While piracy is an age-old phenomenon in the Caribbean Sea, Venezuela’s catastrophic social and economic situation has recently given it new momentum. Once Latin America’s wealthiest nation, Venezuela is encountering a humanitarian crisis caused by hyperinflation and political oppression. As the country enters its final $10 billion in foreign reserves, a combination of food and medicine shortages, substantial wage decreases and soaring unemployment has fuelled criminal activity. Today, in Venezuela’s northern coastal areas, piracy and smuggling are prospering as desperate Venezuelans go to extreme lengths to survive. As the criminal sector thrives in the waters, regional instability and conflict are becoming a growing concern across Latin America and the Caribbean.  

From prosperity to decline

The magnitude of Venezuela’s economic meltdown is significant. While political turmoil reigns, some of its most valuable assets, such as its fishing and oil industries, have become key targets for pirates and smugglers.

The state of Sucre is a prime example of how Venezuela’s economic crisis has become entangled with piracy. Sucre was once a prosperous fishing hotspot carrying the world’s fourth largest tuna fleet. But since the economic crisis and lack of investment from overseas, tuna catch has diminished to a third of the 120,000 tons produced in 2004. Fishermen have now been forced to find other means of surviving, including using their boats for illegal purposes.

Jobless fishermen prey on their former colleagues in the sea and seize their catch and motors, with dozens of incidences ending fatally. But these activities do not stop there. In the words of Jose Antonio Garcia, the leader of the state’s largest union, “People can’t make a living fishing anymore, so they’re using their boats for the options that remain: smuggling gas, running drugs and piracy”. A recent report by El Estimulo supports Garcia’s claims with local estimates that 80% of Sucre’s San Juan de las Galdonas inhabitants are engaged in drug smuggling. As the local economy struggles to survive, inhabitants can no longer rely on it as they face their own survival battle.

Packed with symbolism, Sucre is one of Venezuela’s poorest states and was a stronghold for the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. Home to the infamous 2016 food riots which resulted in the arrests of over 400 people, today Sucre has come to symbolise Venezuela’s downfall.

But fishing is not the only industry to have suffered from piracy in Venezuela. The country’s prosperous oil industry is also in decline. As Venezuela’s most prized commodity, oil represents around 95% of Venezuela’s revenue, but the once-thriving oil rigs are now increasingly deserted as demoralised staff fear attacks from groups of pirates.

While Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo, a Caribbean estuary, had transformed the country into one of the largest oil-producing countries in the world, and the wealthiest in Latin America, it has now become home to groups of pirates who roam the lake executing thefts and detentions. At night, these groups patrol the lake and target oil crew engaged in operations. The Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, has already blamed ”bands of pirates” for activities that ”constantly vandalise our installations in the lake”. According to residents around the lake, incidents involving pirates take place each week and at least six people have been killed in the last year. Driven by a dire social and economic landscape of huge salary reductions and unemployment, Lake Maracaibo has clearly drifted far from its formative years of affluence. Instead, like Sucre, the lake has also come to symbolise the deep depression that strikes at the core of Venezuela’s commercial identity.

Migratory crisis

The criminal sector is also profiting from Venezuela’s profound migration crisis. The country’s economic meltdown has resulted in a migration crisis with roughly 1.2 million people leaving over the last two years. The majority crossed land borders to Brazil and Colombia – the latter claiming to have taken in 550,000 migrants. In recent years there has also been an increasing number of migrants escaping by sea to the nearby Carribean Islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, and Curacao. In order to survive migrants put their lives in the hands of smugglers and pirates who are ruling one of the most lawless markets on earth.

Venezuela’s crisis is spiralling – reflected by its increasingly large number of citizens who turn to the criminal sector to survive. According to a recent report examining the Gulf of Paria, an inlet of the Caribbean Sea between Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela, smugglers and pirates operate in a government-free environment and profit from the desperate by dealing in everything from food and diapers to drugs and weapons.

Once Venezuelan smugglers were trading cocaine and cannabis for US dollars; now they trade such goods for food. Like in Sucre, fishermen in the ‘Gulf of No Return’ – the name given locally to the Gulf of Paria – risk their lives as pirates roam large with weapons and ice-buckets to preserve the fish they plunder. Due to depleted resources and corruption, criminality is thriving and extending the reach of Venezuela’s crisis beyond its borders. In September 2015, 50 members of Venezuela’s National Guard were arrested for ties with smugglers. As Venezuela’s migration crisis worsens, demand for maritime criminals will only grow as Venezuelans pursue travel and food, among other resources.

Regional relations

Venezuela’s worsening crisis is becoming a serious regional concern across Latin America and the Caribbean. As criminality and mass migration expand beyond its frontiers, diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries are worsening. On February 8th, Brazil and Colombia imposed stricter border controls as they struggle to deal with the growing influx of migrants and escalating criminal incidents. Both countries have blamed the humanitarian crisis on the refusal of the Venezuelan leadership to accept humanitarian aid.

In January, Venezuela closed its borders with Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, also known as the ABC islands, in order to clampdown on illegal activity. President Nicolas Maduro is effectively blaming the ABC islands for soaring crime in the Caribbean, while the prime minister of Curacao, Eugene Rhuggenaath, has criticised the decision as ‘unilateral’ with ‘no prior contact or diplomatic talks’.  

Meanwhile, last November the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago met with the aim of establishing stronger trade ties between the two countries and controlling the illicit trade industry. But as smuggling and piracy thrive in the ten miles of water between the countries, and an increasing number of desperate people flee Venezuela, the country’s leadership is likely to become further isolated from its regional neighbours.

Venezuelan hyperinflation is set to rise to a staggering 13,000 percent this year. As Venezuela’s economic crisis deepens, scarcity of food and medicine will only force more people to go to extreme lengths in order to survive. As long as there is such turmoil, with no work and ineffective authorities, the pirates of Venezuela will continue to preside over one of the most lawless markets on earth – ripping across the wider region.