Adding to the indigenous community’s precarious living conditions is the tragic fact that the territory they have settled in, along Venezuela’s Atlantic Ocean, is a drug trafficking route.
Big traffickers take advantage of the ingenuousness and honesty of many locals to use them as police decoys, while authorities fail to stop large shipments from passing through. In one year, 50 indigenous people have been prosecuted for crimes related to narcotics and fuel trafficking. This is the story of a way of life.
It’s a common scene along the waterways of the Orinoco Delta: a Warao youth navigating a canoe, sweating not only because of the physical strain, but because of nerves. At first glance, the boat is full of “Chinese ocume,” a common tuber in local cuisine. But beneath the layer of vegetables is a load of cocaine. The Venezuelan National Guard knows this, because they have seen these canoes come and go numerous times with an apparent shipment of vegetables — even though it would have taken a cultivation half the size of the forest to fill the canoe.
This article originally appeared in Armando Investiga and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
Rafael Antonio Marín Yánez, a small 42-year-old man with a coppery complexion, known for being an excellent motorcyclist, is one of the protagonists of the deed. On February 24, 2015, he was on the riverbank with his 34-year-old cousin, Luis Enrique Yánez Cabello, in an area called Sagarai, of the Manamo river, near a metal dugout canoe filled with hidden marijuana. Both were arrested after they appeared nervous when intercepted by a military patrol. They were concealing 92 kilos of drugs, divided into packages.
The cousins were taken to court, and required someone to translate from Spanish into their mother tongue so they could follow the proceedings. On July 23, 2015, they were sentenced to 10 years in prison for aggravated narcotics trafficking. This decision was appealed on September 21, 2015. The July sentence was annulled, and a new trial was ordered.
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The two men are being detained in the Guasina police base in Tucupita. The name is a throwback to a sinister civilian prison established on an island in this area. There, political prisoners were tortured during the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, as is depicted in Carlos Oteyza’s documentary “Tiempos de Dictadura” (Era of Dictatorship). Prison is nearly inevitable in a region whose problems are not a priority for the state, which has no way of offering locals a decent job. A few members of the community have dodged this fate. It’s one more case that won’t swell drug seizure statistics, but will help shape public opinion of the region. The Warao people are being used as decoys to disguise the passage of larger drug loads passing through the waterways that flow into the Atlantic Ocean.
Within Warao society, one of the first signs of moving up the social ladder is being able to buy a motorboat. Photo c/o Alba Perdomo.
The Guasina police base — which was eventually turned into an improvised jail — is not too different from other prisons in the country. Meant for short-term detentions, Guasina has its own leader — known as a “pran,” in prison slang. Indigenous people are confined to one of the six blocks of the facility.
Amador Medina, the editor of online news portal TaneTanae (which means “that’s how it happened” in Warao), knows the place well. He says that the inmates who live in the worst conditions are those who can’t pay a weekly 2,500 Venezuelan bolívars to “the cause” — a contribution to maintaining the prison, collected by the criminal gang that rules the place. As an alternate form of payment, the indigenous prisoners work as messengers, carry water, or wash their fellow inmates’ clothes.
“Food is another headache,” Medina says. “Families have to bring food to the prisoner and these are often left hungry.” He says that there are 33 Warao inmates — the majority sentenced for contraband and other crimes such as homicide.
According to the presiding judge of Delta Amacuro, Norisol Moreno, the Guasina prison is a particularly rough place for indigenous inmates. They have a diet based on fish, vegetables, and a type of wheat pancake called a “domplina.” The prison does not issue such food and the indigenous population cannot tolerate the meals provided. The dormitories are not suitable either. The Law for Indigenous Communities states that indigenous communities must be based far from the general population; but in this case they are under the direct influence of the “creoles” (people of European descent). The geographical distance of family members, the prevailing poverty, and their helplessness in the face of state powers at the Guasina police base, mean that indigenous inmates endure more suffering than most.
Father Zacarias Kariuki — a representative of the Catholic Indigenous community — has a friendly, unhurried voice as he weighs in on the drama. At times, he explains, the Waraos do not understand the reason for which they are being detained and suffer from severe depression. Until very recently, the clergyman took it upon himself to bring inmates food, but the economic crisis meant that his assistance dwindled and slowly disappeared.
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“Many indigenous people are detained just because they are car or motorboat drivers,” he said. “Others are lacking food because they come from the Delta region and have no nearby relatives. They leave prison more involved in crime than before, because in jail they learn bad habits to survive. They have to ally themselves with the pran, many can’t pay the daily fee and some have to carry out sexual favors. It’s like a school of crime.”
