Carlos Funes Cartagena, 2009-2014), and its former attorney general, Luis Martinez Gonzales, in office from 2012-2015.
The courts found Funes guilty of enriching himself while president by acquiring $419 million and trying to bribe an attorney general to drop cases. Saca received a 10-year sentence for money laundering and illegally diverting $300 million in government money. Martinez is serving a five-year sentence for illegally disclosing wiretap recordings and accepting cash from a businessman.
Guatemala has 27 former high officials charged or sentenced on corruption related allegations, including former President Otto Perez and his vice president, Ingrid Baldetti, four former presidents of Congress, a former Supreme Court president, a former Supreme Court justice, the one-time ministers of energy and mines, government, defense and communications, and nine former congressmen.
Honduras has 13 top-ranked ex-dignitaries on the State Department’s list. Its former President Rafael Leonardo Romero pleaded guilty to accepting $500,000 in bribes in the 2015 FIFA soccer scandal. A former Supreme Court president is charged with 131 crimes, including 60 counts of embezzlement. The one-time vice president of the National Congress, a former environmental agency director, a minister of investment and former vice ministers of social security, health and labor also face corruption charges.
A recent joint operation by the government of Colombia and Europol ended in the seizure of 19 tons of cocaine, after checking 36 ships, and the arrests of 583 people in a drug trafficking operation intended for Europe. … Our Godfather: The Man the Mafia Could Not Kill, a documentary about the family of Tommaso Buscetta, the Sicilian Mafia soldier who defied “omerta” and testified against the Mafia in 1982, after the Mob killed two of his sons, a brother and a nephew, has been released on iTunes. … A man who survived multiple gunshot wounds suffered at his home on June 16 in Hamilton, Ontario, has ties to organized crime, police say. The shooting came six weeks after Pat Musitano, reputed head of Hamilton’s Musitano crime family, was wounded outside an office building. The turmoil in gangland in the area, south of Toronto, continues since the 2013 (natural) death of Montreal mob boss Vito Rizzuto. … Managers of Dinamo, the championship soccer club in Zagreb, Croatia, have sent a letter to the country’s prime minister and president asking for help against organized crime networks they say are intent on a “violent takeover” of the popular team and have issued threats of death and physical violence against its employees. … Police in Mexico City are dealing with the problems posed by criminals renting handguns – $40 a day for .22- and .25-caliber guns and $90 a day for a .38 caliber. The guns could be used in crimes and returned to renters to circumvent tracing by police. Mexico City recorded 257 murders in January and February, more than in any two-month period in city history.
Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. He is the author of four books, including Las Vegas Babylon: True Tales of Glitter, Glamour, and Greed, License to Steal: Nevada’s Gaming Control System in the Megaresort Age and Lost Las Vegas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.