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Venezuelan village mourns 23 drownings, seeks those missing

CARACAS – Twinkling Christmas lights have been turned off in the remote fishing village of Güiria in Venezuela as hundreds mourn and gather on its shores to await word of loved ones who remain missing after two boats carrying some 40 migrants disappeared nearly two weeks ago.

Aboard the boats named “My Memories” and “My Refuge” were men, women and children headed to the nearby eastern Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago to visit family members or to buy goods not available in Venezuela given the scarcity of food in their country, according to a resident of Güiria who asked that her name be withheld for fear of reprisal from authorities.

The travelers were all from Güiria, a town of about 40,000 people that is only a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride away from Trinidad and Tobago. The fatal trip was one that thousands of others had made before them, with human rights organizations estimating that at least 40,000 migrants have traveled illegally to Trinidad and Tobago after crossing a maritime boundary known as Dragon Mouths.

The fatal trip highlights a worsening migration problem that has increased tensions between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, with government officials and opposition leaders blaming each other. At least 23 people died in the attempt in early December, and more than a dozen remain missing. Authorities have identified at least 21 people who drowned, including nine women and four children between the ages of 2 and 8. Bodies were found at sea or washed up on nearby beaches, and the search continues for those missing. The ages of the adults range from 18 to 67 years old.

“The town is desolate," said the resident who had requested anonymity as she began to cry.

As night falls in Güiria, clusters of people walk toward the harbor to provide support and accompany hundreds of family members who remain there waiting for information about their loved ones.

Catholic Priest Jesús Villaroel told The Associated Press that Monday night was especially long and sad for many because authorities began mass burials using wooden coffins donated by the local government. Before the bodies were buried, dozens of residents clad in white carried candles as they gathered in front of a church and walked to the harbor where the bodies were located.

A man identified as the owner of the boat “My Memories,” has been detained, according to Attorney General Tarek William Saab. One resident said the owner himself lost two of his sons and four grandchildren in the shipwreck.

Meanwhile, the government is seeking search warrants for various houses to detain six people it says are involved in the case. Officials arrested one person they said lives in the house from where one of the boats departed and said they are investigating whether some authorities in the state of Sucre where Güiria is located are involved. Saab said that “mafias” operating in both nations could be involved as well.

More than 5.4 million people have fled Venezuela in recent years, the equivalent of 18% of the country’s population of 30 million.

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