Venezuela in Crisis: Impact on Maritime Crime

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With Venezuela in the midst of economic and political crisis, we examine the impact on maritime crime in the region. 

A sustained period of falling oil prices and a socialist-inspired presidency has seen Venezuela enter an economic and political crisis. Oil accounts for roughly 95% of Venezuela’s export revenues and has been used to finance some of the government’s generous social programmes. The lack of oil revenue has forced the government to curtail these programmes and spiraling inflation in the country has resulted in widespread poverty and an economy in ruin.

Set amidst the backdrop of the second highest homicide rate – as high as 120 per 100,000 in Caracas (Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice) – and regular outbreaks of looting and rioting, it is no surprise that the dire situation ashore has led to increased concerns surrounding maritime criminality.

Fishing Piracy

Whilst basic maritime crime has always existed in Venezuelan waters, as it does across most of South America, there has been an increase in attacks against fishermen in the region, particularly in waters east of Puerto La Cruz.

Many out-of-work fishermen are now targeting active fishermen operating in open sea off Sucre State. These former fishermen and those with access to boats have formed armed ‘gangs’ and are intercepting operating fishing vessels and taking anything of value from them; this includes the catch, fishing nets, generators and outboard motors.

More alarming are the reports of fishermen being thrown overboard or shot as is it is often simpler for the perpetrators to eliminate the crew before robbing their vessels. This issue is further compounded by an ineffective coastguard, which fails to provide a deterrent because of inherent corruption and political apathy.

Whilst fishing conflict is not unusual in South America, there are regular attacks and territorial disputes between Peruvian-Ecuadorian and Guyana-Suriname fishermen, the direct targeting of fishermen solely for profit, and its violent nature, is concerning.

People Trafficking and Smuggling

In addition to attacks on fisherman, Venezuela’s coast has also seen a rise in people trafficking and it is something that is likely to continue; when Venezuela opened its border with Colombia for just two days in July, 120,000 people poured across, simply to buy food, with an untold number remaining over the border. Trinidad and Tobago authorities have already increased port security to deal with a regular influx of Venezuelan migrants who are leaving the country’s north-east coast via maritime vessel.

At the same time there are growing concerns that smuggling, particular of oil, will increase across land and maritime borders. In September 2015, three ships were detained in Venezuela’s refinery-rich Paraguana peninsula accused of smuggling oil. There have also been multiple reports of criminals using small vessels to steal equipment from oil wells in Lake Maracaibo throughout 2014 and 2015; whilst these rarely effect merchant vessels, watch keepers should be vigilant in the area.

Risk to Merchant Vessels

2016 has witnessed a slight increase in the boarding of merchant vessels in Venezuela, although the numbers remain modest. There have been four reports of merchant vessels at anchorage being boarded since the start of the year; all of which occurred at the ports of Puerto La Cruz and Barcelona. In comparison, 2014 and 2015 each saw just one boarding (IMB).

Despite the increase in overall criminality throughout Venezuela, the threat from maritime crime to merchant vessels is assessed as moderate. Most criminal activity in the region has been opportunist and non-violent in nature and when spotted, the assailants have fled.

As such, Dryad’s advice for vessels in the region is to adopt basic security provisions and remove any opportunity for criminality. You should ensure that all upper-deck fixtures are secure, duty watch keepers maintain vigilance on the outboard side and gangway and that any suspicious sightings are immediately reported to the IMB and local authorities.