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.
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 ageing 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.
"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 travelled overland to neighbouring 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 labour.
"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 Caesarean 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 Caesareans 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 travelled 500 kilometres 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 kilometres 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’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’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 kilometres 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 "authorisation." 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 harbour, 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. 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; Editing by Marla Dickerson)