S. African researchers hope to deter rhino poachers with radioactive markers

By Akhona Matshoba and Tanisha Heiberg

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Researchers in South Africa are working on a potentially new method to deter rhino poachers and smugglers by using radioactive markers to make smuggled horns detectable at global ports of entry and less desirable to buyers.

South Africa is home to the world’s largest rhino population but has battled poaching for decades. The rhino horn is one of the most expensive commodities in the world by weight, fetching tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram.

Demand is mainly from Asia where rhino horns are believed to have potent medicinal properties and are also a symbol of wealth.

The study, a collaboration between the University of Witwatersrand and a global team of scientists and funded by Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom, is not using radioactive material on the animals yet, but hopes to if proven safe.

“We are doing our homework at the moment and our whole aim is to find an appropriate quantity of radioactive material which will not harm the animal,” said James Larkin, director at the radiation and health physics unit at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Rhinos Igor and Denver at the Buffalo Kloof Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape are the first to have trace amounts of non-radioactive, stable isotopes inserted in a hole made in their horns.

The study will gather samples from the animals over the next three months to understand how the isotope interacts within the horn while assessing the animals’ behavior and health, Larkin said.

Rhino poaching often involves both local poachers and international criminal syndicates who smuggle rhino horns across borders. Poachers often shoot the rhino with high-powered hunting rifles before removing the horn from the skull with a knife.

South Africa has about 16,000 rhinos located within its borders, the environmental ministry told Reuters in May.

But relentless poaching and a drought in the North-East region has hit the rhino population hard. In the Kruger National Park, the number of rhinos has plummeted almost more than two thirds in the last decade to around 3,800 in 2019 from 11,800 rhinos in 2008, according to a South African National Parks report.

The project could provide an alternative to de-horning where the animals are tranquilized before the horn is cut off to prevent poaching, which needs to be done around every 18 months. By contrast, radioactive markers would only need to be inserted every five years, Larkin said.

Despite a 30% decline in rhino poaching in 2020 due to lockdown and travel restrictions in South Africa, poachers still killed nearly 400 rhinos for their horns.

(Writing by Tanisha Heiberg, Editing by MacDonald Dzirutwe and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Syria releases hundreds of social media critics ahead of election

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syria has freed more than 400 civil servants, judges, lawyers and journalists detained this year in a crackdown on social media dissent, a move seen by rights activists and former detainees as intended to win over public opinion ahead of presidential elections.

Those released after being held under Syria’s cyber crimes law were among thousands freed this month under a general amnesty for currency speculators, drug dealers, smugglers and kidnappers ahead of the May 26 election that is expected to hand President Bashar al Assad a fourth term.

Most of the freed social media critics were supporters of Syrian authorities’ handling of the uprising in 2011 that spiraled into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands.

The amnesty excluded tens of thousands of Assad opponents and political detainees held for years without trial, many of whom are believed dead, rights groups say.

“The auspicious timing of the release right before elections of a moderate loyalist camp … is to generate a façade of entertaining some form of dissent to further make elections look credible,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

The group had seen an uptick in arrests for online activities in recent months to silence public disaffection over Syria’s economic crisis.

Its economy is collapsing under the weight of war, sanctions and COVID-19, but public criticism of deteriorating living conditions is not tolerated.

The crackdown under cyber crime law on mostly Assad supporters was intended to instill fear ahead of elections, according to two released detainees, who requested anonymity.

None of those arrested had criticized Assad, a capital offence, and most were rounded up by security forces for online posts ranging from a “like” on a Facebook comment lamenting growing hardship and critical of the government to remarks decrying state corruption.

Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment on the releases but the head of the journalists’ union, Musa Abdul Noor, had earlier confirmed that journalists had been held for social media comments on their personal accounts but not under another law that technically bans the arrest of journalists.

WELL-KNOWN FIGURES

At least 60 of those released are well-known in their local communities, including senior police officers, judges and a senior customs inspector, state employed journalists, lawyers, university students, businessmen and women’s rights advocates, four detainees said.

The releases were among steps taken in recent weeks ahead of the elections to influence public opinion, such as efforts to fight sky-rocketing inflation, and extending government grants to state employees in areas suffering from economic hardship.

The interior ministry had in January warned that violators of the cyber-crimes law, which criminalizes social media comments deemed to undermine the authority of the state, would face a minimum of six months in prison.

The ministry said it would pursue people who leaked fake news to portals that “distort and sow confusion in public opinion”.

Family members said Hala Jerf, a leading presenter on state television, Firyal Jahjah, a senior civil servant who serves as the head of a government inspection agency, and a prominent local journalist in Latakia province, Kenan Wakkaf, were among those released.

“I will stay with you, the voice that believes truth is the highest value. To corruption, I say you think you have shaken my resolve or maybe frightened me? You have not even scared my boots,” Wakkaf said in a post after he arrived home.

The majority of those released were not formally charged or put on trial, according to two released detainees who requested anonymity because they were warned not to speak publicly.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Maha El Dahan and Giles Elgood)

Biden tells migrants to stay put. Central Americans hear a different message

By Laura Gottesdiener

LA TÉCNICA, GUATEMALA (Reuters) – Maritza Hernández arrived at this remote Guatemalan village exhausted, with two young kids in tow and more than a thousand miles left to travel. She was motivated by a simple – if not entirely accurate – story.

“I heard news they are letting children in,” said Hernández, explaining she planned to cross the U.S. border in Texas and seek asylum.

The number of immigrant families apprehended by U.S. agents along the southern border nearly tripled in February from a month earlier to about 19,000 people. Hunger and poverty are spurring their flight. So is disinformation that has rocketed across social media and by word of mouth that the U.S. border is now wide open.

Reuters interviewed nearly two dozen migrants and more than a dozen people identifying themselves as smugglers, and examined hundreds of posts in closed Facebook groups where these “coyotes” advertise their services. The review revealed pervasive myths about immigration policy changes under U.S. President Joe Biden.

“There’s 100 days of free passage across the border,” a Guatemalan smuggler told Reuters.

The truth is much more complex.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to enforce a policy, implemented by former President Donald Trump one year ago, of returning most southern-border crossers to Mexico. About 70,000 people, or 72% of such migrants – mostly single adults – were rapidly deported in February alone, according to CBP data. Some of those people were likely repeat crossers as the recidivism rate has climbed in the past year, according to U.S. officials.

“Don’t come over,” Biden said in a March 16 interview with ABC News when asked to articulate his message to hopefuls. “Don’t leave your town or city or community.”

Still, it’s true that more migrants – mainly children and families – have been allowed to enter the United States in the early days of his administration than in the final days of Trump’s. In February, more than half of the family members caught with children at the border were not expelled. Many have been released from CBP custody into the United States as they await asylum hearings.

Their success has supercharged migrant and smuggler communication channels, with many now urging travelers to head north before the door slams shut, said Andrew Seele, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.

