HomeInvestigationsHybrid Governance and the Criminal Fiefdoms of Tren de Aragua 

Hybrid Governance and the Criminal Fiefdoms of Tren de Aragua 


There are specific expectations for residents of San Vicente, a neighborhood in Venezuela's central state of Aragua. Men are not allowed outside shirtless, children are not allowed outside after 6 p.m., and schools enforce discipline comparable to military academies.

Nobody can sell drugs or cigarettes, the front of every house must be lit up at all times, and all homes must be decorated with a plant outside. There are no exceptions.

Breaking any of these rules can see someone put on "trial," where a "jury" can mete out punishments ranging from exile from the neighborhood to being put to death.

*This article is part of a five-part series that describes the creation of the hybrid state in Venezuela. Read the other chapters of the investigation, the full report, and related coverage on Venezuela.

These strict rules are not imposed by the government or by a military junta but by a foundation known as Somos El Barrio JK (We Are the Barrio JK), a pseudo-social organization that functions as a public-facing front for the most powerful gang in Venezuela: Tren de Aragua.

Based in San Vicente, a large neighborhood in Aragua's state capital, Maracay, this foundation regulates virtually every aspect of daily social and economic life. Tren de Aragua's power here is no coincidence. San Vicente is near the gang's base of operations, the Aragua Penitentiary Center, better known as Tocorón, where it controls the lives of thousands of prisoners.

In San Vicente and Tocorón, Tren de Aragua has become a de facto government.

"Tocorón has become like a kingdom ... The state has turned over complete control," said Beatriz Carolina Girón, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones - OVP).

But the criminal group did not establish this dominance alone. It was ably assisted by state elements who systematically worked with the gang to create this hybrid governance, where the political blends with the criminal.  

Tocorón, the Fortress of Crime

Tren de Aragua's hybrid governance model was forged in Tocorón. It is there that the group's supreme leader, Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, also known as "Niño Guerrero," has ruled since the 2010s when a wave of violence in prisons across Venezuela led the government to relinquish control over many penitentiaries to prison gangs to reduce the number of deaths.  

Once in control, criminals like Niño Guerrero rapidly exploited this position's logistical and economic benefits. A prime means of income comes in collecting causas, regular fees that all prisoners must pay to the pranes, a term for prison bosses. At the same time, Tren de Aragua coordinates extensive criminal economies, such as extortion, carried out outside prison by members who can come and go freely from Tocorón. Former prisoners and allied gangs in other parts of the state also contribute to the gang's coffers.

SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua Profile

"A fee to the prison must be contributed by anything that generates money [in Aragua]," one Tren de Aragua member, who is close to the group's leadership, told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.

Like a good manager looking after his employees, Niño Guerrero has kept order among the prison population and has upgraded Tocorón. The prison has a swimming pool, a zoo, several gyms, a recently renovated baseball stadium, and a wide range of shops frequented by prisoners and their families. But reports vary, as the gang has also been accused of murdering sick inmates.

"For the authorities, it is easier to let Niño Guerrero maintain control because he knows how to keep things in order," a former official from the Ministry of Penitentiary Services told InSight Crime anonymously.

And the gang's control goes beyond simply maintaining order. The government has delegated so many functions of managing the prison to Tren de Aragua that it could be considered a de facto privatization, with the gang acting as a government contractor.

Tocorón's daily logistics, from buying supplies to the movement of prisoners, happen in close coordination between the Venezuelan Ministry of Penitentiary Services, the judiciary and police, and the criminal group. The ins and outs of this system, as well as the roles played by government officials, were revealed to InSight Crime by a former prison official who worked for years in Tocorón and had direct contact with Niño Guerrero.

His revelations were backed up by researchers from non-governmental organizations studying prisons and violence in Venezuela.

The supply of food to the prison provides a strong case study. While the ministry sends food to Tocorón for the entire prison population, most resources end up in the hands of the gang, who then sell the foodstuffs inside and outside the prison.

"The gang leadership knows about everything that arrives there," said the former official.

