Andreína Elizabeth Escalona’s family was getting ready to celebrate Christmas in Valencia, in northwestern Venezuela, when they got the call that broke their hearts.
Escalona, 27, had been shot in the head several times in Monterrey, in northeastern Mexico, after the car she was in was riddled with bullets by unidentified attackers. Her boyfriend, Rodrigo Ovidio Salas González, 31, was shot in the back and shoulder. He survived.
When police arrived, she was still breathing, but badly wounded, blood flowing from her head and over the left side of her face, staining her white blouse. Her left hand was mangled.
She later died at a hospital.
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Born in the state of Barinas in southwestern Venezuela, Escalona was a model when she left her impoverished country, presumably seduced by the chance to succeed in the international modeling industry and become a highly paid runway star.
She wound up working as an escort.
Escalona was one of at least 41 Venezuelan women murdered abroad from February 2017 to this November. They had fled Venezuela’s economic turmoil. They left their homeland with dreams. Some were forced into prostitution. All met death.
She was the third of six Venezuelan women murdered in Mexico in 2017. El Nuevo Herald has documented several other similar cases in Mexico, Panama, Ecuador and Peru.
The official version of her death, as reported by several Mexican news outlets, indicated that the boyfriend had argued with clients at a discotheque where she was working the night she was shot.
Other versions of the reported incident suggest that her death was ordered by a former boyfriend with alleged ties to organized crime.
Entering a shady world
As young Venezuelan women continue to emigrate, they face many risks. One of them is the shady world of human trafficking that generates an estimated $99 billion in profits per year around the globe, according to the International Labor Organization.
Two-thirds of the victims are young women “who are lured with false promises of employment and then raped, drugged, imprisoned, beaten or threatened with violence, have debt imposed on them, have their passport confiscated and/or are blackmailed,“ according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
That’s precisely what happened to a friend of Escalona, who also offered her sex services via ZonaDivas.com, one of the best known internet sites in Mexico used by a sexual exploitation network until authorities shut it down in April.
The friend, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution, received a string of death threats in the form of text messages on WhatsApp. In the messages, obtained by el Nuevo Herald, a person identified as Vanesota claimed responsibility for the murders of Escalona and another Venezuelan, Kenny Finol, described as “the blondie with green eyes.”
“I was in charge of all the foreigners … Ask tali who did Andreína … hahaha … It was me … And the blondie with the green eyes, that was us also,” said one of the messages from Vanesota.
“All the guns here in mty [Monterrey] belong to me and my family … They’ll take care of you later,” Vanesota warned Escalona’s friend in another message.
There are other documented cases involving threats against Venezuelan female migrants as a means to force them into the sex industry.
One was documented by the Mexican nonprofit organization United Against Trafficking Commission. The Venezuelan, whose identity was not released, was reportedly lured to Mexico with an invitation to a wedding and a free airline ticket. Upon arrival, her passport was seized and she was forced to work as a prostitute, according to the commission.
Antonio Santoyo, known as El Sony — one of the founders of the Zona Divas site who is suspected of having links to human trafficking operations — traveled to Venezuela and met with the victim and another female friend, said Commission President Rosi Orozco.
“What those two girls said was that in 2009, Sony and a girlfriend were there in Venezuela. They became friends with one of [the two girls]. They tell her, ‘Hey when we get married we’ll invite you to the wedding,’ ” Orozco said in a telephone interview.
After the couple returned to Mexico, they invited the Venezuelan to attend the wedding. The girl responded by saying she had no money. “So they send her the airline ticket. When she arrives, they seize her papers and force her into prostitution,” Orozco said.
When the Venezuelan’s Mexican visa was about to expire, the couple forced her to trick her friend still in Venezuela into also traveling to Mexico. They watched her call the friend and told her what to say, according to Orozco.
Both girls managed to escape before the young Venezuelan friend was forced to work as a prostitute upon arrival in Mexico. But they received threats of violence against their families, whom Santoyo had met during the visit to Venezuela.
Mexican authorities have reportedly been looking for Santoyo for months.
Into the hands of another ‘violent devil’
While some young women are forced into prostitution, others seek it out as a way to escape Venezuela’s dire poverty and to be able to send money to their children or other relatives back home. Still, they get trapped in a world of sex, violence and slavery.
Orozco recalled the case of a young woman who stopped offering her services on the Zona Divas site. “It was a miracle that she got out alive because they were trying to kill her,” she said.
But then the woman fell into the hands of another “violent devil.”
The new boyfriend was not involved in human trafficking but gave her “a beating that nearly killed her. But she needed so many things that she returned to him,” Orozco added.
Another Venezuelan who ended up dead after working as an escort in Mexico is Génesis Uliannys Gibson Jaimes, 24, who left behind a 5-year-old daughter.
A young woman who also worked as an escort but managed to flee from her keepers said Gibson was ordered by Santoyo to persuade Escalona to move to Mexico. Gibson, like Kenny Finol, offered her services on ZonasDivas.com.
Her father, Ulises Gibson, said she was a model and had studied international commerce in a Venezuelan university. She traveled to Mexico in 2014.
“The craziness about being an escort happened when she was there. Of course, everything behind my back,” Gibson told el Nuevo Herald.
His daughter was murdered one month before Escalona. Her body was found Nov. 17, 2017, in a Mexico City hotel although she had been reported missing in Puebla in central Mexico, where she had gone to meet a client.
She was naked, had been beaten and stabbed twice. Mexico City prosecutors said she was strangled.
Relatives identified Génesis Uliannys Gibson Jaimes, who was born in La Guaira in the state of Vargas, north of Caracas, from her three tattoos: the name Nicole on her left hand, Arianis behind her right ear and a red rose on her hip.
She was buried in Mexico, where her mother lives. But her father said he still hopes her remains will be returned to Venezuela some day.
“Our plan at the time was to cremate her body and bring her to Venezuela, to her home, but that could not be done because of the legal investigation and the search for the murderer was going on,” he said, his voice choking with emotion. “If the mother decides to return, she should cremate the body and bring her back to me.”