“Smugglers can definitely exaggerate things and make up information, but they can’t completely sell what doesn’t exist,” Seele said.

Biden aide Roberta Jacobson, the White House’s southern border coordinator, said the administration is now more aggressively discouraging migration.

Since January, the State Department has placed more than 28,000 radio ads in Spanish, Portuguese and six indigenous languages on 133 stations in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil, and it has worked with Facebook and Instagram to create advertisements to dissuade migrants, according to the department and the White House.

Whether it works remains to be seen. Trump’s anti-immigration message was loud and clear. Yet on his watch in February 2019, U.S. border agents encountered more than 40,000 people traveling in family groups, about twice as many as the Biden administration saw last month, according to CBP figures.

SMUGGLER TRADE THRIVING

The business of moving migrants is booming in the hamlet of La Técnica, deep in a Guatemalan rainforest, where Hernández and her two children stopped to rest.

In early March, Reuters witnessed motorized canoes whisking hundreds of U.S.-bound migrants across the Usumacinta River to the area’s unguarded border with Mexico.

Carlos, a smuggler who gave only his first name, chatted by phone with a colleague in the Mayan language Q’eqchi’ about an impending arrival. This transportation crossroads is also an information hub where news – both true and fake – spreads rapidly.

“Supposedly the president is letting children in,” Carlos said of Biden.

Carlos had it partly right. Biden, in a shift from the previous administration, said he would not turn away “unaccompanied minors” – kids crossing the border without parents or legal guardians. These children can now enter the United States to pursue asylum claims, in accordance with U.S. law.

The new administration has done the same for some migrant families along a limited, 230-mile stretch of the border between Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. That shift came in early February after Tamaulipas refused to continue allowing U.S. border officials to expel back into the state Central American families with children under the age of six. Biden has said his team is working to convince Mexico to take more of those families back.

Much of this nuance has been lost in Central America, a region desperate for an escape valve. Migrants are being driven by gang violence and poverty that has been exacerbated by job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The situation is particularly dire in Honduras, where hurricanes Eta and Iota last November destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Nearly a third of the country’s population is now beset by a worsening hunger crisis, according to a government report published in February.

Hernández, who hails from the Honduran coastal state of Colón, said the storms wiped out the family’s chickens and inundated the farm fields where her husband worked. In February, she defied her spouse and set off for Texas with her two children, encouraged by news of other families successfully crossing the border.

The U.S. government radio spots warn migrants against such a journey. In an ad currently broadcast in Honduras, a man named “Jorge” advises “Rosita” that she could be “assaulted, kidnapped, abandoned or infected with coronavirus” – and would likely be detained or deported if she reached the United States.

But other U.S.-based sources are fueling the myth of an open border. Texas-based citizen journalist Luis Rodriguez, who was born in Honduras, has posted several videos for his 400,000 Facebook followers encouraging migrant families to capitalize.

“How long will this last? Well, no one knows,” he said in a March 7 video.

Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment.

Some high-profile Republicans, too, are sending the message via prominent news outlets that crossing is easy. In a March 21 interview on “Fox News Sunday,” U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said “the border right now is wide open.”

Cotton repeated the exaggeration when contacted by Reuters.

SOME LUCKY, OTHERS NOT

Back in La Técnica, migrant Enrique Gallean shouted a warning to families gathered on the dock as he stepped off one of the rare boats bearing migrants back into Guatemala.

“They’re not letting children in!” he said.

Clutching his 8-year-old son’s hand, the Honduran native told Reuters he had recently crossed the U.S. border near Roma, Texas, and surrendered himself to CBP in the hopes of being allowed to pursue asylum. Instead, Gallean said, they were rapidly expelled to Mexico.

It was much the same for Hector Ruiz. A resident of El Salvador, he and his wife and three young children passed through La Técnica in early March with high hopes. He said he paid $20,000 to smugglers to get his spouse and kids to the Texas border to claim asylum. Ruiz, who had a previous deportation order, didn’t intend to cross, but he accompanied his family much of the way to ensure their safety.

Just over a week later, Ruiz told Reuters his wife and children had been expelled to Mexico.

“We went because we heard the news that there were 100 days of free passage!” Ruiz exclaimed by telephone. “Now we’re screwed.”

Hernández and her two children were luckier. She said that on March 19 her family turned themselves in to CBP in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, only to be released two days later to start the journey to Maryland, where her mother resides.

“We’re free!” she told Reuters by phone.

The news organization could not determine why the three were admitted while other families were not. CBP said it could not comment on the case due to security and privacy reasons.

Hernández’s WhatsApp profile now features a photo of her, the children and their grandmother beaming with happiness following their reunion. That portrait of success travels with each message she sends to friends and family back in Honduras.

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in La Técnica, Guatemala, and Monterrey, Mexico; additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

A family business: how and why smugglers are bringing more children to the U.S. border

By Laura Gottesdiener

LA TECNICA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Honduran mother Alicia Cruz handed herself and her son in to border agents in Texas, then watched as unaccompanied children were separated for release from the group of migrants before adults and families, including hers, were expelled into Mexico.

That’s when she contracted a smuggler to ferry Jeffrey, 17, across the border again – alone.

“Leaving my son destroyed me,” Cruz said this month, speaking from the Guatemalan-Mexican border as she headed south towards Honduras. She said her son was with relatives in Texas. “The last thing he said was ‘let me go to study, work so I can help you’.”

Almost 10,000 under-18s from Central America crossed illegally from Mexico into the United States without their parents in February, nearly double the previous month’s figures, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data.

The spike comes after U.S. President Joe Biden’s government, citing humanitarian reasons, said in early February it would not rapidly expel unaccompanied minors, a policy shift from the previous administration.

More than any other group of migrants, these children pose a political, logistical and moral challenge for Biden, testing the administration’s ability to safely process and house new arrivals fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

Reuters spoke to over a dozen self-identified smugglers in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador to gain insight into how and why so many unaccompanied minors are moving through the region and crossing the border alone. All requested anonymity or nicknames in order to freely discuss the illegal industry.

The story of how the children reach the United States is varied. Some, like Jeffrey, come as far as the border with their parents; others cross with friends or relatives who are not their legal guardians.

A third group, including children as young as two years old, make the perilous journey through some of Mexico’s most lawless, cartel-controlled territory in the care only of human smugglers.

CBP did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the cases detailed by the smugglers and Cruz. Reuters was not able to independently verify the events they described.

More than half the smugglers consulted said they had transported unaccompanied minors in recent weeks, moving them by bus, car, boat and even by plane, which one well-connected smuggler called his network’s “faster new method” to bring children up from Central America.

The trips cost thousands of dollars per child and are often financed by parents or relatives already in the United States.

Three smugglers told Reuters they have been encouraging parents to send their children alone as a result of the shift in U.S. policy.

“It’s good to take advantage of the moment, because children are able to pass quickly,” said Daniel, a Guatemalan smuggler. “That’s what we’re telling everyone.”