Prisoner transfers work differently, he explained. While the ministry can send prisoners from overcrowded police holding cells to Tocorón, most transfers occur when family members pay prison bosses to arrange for a transfer via their contacts in security institutions. And if prisoners in Tocorón want to move elsewhere, they must also pay a fee for Tren de Aragua to coordinate the move with the prison director and the ministry. Such payments must include per diems for the penitentiary and judicial personnel involved.

Some prisoners who violate the gang's rules may also be transferred elsewhere, but at a terrible cost, the official revealed. Before they go, the Tren de Aragua takes them to the roof of a prison building, where their lips are sewn together, and they are left for days without food before being picked up by officers.

This level of collusion goes beyond the standard corruption, which is common in the country's prisons but happens with the highest levels of government.  

"Niño Guerrero rarely meets with anyone. He only meets with the director and those above the director," the former official said.

But while Tocorón has become a reliable base of operations and stronghold for Tren de Aragua, the gang has exported this model of hybrid governance to the streets.

A Home Outside the Prison

The neighborhood of San Vicente, with its outdoor lighting and strict curfew, is home to about 25,000 inhabitants. Prior to Tren de Aragua's control, it had a long history of small gangs fighting for local drug sales, which led to a steadily rising homicide rate, according to InSight Crime interviews with local residents, police, civil society employees, and academic researchers.

In 2014, the neighborhood was included in Venezuela's Peace Zones, a controversial policy that saw authorities suspend police operations in violent areas, in exchange for local groups keeping the homicide rate down. But this only helped to strengthen the gangs, as many police stations were dismantled and officers pulled out.

It is not exactly clear when Tren de Aragua moved into San Vicente, but the Peace Zone status likely gave it some cover. Since then, and although San Vicente's Peace Zone status was never removed, operations targeting criminals who take their orders from Tocorón have increased. Names such as Niño Guerrero, Johan Petrica, and Larry Changa, the group's foremost leaders, began to surface in police reports.

At the same time, the group purged any security personnel who lived in the area, driving many away and violently killing several who chose to stay. Tensions escalated in 2015 when Venezuela launched Operation Liberation of the People (Operación de Liberación del Pueblo - OLP), a plan which sought to reduce crime with extreme force. Hundreds of extrajudicial executions were reported across the country.

Regular clashes would break out in San Vicente for a year, amid plentiful accusations of abuse by security forces and protests by local residents, demanding an end to the operation. When the OLP ended in 2016, Tren de Aragua became involved in a project which helped increase its power and influence.

In April 2017, then-Minister for Prisons, Iris Varela, launched the Peaceful Homes Ecosocialist Plan (Plan Ecosocialista Hogares de Paz). In San Vicente, this program was launched in coordination with a newly created foundation, known as Somos El Barrio JK. Created by Tren de Aragua, this legal entity allowed the gang to channel more resources, formalize alliances with state institutions, and dictate more rules to the community.  

The foundation is headed up by Kenferson Sevilla Arteaga, alias "El Flipper," one of Niño Guerrero's top lieutenants who survived the confrontations with the police and is now the gang boss of San Vicente.

SEE ALSO: How Venezuelan Gangs Masquerade as Community Organizers to Secure Territory

The origin of the foundation's name is unclear. JK is believed to either stand for Juventud Kilométrica (Kilometer of Youth), due to its young membership, or for the initials of Kenferson and his girlfriend, according to different media reports. Either way, it has become the main provider of public services such as sewage and electricity. The foundation imposes its rules on schools and takes care of the population by ensuring house-to-house medical visits, organizing sexual education workshops, and even carrying out vaccination campaigns. They also keep an updated census of the population in San Vicente, which the government has not done for years.

"It is another government ... Nothing can be done within the school that they don't find out about," a teacher from San Vicente told InSight Crime. "People have accepted it, they have preferred to stay with this government that does provide, that helps, that keeps its word."

This benevolent facade has won the favor of many residents who have come to rely on Somos El Barrio JK to provide services that the state has long abandoned.

But this hides a darker purpose in the foundation's tight grip on society.

"I don't agree with rules like no fighting or no music being played after a certain time ... They are overdoing these things," one resident of San Vicente told InSight Crime.

