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T&T Coast Guard on shooting of Venezuelan pirogue: We were acting in self defence

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(Trinidad Guardian) A Venezuelan baby is dead and his mother wounded after a Coast Guard vessel opened fire on a vessel transporting illegal migrants during an altercation on the high seas off the southern coast on Saturday night.

While the T&T Coast Guard is claiming that its officers were acting “in self defence” after the pirogue rammed into their vessel, former senator and humanitarian attorney Nafessa Mohammed described the incident as alarming and is calling for a full scale investigation.

The one year-old boy has been identified as Ya Elvis Santoyo while his mother has been identified as Darie Elvis Eliagnis Sarabia. The names of the other occupants on the pirogue were not disclosed by the Coast Guard up to late Sunday. However, a police source told Guardian Media that the child and his mother were among a group of Venezuelan immigrants, and two Trinidadians aboard the vessel.

While the woman was transported to the Sangre Grande Hospital, the other occupants were taken into police custody. Guardian Media learnt that the mother and her son were coming to Trinidad to meet their other relatives including her father.

According to a release from the Coast Guard, the incident occurred shortly before midnight after the TTS Scarborough detected that a vessel crossed the border between Trinidad and Venezuela. The pirogue, however, attempted to evade the Coast Guard vessel that had launched its ship’s boat to aid in the interception. The release stated: “All available methods were used including the use of the loud hailer, ship’s horn searchlight and flares, to try to get the suspect vessel to stop, however, the vessel continued to evade TTS Scarborough.”

The Coast Guard claimed that warning shots were then fired in keeping with standard protocols. However, the vessel did not stop and the Coast Guard attempted to intercept the pirogue.

According to the release, the vessel continued with “aggressive manoeuvres, first coming into contact with the ship’s boat and then making attempts to ram it.”

The Coast Guard added they are very familiar with the catastrophic results that could occur when ramming is used as an evasive technique since twice before in the recent past Coast Guard interceptors have been rammed by suspect vessels resulting in total loss of the interceptor in one incident and major damage to the hull and interior of the other interceptor in the second incident.

They said in both incidents the lives of the interceptor crews were put at risk since they narrowly escaped major injury and death.

“On this current occasion, the ramming effort by the suspect vessel which was larger than the ship’s boat caused its crew to fear for their lives and in self-defence, they fired at the engines of the suspect vessel in an attempt to bring it to a stop,” the release stated.

When the vessel stopped, the Coast Guard crew discovered that there were illegal migrants on board. They said the occupants were hiding and were not seen before the vessel was stopped.

The release stated that the Coast Guard officers observed a female illegal migrant holding an infant and she indicated that she was bleeding.

“The vessel was immediately brought alongside TTS Scarborough and the injured female was subsequently stabilised and has since been transferred to a local health facility. Regrettably, the infant was found to be unresponsive.”

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard stated that the remaining people on board the vessel would be processed in accordance with immigration and health protocols.

The Coast Guard extended its sincerest condolences to the family and loved ones of the infant and also wished the injured female a speedy recovery.

Commenting on the Coast Guard’s release, Mohammed said, “It is a most alarming situation that I think requires an immediate investigation and because it involves nationals from out neighbouring country Venezuela I believe there should be in the interest of fairness and justice there should be some kind of joint intervention in terms of having officials from both countries investigate this matter thoroughly and properly. It is unbelievable.”

While she is not condoning illegal entry, Mohammed said there needs to be additional measures to ensure there is a balancing act between law enforcement and the humanitarian considerations involved. “In this particular case with the death of a baby from another country, I think it is only fear that the diplomatic service get into action immediately to deal with this matter in the interest of fairness and justice.”

Calling on the Venezuelan Embassy to get involved, she said law enforcement officers must be properly trained.

“We talking about a pirogue trying to ram into a brand new Coast Guard vessel, which is a huge vessel out at the sea, come on man. Let’s be real, let’s get the truth in this matter please,” she said.

Expressing condolences to the baby’s family, she was hopeful that officials will ensure that the suffering of the family will be minimized.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is also investigating an incident at the San Fernando Yacht Club where one of its vessels sank on Saturday.

The 28-foot pirogue was equipped with a 200-HP engine together with all the accessories for patrolling the Gulf of Paria.

There were no Coast Guard officers at the base when the vessel sank. The estimated cost of the vessel is over $250,000.

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