A White House spokesperson said last month that Biden’s approach was to deal with immigration “comprehensively, fairly and humanely” and not to expel unaccompanied children who arrive at U.S. borders.

A FAMILY BUSINESS

Many children that the U.S. government classifies as “unaccompanied” actually travel with other family members – cousins, uncles, or older siblings.

But some smugglers said their networks have also been organizing children-only trips in recent weeks.

Vazquez, a Mexican smuggler who said he specializes in unaccompanied children, said the youngest child he has transported in recent weeks was a 2-year-old toddler who traveled without any other family members. On his most recent trip, he transported a group of 17 children between the ages of 5 and 9 from southern Mexico across the border into Texas.

Of those 17 children, the majority of their parents were already living in the United States, and none of them were accompanied by other family members, he said.

After moving the children across Mexico by bus, he kept them in his own home near the U.S. border, where his wife and older daughter helped care for them until it was time for him to cross them into Texas and turn them over to U.S. border agents.

“It’s a family business,” he said.

Vazquez said the cartel that controls the territory along the border in his region mandates that he and other smugglers use the migrant children as a decoy for the cartel’s own drug smuggling operations.

Smugglers offer cheaper trips for families and unaccompanied children who plan to surrender themselves to U.S. border agents and ask for asylum, compared to those who seek to enter the United States undetected.

“We deliver children to immigration (agents) and immigration (agents) are responsible for delivering them to their family members in the United States,” said Daniel.

Guatemalans make up the largest group of unaccompanied minors, CBP data shows. A second smuggler in Guatemala said that pre-existing relationships between families and smugglers in small towns often make parents more willing to send their kids alone.

“They send their kids with someone they know, who has already transported other family members,” he said.

He estimated about 100 children were leaving the city of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, without their parents each week in March, which he said was well above ‘normal’ levels.

DIRECT BY PLANE

In 2019, smugglers sped up trips to the U.S. border by transporting unaccompanied minors from Central America on express buses.

But Roberto, a smuggler who said he is linked to a powerful cartel in Ciudad Juarez, said his network is now flying minors directly from Central America to the U.S. border by plane.

He was one of three smugglers who told Reuters they are moving children, including unaccompanied minors, on private or commercial flights between Guatemala and Mexico, or between Mexican cities.

Internal Mexican government assessments reviewed by Reuters also state that smugglers have been flying migrants directly to the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, or even into Houston, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona.

Mexican immigration agents detained 95 people, including eight unaccompanied minors, for traveling without proper documentation after they arrived on two domestic commercial flights into the northern city of Monterrey on Friday. The majority were Hondurans, while there were also a handful of people from El Salvador, Cuba and Guatemala, according to Mexican immigration authorities.

CBP, the Mexican foreign ministry, and Mexico’s immigration agency did not immediately respond to request for comment about smuggling via commercial flights.

Despite the growing demand, some smugglers told Reuters that they try to steer clear of transporting children.

“It’s a risk,” said a Salvadoran smuggler who goes by the nickname El Barrenga. “Maybe the child’s been stolen, for example. It’s safer if they’re with their parents.”

Even Vazquez, the smuggler who specializes in children, admitted that minors bring their own challenges.

“If an adult causes problems, you can ditch them, easily,” he said. “But you can’t abandon a child for having a temper tantrum.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in La Técnica, Guatemala, and Monterrey, Mexico; additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

Color-coded passage: Why smugglers are tagging U.S.-bound migrants with wristbands

y Adrees Latif, Laura Gottesdiener and Mica Rosenberg

PENITAS, Texas (Reuters) – Along the banks of the Rio Grande in the scrubby grassland near Penitas, Texas, hundreds of colored plastic wristbands ripped off by migrants litter the ground, signs of what U.S. border officials say is a growing trend among powerful drug cartels and smugglers to track people paying to cross illegally into the United States.

The plastic bands – red, blue, green, white – some labeled “arrivals” or “entries” in Spanish, are discarded after migrants cross the river on makeshift rafts, according to a Reuters witness. Their use has not been widely reported before.

Some migrants are trying to evade border agents, others are mostly Central American families or young children traveling without parents who turn themselves into officials, often to seek asylum.

Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector, which spans more than 34,000 square miles (88,000 square kilometers) along the border in southeast Texas, have recently encountered immigrants wearing the bracelets during several apprehensions, said Matthew Dyman a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The “information on the bracelets represents a multitude of data that is used by smuggling organizations, such as payment status or affiliation with smuggling groups,” Dyman told Reuters.

The differing smuggling techniques come as Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration has sought to reverse restrictive immigration polices set up by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. But a recent jump in border crossings has Republicans warning the easing of hardline policies will lead to an immigration crisis.

U.S. border agents carried out nearly 100,000 apprehensions or rapid expulsions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in February, according to two people familiar with preliminary figures, the highest monthly total since mid-2019.

PURPLE BRACELET

The categorization system illustrates the sophistication of organized criminal groups ferrying people across the U.S.-Mexico border, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center

“They run it like a business,” said Cardinal Brown, which means “finding more patrons and looking for efficiencies.” Migrants can pay thousands of dollars for the journey to the United States and human smugglers have to pay off drug cartels to move people through parts of Mexico.

“This is a money-making operation and they have to pay close attention to who has paid,” she said. “This may be a new way to keep track.”

Criminal groups operating in northern Mexico, however, have long used systems to log which migrants have already paid for the right to be in gang-controlled territory, as well as for the right to cross the border into the United States, migration experts said.

When increased numbers of Central Americans were arriving at the border on express buses in 2019, smugglers kept tabs on them by double checking “the names and IDs of migrants before they got off the bus to make sure they had paid,” Cardinal Brown said.

A migrant in Reynosa – one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico across the border from McAllen, Texas – who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation, showed Reuters a picture of a purple wristband he was wearing.

He said he paid $500 to one of the criminal groups in the city after he arrived a few months ago from Honduras to secure the purple bracelet to protect against kidnapping or extortion. He said once migrants or their smugglers have paid for the right to cross the river, which is also controlled by criminal groups, they receive another bracelet.

“This way we’re not in danger, neither us nor the ‘coyote,'” he said, using the Spanish word for smuggler.

One human smuggler who spoke on conditions of anonymity, confirmed the bracelets were a system to designate who has paid for the right to transit through cartel territory.

“They are putting these (bracelets) on so there aren’t killings by mistake,” he said.

Migrants and smugglers say the use of bracelets to designate who has paid for the right to cross the river is a system required by the cartels that control waterfront territory in the conflict-ridden state of Tamaulipas.

In January, a group of migrants were massacred in Tamaulipas state just 40 miles (70 km) west of Reynosa. Twelve local Mexican police have been arrested in connection with the massacre.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Texas and Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Mexico; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Ross Colvin and Lisa Shumaker)

Migrant smugglers see boost from U.S. pandemic border policy

By Laura Gottesdiener and Sarah Kinosian

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – These days, Martin Salgado’s migrant shelter in the city of San Luis Rio Colorado on Mexico’s border with the United States feels more like an hourly hotel. His guests, many of them from Central America, often don’t even bother to spend the night.