Tren de Aragua did not achieve this level of control unaided. It secured alliances with local institutions, including communal councils, the Local Committees of Supply and Production (CLAP) -- which run a food program subsidized by the Maduro government -- and the Units of Battle Hugo Chávez (Unidades de Batalla Hugo Chávez - UBCH), a political group dedicated to defending the ideology of the Bolivarian revolution.

The foundation is now so embedded in San Vicente that its members have sometimes appeared at press conferences for government events. Its representatives have appeared in photographs with Varela and other senior government figures.

Caption: The former minister for penitentiary services, Iris Varela, at an event in San Vicente, flanked by Irene Hernández, identified as the president of Foundation Somos El Barrio JK. Source: Venezuelan Ministry of Penitentiary Services)

A local researcher with extensive experience studying society in Aragua told InSight Crime that she has identified members of the foundation who work in the mayor's office and are dedicated to maintaining links between both sides.

But their role goes further still. Government officials will occasionally act as representatives of the foundation and communicate their plans. InSight Crime found that CLAP employees, the food subsidy program, had been transmitting directives from El Flipper. Local political figures, such as city councilors, are largely unknown in San Vicente. They don't need to be seen there. At election time, Somos El Barrio JK always publicly supports candidates from the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV).

While politicians such as former Vice President Tareck El Aissami have visited San Vicente, usually bringing gifts, opposition candidates are banned from entering the neighborhood.

Replicating the San Vicente Model

Controlling San Vicente has allowed Tren de Aragua to expand its criminal activities and has provided a convenient bolthole to hide from authorities when necessary.

San Vicente's geographic location offers it particular value. It is well-connected to the rest of Aragua state and to Lake Valencia, through which goods and drugs can easily be moved by boat, including to Tocorón. Additionally, the neighborhood is close to a small regional airport, from which the gang arranges private flights. San Vicente has an industrial zone, where companies are ripe for extortion, and a landfill, where the gang can obtain scrap metal to sell on as well as using the dump as a storage area.

"San Vicente was an experiment that turned out very well, but it was because of its geography ... The landfill and Lake Valencia belong to the group," explained the Tren de Aragua member who spoke to InSight Crime.

Controlling the community provides other benefits, such as access to a young population for recruitment.

"They have a very good breeding ground in San Vicente ... People see the pran as a role model ... They bring things from the state, they bring entertainment, they bring gifts. [People say,] 'I want to be like the pran when I grow up,'" another former criminal from Aragua told InSight Crime.

The gang's strict rules also help with recruitment, as they help identify potential recruits who have the right level of discipline and show leadership potential, according to one researcher.

The San Vicente model has been replicated elsewhere. Tren de Aragua members and affiliated gangs control other parts of Aragua, and police officers and residents alike have confirmed similar criminal governance systems similar to San Vicente, although these are usually less strict.

The areas chosen for such hybrid governance usually offer benefits to Tren de Aragua, such as being near busy transport routes, offering plenty of extortion or kidnapping targets, or even providing space to train recruits.

For each of these expansions, the same institutional corruption is always present. Multiple sources consulted by InSight Crime have spoken of government staff and elected officials, including mayors, working for Tren de Aragua in exchange for payments and favors. Police forces have also reportedly been co-opted by the gang, with InSight Crime having learned of at least three cases where police were ordered by their superiors to release criminals linked to Tren de Aragua.

But this support is not just local. Tren de Aragua has also received favors from the government of Nicolás Maduro. One man, whose son was detained in Tocorón, told InSight Crime that the group maintains control of their communities and enforces the government's will, much like colectivos, militant civilian groups that suppress political opposition.  

"They were sent to keep people under control. Why? So that with this economic situation, the people, who are mostly government supporters, do not rise up but remain under control out of fear of Tren de Aragua," a local researcher in Aragua told InSight Crime.

And besides Tren de Aragua, groups with different social and political goals, including colectivos, have also established similar hybrid governance systems due to collaboration with government institutions.  

"No one has any idea of the full parallel world that this represents. There is a lot of government involvement," concluded the Tren de Aragua member.

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