Right beneath the noses of citizens of every country in the world, lies a massive, interconnected network where humans are bought and sold, just like any other illicit commodity. The International Labor Organization estimated the number of people who were held as slaves in the forced labor trafficking system in 2021 to be upwards of 28 million, a number that has risen by the millions since 2016. To put this 28 million into perspective, during the entirety of the Atlantic Slave Trade of African people between 1526 and 1867, approximately 12.5 million individuals were enslaved in total. It is important to point out that this post will specifically not include a discussion of forced marriages, which accounts for another 22 million people held as modern-day slaves. While the topics of forced labor and forced marriage are intertwined, there is value in discussing them separately, which will be most beneficial for this brief overview. Of the 28 million captives forced into labor, nearly one-fourth are condemned to forms of sexual exploitation. What’s more, over half of all the children involved in the human trafficking system are subjected to some form of sex trafficking. The issue of human trafficking is a pervasive disease that infects every country of the world. The trafficking disease’s effects are compounded by periods of extreme adversity and, of course, the current, literal pandemic, COVID-19. Suffering caused by a declining economy or a deadly disease drives up the rates of human trafficking, and therefore forced labor, everywhere.
One country fraught with particular instability, which also experienced undue decline during the pandemic is Venezuela. Prior to COVID-19’s onset, Venezuela had been struggling to recover from an economic decline, persisting from the early 2010’s, when the value of its foremost export, oil, was threatened. Between 2014 and 2021, almost 6 million Venezuelans were forced to flee to surrounding countries and further, as a consequence of the enormous hardships resulting from the economic downturn. Frighteningly, migrating individuals and families are uniquely susceptible to human trafficking. At highly unregulated borders, law enforcement does not have the control to protect migrants. Along the Columbian border, organized crime groups target downtrodden individuals, especially women and children. Traffickers pick out the most vulnerable people in a group and offer solutions to their problems, such as transport, housing, or employment, but the facade of a helping-hand quickly reverses to an oppressive force that traps migrants into a life of slavery. Against this background of nation-wide unrest, Venezuela was exposed to a fierce attack by COVID-19. The pandemic only worsened the situation in Venezuela, once again inciting economic and social turmoil, contributing to rising numbers of individuals affected by the national strife, and therefore causing an increase in labor and sexual trafficking. While there is no substantiated data on the numbers of enslaved Venezuelan residents and migrants due to a lack of funded research, people working on-the-ground, in-country assert that the outlook is grim, and that in the recent 4-5 years, the amount of trafficking incidents has shot up exponentially.
Based on global trends and Venezuela’s position as one of the consistently worst ranking countries in fighting human trafficking though, we can deduce that the country accounts for a disproportionate number of the people who fall victim to trafficking schemes globally. The Venezuelan government has consistently failed to protect its people, neglecting to institute adequate laws against human trafficking, persisting to this day. The current regime in Venezuela is disputed, but Nicolás Maduro retains control of the state, its military, and its institutions nonetheless. He and his regime have not effectively and sufficiently outlawed human trafficking in all of its forms, deficiently criminalizing and failing to prosecute certain types of child trafficking, trafficking of LGBTQI+ persons, and trafficking of boys and men. Additionally, the services they provide for survivors of forced labor are few and far between. As a result of its shortcomings in this arena, Venezuela continues to rank as a Tier 3 country -the most offensive level- in its efforts to minimize trafficking, and, disconcertingly, it is not showing any signs of willingness to turn the tide. Maduro demonstrates a flagrant unwillingness to comply with international law, degrading the country’s democratic legitimacy. Maduro is a vector of stealth authoritarianism because he rose to power democratically, and has since demonstrated the qualities of a fully-fledged authoritarian regime. By rejecting Juan Guaidó’s presidency in 2019 and maintaining control of the state’s institutions, Maduro “captured the referees” of society and gained the freedom to rule as he pleases. His ability to survive as sitting leader of the country, despite the enormous backlash he receives within Venezuela and from outside, is proof of the country’s divergence from democracy, toward a system that favors an authoritarian-style leader. Because of widespread corruption and stealth authoritarianist tactics, Maduro continues to hold power, even as democracy breaks down and certain social concerns go unchecked. The detrimental effects of this democratic backslide in Venezuela are especially apparent in the growing emergency of human trafficking. If Venezuela is able to curtail democratic erosion and oust Maduro, there is hope that the country can more effectively work to minimize the amount of people affected by modern-day slavery.