Salgado said he has never seen people cycle through as repeatedly as he has in recent months, after the United States began expelling almost all migrants caught on the Mexican border rather than returning them to their homelands. Now, human smugglers often attempt to get migrants back across the border the very same day they are deported, he said.

Previously, Central American migrants apprehended at the border would be processed in the U.S. immigration system and would often be held for weeks, if not months, before being deported back to their home country.

“We never saw this before,” said Salgado, who runs the shelter near Arizona’s western limits founded by his mother in the 1990’s. Some Central Americans who arrive at the shelter after being deported “eat, bathe, and suddenly they disappear.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in March announced that it would begin to quickly expel nearly all migrants caught at the border under the authority of an existing federal public health act, known as Title 42, saying the move was necessary to prevent coronavirus spreading into the United States.

But the order appears to be having unintended effects.

It’s led to an increase in repeated border crossing attempts, data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows. And it’s benefiting the illegal networks that move people from Central America to the United States, according to interviews with more than a dozen migration experts, shelter directors, immigrant advocates and human smugglers.

That is because U.S. authorities are depositing the migrants on the border, rather than returning them home, which allows smugglers to eliminate some of the costs of repeat border crossings, said three smugglers working with transnational networks. The price migrants pay smugglers, which can be $7,000, or double that, often includes two or three attempted border crossings to offset the risks of being intercepted by Mexican or U.S. authorities, according to the three smugglers, as well as migration experts.

Not all migrants travel with smugglers, but even those braving the dangerous journey alone or in small groups often turn to coyotes at the border for the final stretch of the journey. Since they too are now being returned at the Mexican border when caught they now often pay for a second or third try, in another boon for the smuggling networks, said migrant experts and a guide tied to a smuggling network in the Sonora region.

U.S. border officials say the program, which has resulted in migrants being returned in an average of less than two hours, is crucial for protecting U.S. agents, health care workers and the general public from COVID-19 by avoiding the potential spread of coronavirus if migrants were apprehended, processed, and then sent to U.S. detention centers, as per previous policy.

“It would take just a small number of individuals with COVID-19 to infect a large number of detainees and CBP personnel and potentially overwhelm local healthcare systems along the border,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a statement.

Joe Biden clinched the U.S. presidency following the Nov. 3 election, though Trump has not acknowledged defeat and has launched an array of lawsuits to press claims of election fraud for which he has produced no evidence. The president elect has not laid out specific plans about the Title 42 program. A senior advisor to the Biden campaign in August told Reuters that Biden would look to public health officials for guidance on pandemic-related border closures.

“MAKING MORE MONEY”

Seeking safe passage on the perilous trek north, migrants often pay thousands of dollars to smugglers – known as ‘coyotes’ – linked to gangs that control territory in Mexico.

The three men who identified themselves as smugglers from different transnational networks told Reuters they save about $1,000 or more each time U.S. Border Patrol expels one of their Central American clients at the Mexican border rather than returning them back by plane to their home countries.

“It’s great for us,” said Antonio, a Salvadoran smuggler who is part of a network that he said charges migrants $14,000 a head for three runs at getting from Central America to the United States.

Antonio, like the others involved in the smuggling trade that Reuters interviewed, declined to give his last name.

He said his network spends at least $800 per migrant paying off drug cartels for the right to transit through their turf, then there are additional costs such as food, shelter, transportation, and occasional bribes to Mexican authorities.

In the past, when Central American migrants were caught by U.S. Border Patrol and sent home, his network would have to pick up that tab again on migrants’ second or third attempts.

Mexico’s immigration agency in August vowed to “eradicate the collusion between public servants and human smugglers” as it ousted hundreds of officials for work-related offenses.

Pablo, a Guatemalan who ferries migrants across Guatemala’s border into Mexico, estimated that the network he works for saves at least $1,300 for every Central American who is returned at the U.S. border rather than sent back to their homeland.

“We’re making more money because we don’t have to pay the mafia again in Mexico,” he said. “So, there’s an advantage.”

REPEATED ATTEMPTS

Migration numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels, following steep declines this spring after Central American countries slammed their borders shut in an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said it conducted nearly 55,000 expulsions and apprehensions of migrants at the southwest border in September. That is more than triple the figure for April and is slightly higher than the 40,507 a year earlier, according to CBP data.

And, apprehensions and expulsions continued to climb in October, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the numbers.

Still, migration numbers for the 12-month period ended in September were down from the previous year. The Title 42 order does not change deportation policy for Mexicans, who made up about two thirds of people expelled by the United States during August and September, according to the CBP. Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans account for the next three largest groups.

Meanwhile, the number of repeated attempts has sharply increased, indicating that fewer people are migrating than last year but more of those who are trying to cross the border multiple times.

Between April and September, the proportion of people caught crossing the border more than once surged to 37%, up from 7% for the 12-month period ended in September 2019, according to the CBP.

The president of the Border Patrol union in Laredo Texas, border agent Hector Garza, said the Title 42 order was helping limit the exposure of the border workforce to COVID-19 and avoid overwhelming local hospitals in communities in Texas, which are already experiencing a surge of coronavirus cases.

“But with any benefit there is a downside, and in this case, we’re seeing people coming back and forth, trying to cross multiple times within a 24-hour period,” he told Reuters.

In the border city of Ciudad Juarez on Oct. 31, across from the Texas city of El Paso, Cuban Alexander Garcia stood by the port of entry to the United States. Garcia, who identified himself as a doctor, said he had just been deported after his sixth attempt at crossing the border without authorization.

“They’re returning us in less than three hours!” exclaimed García. “We cross, and they just grab us and push us back into Juarez.”

U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, during a news conference last month, said the pandemic had reduced the ability and willingness of authorities to prosecute because detaining people potentially involved additional risk of spreading COVID-19 in the United States.

“IT MOTIVATES YOU”

About 125 miles east of Salgado’s shelter, Jesus, a guide linked to a local smuggling network, and his Guatemalan girlfriend, Yolanda, have been biding their time in a chilly trailer serving as a migrant stash house along the Mexican border.

They said nearby clashes between rival gangs have delayed Yolanda’s departure across the Sonoran desert into the United States.

But Jesus said he’s heartened by the new U.S. policy – and so are the town’s smugglers that he’s worked for over the years.

“It’s better because if people get caught, they come right back,” he said. “So it’s like, we’re still in business.”

Yolanda was also encouraged when, upon reaching the border, she found out that if she was caught, she would only be sent to Mexico, rather than likely being deported back home.

“It motivates you,” she said, explaining that she left Guatemala after she was forced to close her clothing shop when pandemic restrictions crippled the economy.

