Life in T&T's prison facilities may seem unbearable to inmates but not for Icacos fisherman Candy Edwards who says T&T's jails are a sanctuary compared to the horrific Venezuelan jails controlled by ruthless organised criminals.
In an exclusive interview with Guardian Media on Thursday, Edwards gave a chilling account of what he suffered for 52 days in a Venezuelan prison, before being released in October last year.
It took his family almost three months to sell most of what they owned before they could raise US$17,000 to pay a prison fine to free him. By then, Edwards was so emaciated from starvation that he felt he was about to die.
Recalling the experience, Edwards said he was fishing in territorial waters in August 2018 when Venezuela's Guardia Nacional arrested him.
"I told them I was in our waters and they said Trinidad has no water. The only water we have is in our pipes," he recalled.
He was spirited away to Guiria where for six days he was kept in a cage in the woodlands.
"They would kick and spit on us whenever they passed," Edwards said.
He was later charged for fishing in Venezuelan waters and a hefty fine was imposed. In default, he was ordered to serve one year and seven months imprisonment. Expecting to be taken to a conventional jail, Edwards said he became horrified when he was placed in a 20-feet container. This was worse than the cage.
For 52 days, Edwards stayed in the container with shirtless inmates. He often struggled to breathe amid seething heat and the smell of sweat and faeces. One of his fellow inmates eventually collapsed and died from starvation.
"The jails are so full that there is no space to keep more prisoners. In Venezuela, the bandits control the jails. They have big guns and the prison officers have no power," he said. During the first few days, he starved because he was unable to eat the foot.
"In Trinidad, at least we get food cooked with taste but not in Venezuela. The food was not edible," Edwards said.
Because of the shortage of fresh water, the food, mainly provisions, are boiled in sea water.
"Everything was so salty. I used to hide my food in case I get something better and when I was near to passing out, I would nibble on the dasheen and other provisions," he said.
Asked what he usually ate, Edwards said sometimes they went up to three days without food. When meals were finally brought to them, they would get macaroni and fish or boiled rice cooked in sea water. Were it not for the efforts of his family in Trinidad, he would have also died.
"My mother used to pack up food for me. They would take half of it but they gave some to me as well. I was never taken out for air like they do in a Trinidad prison. We have to stay in the container day and night. All they had in the container was a little window with steel bars," he recalled.
Edwards said since his imprisonment, he has been afraid to go back out to sea. However, construction jobs have gone dry in the peninsula and Edwards said he sometimes ventures out near the coast.
Another fisherman Ralph Gobin said he too has abandoned fishing.
"I try to do electrical work, construction or anything I get because it is just too dangerous to fish now," he said.
Rampant kidnappings, piracy, human trafficking
Since 2018, more than 50 fishermen from the peninsula have been kidnapped by Venezuelans and jailed. A lucrative piracy trade exists between the island and the mainland and genuine fishermen have been forced out of their trade because of the lawlessness.
It is believed that the criminals get information on their intended targets and then organise with pirates in Venezuela to capture fishermen in exchange for ransom. The criminals are so well connected that they are able to ascertain how much money the fishermen have in their bank accounts and the exact dates and time they leave Trinidad to go to Venezuela. The pirates operate out of impoverished coastal towns in Venezuela such as Tucupita and seem to be well protected by Venezuela's Guardia Nacional.
Trinidad ferry operator Anthony Joseph said he too has been forced to abandon his operations because of the pirates. Joseph said while Trinidadians have opened their homes and hearts to help Venezuelans, some of the foreigners were taking advantage of the fishermen by setting them up.
More than two decades ago, when Venezuela's economy was more buoyant, Cedros villagers used to enjoy visiting the mainland.
Gary Persad said the ferries used to bring groups of Venezuelan tourists to party in Trinidad.
"Back then things were nice. You could have spent US$10 and spend the entire weekend drinking. Things were so cheap. People could have gone to Venezuela and shop. It was easier to jump on a boat and reach to Venezuela than to go to Port-of-Spain," Persad said.
Sanctions imposed by US President Donald Trump which has attempted to curb some $11 billion of crude exports from Venezuelan state-oil company PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela, S A) to the United States this year has escalated the crisis and fishermen are feeling the pinch.
In Venezuela, hungry children traverse the villages of Pedernales, Tucupita, and Capri. It is estimated that more than five million people have fled Venezuela because of the socio-economic collapse.
However, while hundreds of Venezuelans are fleeing their homeland in search of a better life, some fishermen of the southwestern peninsula are continuing to take the risk of fishing with the hope that they do not end up in a Venezuelan jail.