Kenny Finol was studying journalism in her hometown of Maracaibo when she tried to escape the dizzying collapse of the Venezuelan economy, emigrating to Colombia and then Mexico.
She returned home in a coffin.
Her body was found Feb. 25 in an isolated corner of Ecatepec, a town just north of Mexico City known for violence against women and home base to several drug and human smuggling organizations. The 26-year-old had been disfigured with acid, brutally beaten, raped and tortured before she was killed.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Finol is only one of the dozens of women who were forced by Venezuela’s economic collapse to emigrate in search of a higher quality of life, but instead found death.
From February 2017 to November of this year, 41 murders of Venezuelan women have been reported by news media outlets across Latin America.
Some were murdered when they fell into the grips of criminal groups. Others were killed by spouses who apparently turned violent under the pressures of living in poverty in foreign countries or by partners who thought that a breakup merited a death sentence.
And there are cases still shrouded in mystery, involving bodies that were never identified or claimed and wound up buried in remote cemeteries, with no flowers or tears to honor their memory.
El Nuevo Herald documented several deaths that occurred between February 2017 and March 2018 in Mexico, Ecuador, Panama and Peru, through interviews with grieving relatives, friends and others still terrified after escaping their own demise.
Some of the victims were among the thousands of Venezuelans who started to emigrate in 2002, when the late President Hugo Chávez returned to power after a brief coup. The exodus out of Venezuela increased in 2014, following deadly street clashes between opponents and supporters of the Nicolás Maduro regime. Much of the crackdown against protesters came from government security forces.
The most recent deaths also were Venezuelan women who had fled as part of the continuing exodus that has become so massive that the United Nations has branded it “a monumental crisis.”
Venezuelans are fleeing from hyperinflation that the International Monetary Fund predicts will hit 1.3 million percent by the end of 2018, an expected drop of 18 percent in the Gross Domestic Product, as well as severe shortages of almost all medicines in a country where people eat only one or two meals a day and where power and water outages can last for days.
A recent U.N. report noted that 3 million Venezuelans have left the country over the past four years.
Many of them endure long and exhausting treks through the Andes on flimsy shoes, lugging children and suitcases, with little to eat or drink and exposed to bitter cold that pricks the skin like a knife’s edge.
“Latin America has never faced a time of forced migration like the one we’re seeing now,” Eduardo Stein, the joint special representative for Venezuelan refugees appointed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has said.
Dangers on the road
Kenny Finol was part of that exodus. She left Venezuela in 2015. But the young woman who wanted to be a journalist wound up working as an escort in Mexico.
She advertised herself as, “The most expensive doll in the window” in ZonaDivas.com, one of the best-known internet sites in Mexico used by a sexual exploitation network until authorities shut it down in April.
Mexico has long been a risky place for young women like her. Six other Venezuelans were brutally murdered there in the past 18 months, presumably by drug and human traffickers.
“A while back she decided to leave because of the situation here. I don’t know why she picked that country. She was in Colombia, and from there she went to Mexico. Then she came back to Venezuela. She would leave, spend a few months there and then return,” said Finol’s brother, Terlis Alfonso Alvarado Finol.
She ultimately returned home, but it was to be buried in a cemetery.
Her stay in Mexico appeared to have been marked by violence. Some months before her murder, the blonde and green-eyed woman was allegedly brutally beaten by her boyfriend, identified by the brother as Bryan Mauricio González, known as “El Pozole.” The brother accuses him of his sister’s murder.
In videos that she recorded and were posted on Mexican websites in October 2017, Finol appears with multiple bruises to her face, eyes and mouth and claims that González had struck her four times with a machete and punched a hole in the roof of her mouth with a pistol.
The brother said his sister painted a horrifying portrait of her boyfriend, a man identified in Mexican press reports as a cartel member and assassin.
“They were supposedly a couple for a long time, and then my sister realized what he was into. He does everything,” the brother said the sister told him.
Family members said they have not received any information on Finol’s case.
“I haven’t had any responses from officials in Mexico. Nothing,” said Mireya Finol, the victim’s mother. “I don’t know anything, they haven’t responded to any of my questions. I don’t know if they’ve even made any arrests.”
El Nuevo Herald spent months trying to obtain information from investigators to no avail. Authorities did not respond to multiple requests for comment via phone and email.
Young people are vulnerable
Finol’s tale is an alarming illustration of the risks surrounding the mass exodus of Venezuelans.
Attorney and criminologist Fermín Mármol García said Venezuela has seen a significant population movement in recent years, with its citizens leaving for “eminently economic and social” reasons.
“When such an emigration is the result of a country’s impoverishment, we see a very mixed emigration. On one hand, professionals. But there are others willing to do anything, and when one is willing to do anything, human trafficking can make its presence felt,” Mármol García said in a telephone interview from Caracas.
One Venezuelan woman who said she managed to escape abuses, threats and a kidnapping in Mexico while she worked as an escort told el Nuevo Herald she accepted the risks because of her baby.
She recounted details of her experience but asked for anonymity to avoid being identified by her former abusers. Fear is still part of her life.
She decided to emigrate to Mexico after she was contacted by a friend, a woman who was later murdered there.
“She put me in touch with a woman who ran prostitutes. I was forced to work like a dog, without money or food, until I escaped. She even held my passports. Then came the threats,” said the woman, a native of Lara state in western Venezuela.
She said she worked for about six weeks for the woman, a Colombian. She charged $5,200 for the flight to Mexico — all the money she earned while working for her.
“They did not let me go out. They locked me in a house. I worked almost 24 hours per day. You only got a day off after 15 days of work,” the Venezuelan woman said. “They threaten to cancel your passport, and they do it. They threaten to kill you. Anything that can scare you. They tell you that if you don’t do it, your family will pay.”
She once gave her bosses in Mexico about $780 to send to her family in Venezuela, but the money never arrived. That’s why she decided to escape. She fled on her day off and used tips she had received to pay for a hotel. The Venezuelan woman who had persuaded her to go to Mexico later helped her to flee.
Cases like these are becoming more common, according to experts.
Venezuelans “trying to save themselves and their relatives have been exposed during their migration process to different local and global networks for people trafficking,” states a report published in March by the Organized Crime Observatory in Venezuela and the British Embassy in Caracas.
Observatory Executive Director Luis Cedeño said human trafficking networks have “jumped on the outflows of Venezuelans” and often make fraudulent offers of jobs and other benefits.
Packing hopes and dreams
There are also young Venezuelans who decided to try their luck on their own. They packed their hopes and dreams into suitcases and set off on trips to places where they expected to find work, to continue their studies and to be able to send money to relatives back in Venezuela.
The oil-rich country was once a net receiver of immigrants and had a middle class until Chávez imposed his brand of “21st Century socialism” on Venezuela.
One of those young people was Lorena Marina Cardozo, 21, who left her hometown of Chivacoa, in Yaracuy state in north central Venezuela, in September 2017 and went to the port city of Manta in Ecuador, where she lived with two cousins.
Cardozo seemed happy and enthusiastic in the photos she posted on Facebook but soon ran into the harsh reality faced by many other Venezuelan immigrants — having to peddle snacks, candy or flowers on the street to survive.
Her working area was the seaside boulevard along El Murcielago beach, dotted with bars and popular among the Venezuelan residents of Manta.
She disappeared a few days before she was to return to Venezuela to take part in her graduation ceremony as a commercial engineer. Her naked body was found March 17 in a remote area.
An autopsy showed that she drowned in her own vomit. Her body showed no signs of violence. How she got to that spot remains unknown.