She racked up debts, fell behind on her mortgage, and lost her home, she said, joining a small but growing number of Central Americans fleeing the economic crisis triggered by pandemic-related restrictions across the region.

While Title 42 has encouraged some people to risk the crossing after being turned back, some human rights organizations say it erodes migrants’ rights because they are being rapidly returned to Mexico before having an opportunity to explain why they fled their countries or to present a case for why they would qualify for asylum under U.S. law.

CBP said in a statement the agency “remains committed to our obligations to provide safe haven to those who claim persecution.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Sarah Kinosian in Caracas, and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez; Editing by Dave Graham, Frank Jack Daniel and Cassell Bryan-Low)

UK truck deaths cast spotlight on global trade in humans

UK truck deaths cast spotlight on global trade in humans
By K. Sophie Will

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The discovery of 39 bodies in a truck in London last week cast a spotlight on the global trade in human beings and sparked debate about Britain’s approach to tackling smugglers and traffickers.

A British court heard on Monday that a global crime ring had been involved in smuggling the dead – many of whom appear to have come from Vietnam – as the driver of the truck faced charges of manslaughter and human trafficking.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Saturday told authorities to establish whether Vietnamese citizens were among the dead, and to probe allegations of trafficking.

Unlike trafficking, which is control over a person for the purpose of exploitation, smuggling is merely illegal entry into another country – although the latter can turn into the former.

About 10% of the suspected 7,000 slavery victims found in Britain last year were Vietnamese. Most are trafficked for labour such as cannabis cultivation and work in nail salons.

Globally, more than 40 million people are estimated by the United Nations to be trapped in modern slavery as poverty, conflict and climate change fuel the $150-billion-a-year trade.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked six anti-slavery experts about how to prevent such deaths from happening again.

SARA THORNTON, BRITAIN’S INDEPENDENT ANTI-SLAVERY COMMISSIONER

“This is a shocking illustration of the cruel and complex issue that is human trafficking in Britain today.

“Whilst we do not yet know the full details of the journeys that these individuals made, this case bears all the hallmarks of human trafficking.

“As we rethink our migration policies, it is essential that the needs of vulnerable migrants are front and centre.

“We need to ensure that new migration policies are stress-tested to ensure that they do not provide opportunities for the traffickers to exploit very vulnerable people.”

MIMI VU, INDEPENDENT ANTI-TRAFFICKING EXPERT IN VIETNAM

“The government and businesses must look at what the root causes are, realising that people that are less educated are more likely to take these risks because they are poor.

“All the work on this has to be done before anyone leaves, as this all has to be done in-country.

“When you address the root causes, you will convince the Vietnamese that this is not worth the risk.

“They have to believe in very concrete meaningful ways that they have a future in Vietnam.

“But we are losing our people to trafficking and slavery.”

LUCILA GRANADA, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF FOCUS ON LABOUR EXPLOITATION

“We must, of course, investigate and punish those who profit from the desperation of people, but to effectively prevent this from happening again we must recognise the role of Britain in driving people into these dangerous routes.

“It is important to recognise that British immigration policies and border control approach have played a key part in restricting their options.

“With no available regular immigration pathways and the constant threat of detention and deportation in transit and upon arrival, those seeking survival in Britain become easy prey.

“This tragedy exposed one more time that prosecuting individual traffickers is not enough. We need to open safe routes of regular migration and end the hostile environment.”

JUSTINE CURRELL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF UNSEEN

“Whether people get into the back of a lorry through their own volition or from having been forced or coerced, the ultimate penalty is death.

“Even when trafficking and exploitation is not the primary factor of movement, those entering the country illegally and who lack status become increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to abuse and exploitation.

“Awareness-raising in communities and specific source countries to deter people from putting their lives at risk would help to highlight the pitfalls of taking this dangerous course of action.

“Increased targeted checks at the border may also help to root out such movement and any intervention subsequently made before another disaster occurs.”

PHILIPPA SOUTHWELL, LAWYER AT BIRDS SOLICITORS

“Solving this is not simple, but obviously it’s down to the manning of ports. I know it’s difficult to check each vehicle, and it really is impossible to do one-to-one checking on these vehicles, but we can improve the manning of particular ports.

“Particularly in Asia, people living in poverty are promised a better life and are coming to Britain to work and send money back to their families.

“We need to be looking to build better relationships with these countries, realising what the root problems are there and what can be done.”

NAZIR AFZAL, FORMER CHIEF PROSECUTOR IN NORTHERN ENGLAND

“Human trafficking is organised crime from which criminals benefit.

“Demand has to be reduced through deterrence, the closing down of businesses that engage trafficked people. Simultaneously, authorities need to follow the money and identify it, confiscate it, whilst punishing the offenders.

“Trafficked people need to be seen as victims first and last. They need to be supported to give their best evidence against the traffickers, not threatened with deportation.”

(Reporting by K. Sophie Will, Writing by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Postcards from a poisoned coast: Vietnam’s people-smuggling heartland

Postcards from a poisoned coast: Vietnam’s people-smuggling heartland
NGHE AN, Vietnam (Reuters) – The countryside in the Vietnamese provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh is dotted with billboards for labor export companies advertising jobs or study overseas.

Thousands of people respond to the lure of a better life abroad every year, but many take the underground route – via smugglers and sometimes dangerous journeys by sea and road.

That phenomenon is now in sharp focus after 39 bodies were discovered in a truck outside London last week.

Many are feared to be Vietnamese from Nghe An and Ha Tinh, rice-growing areas in the northern-central part of the country.

Poor job prospects, encouragement by authorities, smuggling gangs, environmental disaster and government pressure on Catholics are all local factors behind the wave of migrants.

“Almost everyone round here has a relative overseas,” said Bui Thac, whose nephew Bui Phan Thang is feared to be among the container dead.

“Almost all households have someone going abroad. Old people stay but young people must find ways to work abroad because it’s difficult to work at home”.

Impoverished rural communities in Nghe An and Ha Tinh have been plunged into despair amid fears that missing loved ones are among those who died in the tragedy.

LABOR “EXPORTS” A PRIORITY

For Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, the benefits of people legally moving abroad to work are clear.

The People’s Committee of Nghe An issued a report on boosting labor exports this September.

“Labor exports are a priority for the Party and the state’s socio-economic development program to promote job creation, poverty reduction, career development and income generation for the People,” the report on Decision No. 274/2009/NQ-HDND reads.

GDP per capita in both provinces is lower than the national average of $2,540. Last year, people in Nghe An and Ha Tinh earned a total of $1,636 and $2,217 respectively.

But remittances from overseas help. Nghe An alone brought in $255 million a year, according to state media.

“Labor exports are one solution to unemployment,” Nguyen Quang Phu, deputy chairman of Thanh Loc Commune, Can Loc district, told Reuters. “Remittances have helped to improve the lives of the people here”.

Despite economic advantages, the tragedy has exposed the limits of the Communist Party’s ability to govern how people are leaving.