“There’s a lack of courses explaining to my brothers what criminal acts are, so they can avoid committing errors,” says court translator Carlitos Díaz, whose small, round, dark eyes reveal his Warao origins. He is very aware of the responsibility bestowed upon him, because in the courts and Prosecutor General’s Office, he speaks for the accused and translates the accusations. Díaz, a very frugal man despite his profession, points out that many indigenous people break the law due to ignorance, and are taken advantage of when they are used as contraband mules. He believes that investigations should be directed at the source of the contraband, rather than shooting the messenger.
Alexis Valenzuela, a leader of Arawaco origins and a member of the Latin American Parliament, thinks the Waraos lack the legal education needed to understand judicial benefits. That’s why he’s suggested planning a series of lectures in their language, which would be promoted by indigenous people themselves to help prevent them from becoming involved in crime. The length of their prison sentence is often shorter than the amount of time they spend behind bars awaiting their sentence, he adds.
“The Warao people cannot tell a lie,” he said. “They are conditioned by their culture to tell the truth. The guard asks: ‘are you carrying anything there?’ And they tell the truth.”
From fisherman to trafficker
The temptation of an affluent lifestyle, including better boats, food, drink and technology, pushes the Waraos into organized crime. In 2015, around 50 indigenous people were arrested for drug-related crimes in Delta Amacuro, according to statistics from local judicial sources.
Data from the Criminal Circuit court indicates that 23 of these were being prosecuted for contraband. Tempted by fast money, the Warao people have abandoned their traditional economic activities: extracting palm hearts, fishing for river crabs, weaving palm fibers and processing coconut and its derivatives.
The Warao people have transported up to 700 kilograms of cocaine on their boats, as stated in a judicial file consulted for this report. But they have also been captured with marijuana and crack (the cocaine residue which, once processed, is much more addictive), explained a police source who requested anonymity.
The Orinoco Delta has around 2,555 navigable waterways, a tangled labyrinth of streams surrounded by thick rainforest. These geographical conditions facilitate the movement of drugs, weapons and gasoline along the river, to then be discreetly shipped towards Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and other Caribbean destinations through the intricate web of water channels that only the Warao people are able to navigate along.
Within the Warao social class structure, the first sign of prosperity is buying a motorboat and leaving behind the wooden canoe and paddle. Also much-desired are power generators, in order to light up the dark nights along the river without the use of diesel fuel. Many Warao share the same dream: to earn 5 million bolívars so they can buy a second-hand 75 horsepower outboard engine at the local market.
It is not for nothing that the Warao are called People of the Water. The life of the entire community takes place along the banks of the river. From when they are children, the Warao go fishing with their parents, and a frequent wedding gift from a groom to his wife is a canoe built specially to steer her towards her plot of land. On the way home, the men know by the color and the scent of the river where the best fish are.
Delta Amacuro is comprised of four municipalities. Two of them — Antonio Díaz and Pedernales — are river communities. The others are Casacoima, with its vast waters and tracts of land, and Tucupita, where the capital is located. Controlling this decentralized network of communities requires significant political will. The jurisdiction of Antonio Díaz, which is the biggest and is known as Lower Delta for sitting at the mouth of the river, is located along the route towards Guyana. The economy of this territory has essentially become dollarized, as it has become the beating heart of the contraband trade. Alexis Valenzuela notes that almost the entire indigenous community is used to living off smuggling. “We don’t have any borders to cross,” he says with a half-smile on his dark face.
Meanwhile, Pedernales is located on the channel that connects to the Gulf of Paria, which opens its doors to the islands’ black market. “There are not enough soldiers, ships, or resources to be able to monitor all of the channels,” says one security official who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals. “When we go to one, they leave in the opposite direction.”
The Waraos’ intimate understanding of the terrain is taken advantage of by criminal grounds, who see the indigenous as experts in navigating the bends of the river and the jungle. Depending on the size and the distance of the channel, the Warao use boats of differing materials and sizes to move contraband: dugout canoes, “balajus,” canoes, boats, and ships modified to contain a double-bottomed floor in which to hide merchandise. They often cover the contraband with fish, plants, crabs or artisanal goods in the hope of not being detected by the river police force.
Something similar happened to fishermen Gabriel González Arzolay and José Meza, neighbors in the La Lagunita de Mariusa neighborhood who left town in a small boat at dawn on September 8, 2012. That morning they were intercepted by a National Guard boat. In addition to the 1,120 liters of gasoline hidden in the boat, the National Guard found 35 grams of marijuana in the jacket González was wearing. Both were accused of drug trafficking and fuel smuggling.
