Migrants in deadly Coast Guard encounter tell lawyers: No warning before gunshots

FILE PHOTO: The TTS Scarborough (CG 42), front, and the TTS Port of Spain at see. A smaller high-speed pursuit vessel can be seen mounted on the rear of the TTS Scarborough. -
FILE PHOTO: The TTS Scarborough (CG 42), front, and the TTS Port of Spain at see. A smaller high-speed pursuit vessel can be seen mounted on the rear of the TTS Scarborough. -

Two days after 37 Venezuelan migrants were detained during an operation that led to the shooting death of a one-year-old boy, a group of migrants who were aboard the vessel spoke to attorneys to give their version of events.

According to the attorneys, some aspects of the story contradicted the official version given in a Coast Guard press statement on Sunday.

The release said that on Saturday night the TTS Scarborough detected a vessel crossing waters from Venezuela into TT's south coast. The Coast Guard reported that they tried to get the vessel to stop several times using an air horn, searchlight and flares, without success. Warning shots were also fired but the vessel continued to try to evade capture.

The Coast Guard said the vessel tried to ram a smaller boat deployed by the TTS Scarborough several times, causing the officers to fire shots at the boat's engine to disable it.

The Coast Guard said, "the vessel eventually stopped and only then it was discovered that there were illegal migrants on board who had remained hidden..."

A woman and her child were shot during the incident.

The child, identified as Ya Elvis Santoyo, died in his mother's arms. The mother was later taken to the hospital.

The migrants detained aboard the vessel were taken to the Chaguaramas Heliport where they remained up to Tuesday afternoon.

Speaking with Newsday on Tuesday, attorneys Criston J Williams and Siddiq Manzano said after interviewing three of the migrants aboard the vessel there were key differences in their version of events and the Coast Guard's report.

Manzano said, contrary to the initial report, the migrants he spoke with denied that they attempted to ram one of the Coast Guard's boats, and claimed a faulty engine prevented them from trying to escape.

"They said the boat they were travelling had two engines and one of the engines kept stopping and coming back on.

"They also said the first Coast Guard vessel they saw was the smaller boat. At that point they didn't hear any horn or loud hailer from this vessel. They did see the flares, one of which they said was pointed to the sky, the other one was aimed at their boat.

"Shortly after that, they heard the gunshots. They said the Coast Guard only stopped shooting after they realised someone aboard their boat was wounded.

"Because of the faulty engine they said they couldn't ram anyone or even try to escape, for that matter, so at that point they were stationary."

Manzano said the migrants were taken aboard the larger vessel (the TTS Scarborough) and brought to shore where the wounded woman was taken to a hospital.

He added the group of migrants, which consists of 20 children and 17 adults, were taken to the Chaguaramas Heliport early on Sunday morning where they remained.

He also noted that several of the children were unwell and vomiting.

Manzano and Williams said they intend to write a letter to the Minister of National Security, the Chief Immigration Officer and the local arm of the UN Refugee Agency, seeking refugee status for the migrants.

Williams said the absence of legislation to effectively treat with such incidents placed TT at a disadvantage.

"From my point of view, the failure of TT to have a proper legislative framework and/or policy that recognises refugees and asylum-seekers will always have us in a disadvantageous position internationally, from my point of view.

"Firstly, urgent steps must be taken for us to implement a written policy that complies with our international regulations, that's from a Trinidad point of view."

Manzano said based on discussions with the Santoyo family, they intended to have a funeral for the child but was unsure whether it would be in Trinidad or in Venezuela.

Contacted on Tuesday, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard Lt Kerron Valere referred to its official statement on the incident on Sunday.

"As far as it is, for now, we are making no further comments outside of what would have been given in the release."

Asked what was the update of the woman who was wounded in the shooting, Lt Valere said, "The last we would have indicated is that she was in the hands of local health authorities so that's the last update we had."

A retired coast guardsman when contacted for comment said based on the description of the situation in the coast guard's media release, he was satisfied that proper procedure was followed when engaging an unidentified vessel which refused to stop.

"The first warning shot was shot over the bow (front) of the vessel into the water, the second shot which is to the stern (the rear), and you give further warning to stop.

"You also try to intercept, when all that fails you shoot at the engine.

"Unfortunately, shooting at an engine can cause the engine to ricochet and that's what stops the boat. It's important to note that Coast Guard has stopped hundreds of boats like this in the past and what happens is it usually stops.

"The real issue here is the fisherman that was driving that boat who decided he tried to ram the Coast Guard boat."

Newsday attempted to contact National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds on Tuesday but was unsuccessful up to press time.

Responding to questions on the incident during a Senate sitting earlier on Tuesday he offered condolences to the Santoyo family noting that a probe by the Coast Guard and the police was under way.


"Migrants in deadly Coast Guard encounter tell lawyers: No warning before gunshots"

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