Vibrant Catholic communities and people-trafficking gangs both pose headaches to the party, which rules from Hanoi some 300 km (180 miles) to the north.

A toxic spill that poisoned fishing grounds three years ago is a further incentive to go abroad.

GANGS

Among those who once set out from Nghe An to find work abroad was communist revolutionary and founding president, Ho Chi Minh.

Vietnam’s first billionaire, Pham Nhat Vuong, went to the former Soviet Union in the 1990s before returning to build his Vingroup <VIC.HM> conglomerate. His roots are in Ha Tinh.

“People from these provinces have a long history of going overseas to earn money to send back home, especially during the time of the labor export program to the former Soviet bloc countries,” said Mimi Vu, an independent anti-trafficking advocate based in Ho Chi Minh City.

“After decades of this, the people believe that it’s the only way to be successful and support the family with remittances,” Vu said.

Though impossible to quantify, local residents and people-trafficking experts believe many people leave with the help of smuggling gangs in Vietnam, who charge families thousands of dollars to get a relative overseas.

People-smuggling to Britain has persisted for a long time, and London’s National Crime Agency has posted a liaison officer to the British Embassy in Hanoi who helps combat the problem with Vietnamese police, along with handling other issues.

In an opinion piece published last month, Britain’s Ambassador to Vietnam, Gareth Ward, warned of the dangers of believing promises made by the gangs.

“They are not friends. They are criminals.”

POISONED WATERS

Opportunities for local employment have been hampered by environmental disaster.

Sandwiched between thin sandy beaches and herds of buffalo wallowing in rice paddies, the smoking chimneys of the Formosa Steel plant dominate this small corner of Ha Tinh province.

The steel mill, owned by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics, was blamed by Hanoi in 2016 for causing one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters when a chemical leak poisoned coastal waters, unleashing widespread protests and damaging livelihoods.

“We decided to let my husband work abroad in 2016 when the Formosa incident happened,” said Anna Nguyen, whose husband left Vietnam and traveled illegally to Ukraine, France and then the UK to find work in a nail salon.

“We were afraid that the contamination would harm our health and future so we took the risk. But now our life is so hard,” she said.

Ha Tinh’s state-run newspaper said last month that over 40,000 people leave the province annually for work elsewhere, including overseas.

THE PRIEST

Like Anna Nguyen, many of those feared to have died in the container incident had Catholic names.

Northern-central Vietnam is dotted with clusters of small, Catholic communities, a hangover from France’s conquest. Nghe An is home to 280,000 Catholics, according to state media and 149,000 live in Ha Tinh.

At a special ceremony held in the white-walled My Khanh Catholic church in Yen Thanh, Nghe An province, on Saturday night, father Anthony Dang Huu Nam blamed pollution, social difficulties and natural disasters such as floods and drought for the region’s most recent migrant exodus.

Nam’s outspoken sermons and criticism of Vietnam’s government have earned both him and his church extra attention from the police, another factor encouraging some people to look for a new life elsewhere.

“Why do so many Vietnamese people have to pay lots of money just to be dead?,” Nam said during the ceremony.

“Why is it that, even though Vietnam is not at war anymore, so many people are forced to leave for another land?”

(Writing by James Pearson; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Mike Collett-White)

Determined to reach Europe, migrants defy Moroccan crackdown

African migrants stand in a hiding place in the mountains near Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Ahmed Eljechtimi and Ulf Laessing

TANGIER, Morocco (Reuters) – Senegalese migrant Ismail, 26, is back in the forests around the northern Moroccan port of Tangier, not long after being stopped there by authorities and bussed 872 kilometers south in an attempt to stop him reaching Europe.

But his desire to get to Spain is unrelenting, and so the cat-and-mouse game with authorities continues.

Last year Morocco became the main departure point for migrants to Europe, overtaking Libya where the coast guard has prevented more departures with help from the European Union.

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Morocco is only 14 kilometers south of the Spanish coast and shares land borders with the small Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on its northern coast, which are surrounded by a 6 meter-high fence topped with razor wire.

Under a new crackdown this year, authorities are sending undocumented migrants they pick up to southern towns, far from the land and sea borders with Spain. They are also clearing migrant camps in the forests and halting the sale of dinghies and inflatables.

According to official figures as of May, the country had stopped 30,000 people from illegally crossing to Spain this year and busted 60 migrant trafficking networks.

Authorities say the clampdown on traffickers, in particular, saw migrant arrivals from Morocco to Spain drop in the first six months of 2019 to 12,053 from 26,890 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Morocco is also about to complete a new 3 meter-high fence within its own territory around Ceuta to deter crossings, according to residents near the enclave.

“Authorities conduct surprise raids to comb the forests looking for us, therefore we have to sleep in a spot where we can anticipate their arrival and run before they catch us and send us south again,” said Ismail.

He and other migrants live from begging and wait for their chance to jump the fence surrounding Ceuta.

&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;”We do not have 3000 euros ($3,360) to pay smugglers for a sea crossing to Spain,” Ismail added.

He made his way back north hiding even deeper in the forests and avoiding walking in the streets by daylight.

“Our brothers who crossed to Spain are now having a good life,” said Ibrahim from Guinea Conackry, showing scars on his hand from a failed attempt to jump the fence last year.

The displacement campaign has drawn criticism from rights groups such as ASCOMS, a coalition of 27 Sub-Saharan civil society NGOs.

Authorities say they take migrants south to protect them from smugglers and prevent migrants from storming the borders with Ceuta and Melilla.

STAYING PUT

As crossing to Europe becomes ever harder, many Africans are now deciding to stay in Morocco and seek work, benefiting from a legalization policy launched by Morocco in 2013.

Over 50,000 migrants, 75% of whom are from Sub-Saharan Africa, obtained residency cards since 2013, according to official figures.

After five years in Morocco, Sonya, 35, from Cameroon, gave up on the idea of reaching Europe. She now sees in Morocco home for her and her daughter Salma, who attends a local school.

Sonya is taking a training course with a local NGO, hoping to boost her chances of finding work. But work is not easy to find in an economy where informal labor abounds and the unemployment rate stands at 10%, with one in four young people jobless.

Ahmed Skim from Morocco’s migration ministry said state agencies could help migrants find work, and some 400 were employed in the private sector. Moroccan schools received 5,545 children of migrants in 2018, while Moroccan hospitals treated 23,000 migrants.

Most migrants work in the informal sector doing low-paid jobs shunned by Moroccans, however.

The President of Tangier region, Ilyas El Omari, urged the EU to help Morocco and his region integrate migrants through training programs and investment to create jobs and avoid tension between locals and migrants.

The EU promised last year to give 140 million euros in border management aid to Morocco.

For Ismail, only Spain will do, however.

“I want to go to Europe for better living standards and better jobs. Salaries are not that good here,” he said.

“We are exhausted, but we will continue trying to get to Spain.”