During his ensuing trial, González said: “I am going to admit to the crimes because the drugs were mine and I ask that you give me the appropriate punishment. That is all.” For pleading guilty he received a reduced sentence — three years in prison — while Meza was freed of all charges, according to court records.
Submarines and Other Inventions
The width of the Orinoco resembles a deep sea, and perhaps that’s why the smuggling methods are so varied. One of the most striking examples of sophisticated drug trafficking was the seizure of a submarine-like ship in the Delta region some time ago.
On December 10, 2009, authorities found a workshop where fiber glass “semi-submersibles” were being constructed in the municipality of Pedernales. Officials from Venezuela’s investigative police force (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC) said the models were similar to those used by Colombian cartels to transport drugs in the Pacific Ocean. When the workshop was discovered, it contained a semi-submersible whose construction had almost been completed, called the “Doll IV.” The name suggested to authorities that at least three other of these boats could have already been built by the same criminal group. This was the first discovery of its kind in Venezuela.
Ángel Custodio Vegas Gerdez and Orlando Jesús Idrogo caught the attention of the authorities, thanks to the large quantity of fiber glass, wood, and resin they were carrying in their boat. When they were arrested, they were carrying 10 barrels of resin and had already crossed the river twice. Vegas was also armed.
At the time it was believed that guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), cornered by the effects of the US aid package Plan Colombia, were behind the trafficking of the materials that were needed to build the submarine.
“The Eastern Bloc of the FARC controls 80 percent of drug operations in the Delta Amacuro,” said Armando Johan Obdola at the time, a former regional representative of the National Commission Against the Use of Illicit Drugs (Comisión Nacional Contra el Uso Ilícito de las Drogas – Conacuid). “The official silence at the time of the discovery was part of the cover-up.”
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Subsequently, Obdola sought refuge in Canada after denouncing drug trafficking activity in the Delta Amacuro. He told journalist Javier Ignacio Mayorca of El Nacional that since 2000 there had been a growing presence of Colombian armed groups, “which received — and continue to receive — protection from the police and military.”
Perhaps that is why fear is practically omnipresent in the Delta region. Only a few voices, like that of Ramón Ramírez, a community activist in the Delta, break the silence. Ramírez affirms that there is a lot of suspicious activity surrounding the seizures and the incarceration of the Waraos.
“They use the Maraisa as transporters,” Ramirez says, using a traditional term to refer to the Waraos. “The ideal would be investigating where the shipments of contraband are coming from. The traffickers tell the Maraisa to plead guilty so that they can get a reduced sentence. The investigation dies there. The trafficker gets rich and remains free, while the indigenous people are left in prison.”
The Judicial Dilemma
Located on the banks of the famous Paseo Manamo, which acts as a central meeting point in Tucupita, the head judge of the state of Amacuro Delta, Norisol Moreno, adds legal arguments to the cultural ones to explain why the Waraos are prone to falling into the drug traffickers’ web. “The judges, when making a decision about a case, in many cases don’t order preventative detention of the Waraos, because they are supposed to be handed over to a special indigenous jurisdiction” established in December 2005, she explains.
The state recognizes the rights of indigenous communities to apply judicial action to members within its own territory by the legitimate authorities. The decisions that are made are legally known as “res judicata,” as long as these conclusions are not incompatible with the rights established by the Constitution and the international treaties ratified by the national government.
Venezuela’s legislation establishes that the judges must consider the socio-economic and cultural conditions of indigenous people before issuing a sentence, and must search for alternatives to incarceration so that they can be reintegrated into their community.
But in Venezuela, this legislation still hasn’t been implemented. The dilemma of incarcerating indigenous persons or placing them under a special jurisdiction that takes into account their culture and heritage creates a legal loophole that drug traffickers use to their advantage. The Waraos are used as mules because they are frequently set free with relative ease.
This dilemma is compounded by the structural weaknesses of the Venezuelan justice system. Under the judicial process set forth by authorities, an anthropologist must determine if the indigenous person has roots in the community or if they know their traditions. Many foreigners involved in contraband and drug trafficking cheat the justice system by passing themselves off as Venezuelan nationals in order to receive these benefits.
A porous and unsupervised border, a forgotten region populated by a vulnerable indigenous group. The perfect recipe for all types of crimes and injustices to prosper.
*This article originally appeared in Armando Investiga and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.