($1 = 0.8923 euros)

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Special Report: They fled Venezuela crisis by boat – then vanished

Carolina Gil shows a picture of her daughter Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman who, along with her children, her husband's sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler's boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, at her home in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Angus Berwick

GUIRIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – A taxi dropped Maroly Bastardo and her two small children by a cemetery not far from the shore in northeast Venezuela. She still had time to change her mind.

A view of a maternity room of Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH "BASTARDO VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A view of a maternity room of Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH “BASTARDO VENEZUELA” FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH “WIDER IMAGE” FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Eight months pregnant, Bastardo faced forbidding choices in a nation whose economy has collapsed. Give birth in Venezuela, where newborns are dying at alarming rates in shortage-plagued maternity wards. Or board a crowded smuggler’s boat bound for Trinidad, the largest of two islands that make up the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her husband, Kennier Berra, had landed there in February, found work and beckoned her to join him.

Bastardo’s mother, Carolina, begged her to stay.

Neither Bastardo or her children could swim. Barely three weeks earlier, 27 people had gone missing after a migrant boat went down in the narrow stretch of water separating Venezuela from Trinidad. The 20-kilometer strait, known for its treacherous currents, is nicknamed the Dragon’s Mouths.

But the 19-year old hairdresser was determined. On May 16, she and the kids packed into an aging fishing vessel along with 31 other people, including three relatives of her husband. They snapped cellphone photos from the shore near the port town of Guiria, where thousands of Venezuelans have departed in recent years and messaged loved ones goodbye.

The craft, the Ana Maria, never arrived. No migrants or wreckage have been found.

A man believed to be the boat’s pilot, a 25-year-old Venezuelan named Alberto Abreu, was plucked from the sea on May 17 by a fisherman and taken to nearby Grenada. Abreu told his rescuer the Ana Maria had sunk the night before. He fled before police could complete their investigation, Grenadian authorities said, and hasn’t been spotted since.

Bastardo’s anguished mother, Carolina, clings to hope that perhaps a lesser tragedy has befallen her daughter and grandchildren. She prays smugglers are holding them hostage to extract more money, and that any day now she will get the ransom call.

A local resident points on a map at an area nicknamed the Dragon's Mouths, where Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman, along with her children, her husband's sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler's boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, in Guiria, Venezuela, May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH "BASTARDO VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

A local resident points on a map at an area nicknamed the Dragon’s Mouths, where Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman, along with her children, her husband’s sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler’s boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, in Guiria, Venezuela, May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH “BASTARDO VENEZUELA” FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH “WIDER IMAGE” FOR ALL STORIES.

“My heart tells me they are alive,” Carolina said. “But it’s a torture.”

The disappearance of Bastardo, five relatives and her unborn child underscores the ever-more perilous lengths Venezuelans are taking to escape a nation in freefall.

Years of economic mismanagement by the socialist government have crippled the oil-rich nation with hyperinflation, shortages and misery. An estimated 4 million people – about 12% of the populace – have fled the South American country in just the last five years.

The vast majority have traveled overland to neighboring Colombia and Brazil. But in images reminiscent of desperate Cubans fleeing their homeland in decades past, Venezuelans increasingly are taking to the sea in rickety boats.

Prime destinations are the nearby islands of Aruba, Curacao, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. Formerly welcoming of Venezuelans, who once brought tourist dollars, all have clamped down hard on these mostly impoverished migrants. Their governments have tightened visa requirements, increased deportations and beefed up coast-guard patrols to intercept smugglers’ vessels.

Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of more than 1.3 million people and among the highest incomes in the region, has been a particular magnet.

Since 2016, almost 25,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Trinidad, according to government figures, many without documentation. The United Nations last year estimated 40,000 Venezuelans were living in Trinidad, straining the government’s ability to assist them.

Traffickers have been known to abandon their human cargo in rough waters and force female and child passengers into prostitution. A shortage of spare parts in Venezuela means boats often take to sea in disrepair. Most migrants leave Guiria in open, low-slung wooden vessels with patched hulls and jury-rigged outboard motors. Smugglers often stuff these boats well beyond their 10-person capacity, locals familiar with the trade told Reuters.

But for Maroly Bastardo, the grinding hardships of life in Venezuela loomed as the greater danger. She was feeling exhausted and increasingly anxious about her health and that of the baby in the event of a difficult labor.

“Things are too rough here girl,” Bastardo texted an aunt in the days leading up to her departure from Venezuela. “I can’t give myself the luxury of staying here all beat down.”

Reuters reconstructed Bastardo’s ill-fated journey in interviews with her family members, friends and the relatives of others missing from the Ana Maria, along with authorities and people involved in the human smuggling trade.

(For a related photo essay, see: https://reut.rs/31w6P17)

A FAMILY’S DESCENT

Bastardo grew up in El Tigre, an interior boomtown in Venezuela’s famed Orinoco Oil Belt, the source of much of the nation’s oil wealth.

Carolina, Bastardo’s mother, worked in the kitchen of a fancy hotel that catered to visiting oil executives. Bastardo attended private school and talked of becoming a doctor. She and her little sister, Aranza, sang songs in the bedroom they shared.

The good times faded with mismanagement of state-run oil company PDVSA by late President Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro. With government loyalists at the helm of the company, oil revenue-funded social programs while basic maintenance and investment tumbled. Skilled petroleum professionals fled for opportunities abroad. Despite possessing some of the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has seen oil production slump by about 75% since the turn of the century, when it was producing 3 million barrels a day.

The fallout hit El Tigre hard. The swanky hotel closed its doors and Carolina lost her job. Bastardo quit school at age 16 to earn a few dollars a week cutting hair. She and Berra, a construction worker, had two children, Dylan and Victoria.

With another baby on the way – a little boy they planned to name Isaac Jesus – Berra left in February for Trinidad. He found a job frying chicken and laid plans for his family to follow. Bastardo would require a Cesarean section, her third. The prospect of giving birth in the local hospital terrified her, her mother said.

Venezuela’s national healthcare system, once considered a model for Latin America, is now plagued by shortages of imported drugs, equipment and even basics like rubber gloves. Thousands of doctors and nurses, their salaries ravaged by inflation, no longer show up for work.

At the Luis Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, signs at the maternity ward inform women in need of Cesareans to bring their own antibiotics, needles, surgical sutures and IV drip. Even electricity isn’t a given. Doctors there said the power fails almost daily, forcing them to rely on backup generators.

Infant mortality rose sharply, to 21.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2016 from 15 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008, reversing nearly two decades of progress, according to a study published in January in The Lancet medical journal. Mothers, too, are dying at higher rates during childbirth, the study said. Some 11,466 babies died before their first birthday in 2016, up 30% from the year before, according to the most recent figures from Venezuela’s Health Ministry.

“Any woman who gives birth in a Venezuelan hospital is running a risk,” said Yindri Marcano, director of the El Tigre hospital.

Trinidad would almost certainly have better medical care, Bastardo and Berra reckoned. An extra incentive: a child born there would be a citizen and could make it easier for them to obtain legal residency someday. Family members would accompany Bastardo to watch out for her and the little ones, 3-year-old Dylan and Victoria, 2.

On April 2, Bastardo, the children, and her sister-in-law Katerin traveled 500 kilometers by taxi to the port of Guiria. Located on Venezuela’s remote and lawless Paria Peninsula, the city is known as a hub of migrant tracking and drug running.

There they joined Berra’s father, Luis, and his Uncle Antonio, who would also make the trip. The six settled into a rundown hotel above a Chinese restaurant to make final preparations. They hung out with a friend of Luis’s, Raymond Acosta, a 37-year-old local mechanic.

Luis took charge of securing their places in a smuggler’s boat. A construction worker, he and his wife had already emigrated to Trinidad and had helped other relatives make the journey in recent years.

Acosta said Luis had negotiated a price of $1,000 for all six members of the party: $400 payable up front, with the balance due in Trinidad, U.S. dollars only.

But as the departure approached, the smuggler jacked up the price. They would need an extra $500 cash up front. Rather than back out, Luis had his wife in Trinidad drain their savings, and he arranged for a contact there to transport the cash to Guiria.

Another setback followed on April 23: A migrant boat heading for Trinidad with 37 passengers overturned in the Dragon’s Mouths. Rescuers found nine survivors and a corpse; the rest remain missing, according to Venezuela’s Civil Protection and Disaster Management Authority.

Smugglers hunkered down for a few weeks, according to people involved in the boat trade in Guiria. The family’s crossing was delayed.

News of the accident unnerved Bastardo’s mother in El Tigre. The night before the scheduled departure, Carolina begged her daughter to reconsider.

Bastardo replied via text: “Mothers have to do what they can to help their children….Don’t worry. Better times are coming.”

PHOTOS, TEXTS, THEN SILENCE

On Thursday, May 16, Acosta took the six voyagers to a taxi stand, where they said their goodbyes around 3 p.m. They were headed to the small fishing village of La Salina, 4 kilometers from Guiria, to meet their boat, and were relieved to be finally getting underway, Acosta said.

He said he felt uneasy that none of the family took a life jacket in case the smugglers didn’t have enough to go around. He also fretted about the possibility of an overloaded boat.

“People are now more desperate,” Acosta said. “I always told Luis that they shouldn’t go if there were too many passengers on board.”

Before they boarded, Bastardo snapped a cellphone photo of Katerin, Dylan and Victoria with their backs to the camera, staring out to sea. She sent it to her family.

The plan was to arrive at the Trinidadian port of Chaguaramas under cover of darkness. The 70-kilometer journey from Guiria typically takes about four hours, putting them in port around 8:30 p.m. at the latest. Luis wanted his son there early.

“At 6.30 in Chaguaramas, be waiting,” he texted Berra at 4:37 p.m. as their voyage got underway.

Those who know the route say pilots headed for Chaguaramas carrying migrants typically navigate along the coastline until reaching the eastern tip of the Paria Peninsula around nightfall. At that point, the lights of Trinidad&rsquo;s towns are visible as they prepare to enter the final 20-kilometer stretch, the Dragon’s Mouths.

(For a graphic on the sea route, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2X9VqVn)

Evening turned to night. The Ana Maria didn’t show. Berra said he paced anxiously until police arrived at midnight on the Chaguaramas dock and told him to leave. He said he returned early Friday morning and waited all day and deep into the second night. Still nothing. He repeated the vigil on Saturday.

“After the first sinking, Maroly was afraid, but she still wanted to be here with us,” Berra said in a phone interview from Trinidad.

Back in El Tigre, Bastardo’s family was growing uneasy. She and the others were not returning text messages.

On Friday, they heard instead from someone identifying himself only as Ramon. Locals in Guiria said Ramon had helped arrange for their relatives to cross by boat to Trinidad without documents, including on the Ana Maria. The vessel had engine trouble, Ramon wrote, but would soon be on its way.

“We are going to change the motors and continue,” Ramon said in text messages viewed by Reuters.

In a telephone interview, Ramon said he works for an operation that takes people to Trinidad legally, with a limit of 10 passengers per vessel. He said he was simply passing along information given to him by an unidentified smuggler to ease the family&rsquo;s fears. He declined to give his surname and denied he was involved in any illicit activity.

By Saturday, May 18, reports of the Ana Maria’s disappearance had surfaced in the news and social media.

In an early morning Facebook post, Robert Richards, an American fisherman, said he had found a “young man” on Friday afternoon, floating 50 kilometers offshore of Trinidad, “fighting for his life.” Photos accompanying the post showed a figure in a life jacket bobbing near a piece of floating debris. Richards said the man had “been in the water for 19 hours…on a boat that sunk the night before with 20 other people on board, so far no other survivors.”

Richards, whose Facebook page says he resides in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has not responded to calls and text messages seeking comment.

Abreu was identified as the man in the photos by relatives of people on the Ana Maria who saw the Facebook post. Venezuela’s Civil Protection agency confirmed he had been rescued.

In a May 24 statement, police in Grenada said a man “in need of urgent medical attention” was rescued May 17 by a vessel in waters between Trinidad and Grenada and brought to Grenada for treatment. They said the man, a Venezuelan national, left the hospital without “authorization.” His whereabouts remain unknown.

Venezuelan authorities barely searched for the Ana Maria. The Civil Protection authority, in charge of maritime rescue, had no boats to send. Its half-dozen-or-so vessels are all in disrepair or missing parts, said Luisa Marin, an agency official in Guiria. The Venezuelan military sent out a boat from Guiria on Saturday, May 18, two days after the Ana Maria vanished, but the craft malfunctioned after 20 minutes and had to return to harbor, Marin and other locals said.

Trinidad’s coast guard conducted its own search in Trinidadian waters, but spotted no signs of the Ana Maria or its passengers, National Security Minister Stuart Young said publicly on May 21.

HOPING AGAINST HOPE

With no wreckage or bodies found, some relatives of the missing say they believe the migrants were kidnapped by criminal gangs.&nbsp;But Trinidadian authorities have not presented any evidence that this happened. The National Security Ministry declined to comment.

Bastardo’s mother, Carolina, 38, says she no longer sleeps. She scours the news and social media for any shred of information. Every time she reads that Trinidadian authorities have apprehended yet another group of undocumented Venezuelan migrants, she wonders if her Maroly might be among them.

“It just causes me more agony: Is it her? Is it not her?” Carolina said from her porch in El Tigre, staring into the distance.

Bastardo’s nine-year-old sibling, Aranza, says she believes her big sister is still alive. The child’s birthday is coming up June 30. She tells her mom the only present she wants is to have Bastardo and the others back.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick in Venezuela; Additional reporting by Linda Hutchinson-Jafar in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz;&nbsp;Editing by Marla Dickerson)