“PEOPLE ARE NOT MERCHANDISE,” reads a billboard at the main boarding crossing from Colombia to Ecuador. Yet that is exactly how Venezuelan migrants are treated by Tren de Aragua.
Venezuela’s most notorious gang has built a criminal empire stretching from Venezuela to Chile by taking advantage of desperate migrants, first through migrant smuggling on a scale never before seen in South America, and then by building organized, integrated, multinational sex trafficking networks.
*This article is the last in a three-part investigation, “Tren de Aragua: From Prison Gang to Transnational Criminal Enterprise,” analyzing how the Venezuelan mega-gang has become the fastest-growing criminal threat in South America by exploiting mass migration from Venezuela . Download the full report or read the full investigation here.
As the gang’s income and regional presence have grown, its criminal portfolio has diversified. InSight Crime investigations have uncovered evidence that the group is involved in at least 12 criminal economies in at least five countries.
Migrant Smuggling: The Taking of the Trochas
Tren de Aragua’s first steps into migrant smuggling came at the single most important bottleneck of migration routes for Venezuelans — the border between Norte de Santander in Colombia and Táchira in Venezuela.
Here, the gang took control of informal border crossings, known as trochas, charging migrants a fee to cross. As its territorial control grew, it began extorting people smuggling networks that used the crossings.
Such extortion was business as usual for the border zone, where trochas have long been controlled by armed groups. But when Tren de Aragua first arrived in 2018, the scale of that business was anything but usual.
Venezuela’s economy was collapsing, and the response by its government was ever more repression of its population. People were desperate to escape, but their main route to do so — into Colombia — was sealed off by border closures.
Over 3 million Venezuelans fled the country from 2017 to 2018, many of them across the trochas into the Colombian department of Norte de Santander. This surge of migrants not only led to burgeoning extortion revenues but also an unprecedented demand for people smuggling services.
Sensing opportunity amid the desperation, Tren de Aragua began to provide its own transportation services to migrants. And as the migrants moved through Colombia into countries like Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, Tren de Aragua’s migrant smuggling business moved with them, expanding in sophistication and scope at every step.
Migrants using these services, security forces, public officials, and civil society groups working with the migrant population all describe a similar pattern along these routes: Tren de Aragua offers package deals in which they typically provide transportation, accommodation, and food for the entire journey.
“They provided us with a hotel for the whole day, including lunch. They put eight of us in a room to bathe,” explained a migrant who traveled from Ecuador to Colombia using Tren de Aragua’s smuggling services. “Later they sent a car to pick us up.”
In some areas, Tren de Aragua also directly controls the infrastructure used by traveling migrants. Residents of La Parada, in Norte de Santander, told InSight Crime that Tren de Aragua controls the pagadiarios, low-cost housing commonly used by migrants, charging them between US$1-2 per day. In Chile meanwhile, an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office revealed how the gang allegedly purchased buses through a front company in order to transport migrants and drugs.
Although it is unclear when the gang made the leap from extortion to providing multi-leg, multi-country smuggling packages, it is clear these operations were boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when lockdowns prompted border closures across the region, driving more migrants to use smugglers. Even as borders have reopened, many migrants choose to continue paying smugglers like Tren de Aragua because they view migration officials and security forces in Venezuela and other countries as corrupt and untrustworthy.
“As soon as you get out of the car in Cúcuta, they present themselves as Tren de Aragua,” explained the woman who returned to Venezuela using Tren de Aragua’s migrant smuggling services. “They say they provide services to those crossing the bridge and promise that you won’t have to pay anything to the National Guard.”
Human Trafficking: Blurring the Line Between Smuggling and Exploitation
The expansion of Tren de Aragua’s migrant smuggling business also gave the group a competitive advantage in human trafficking for sexual exploitation, which requires many of the same elements: transportation, accommodation, transnational connections, and a vulnerable population to exploit.
By bringing their experience and capacity to bear on a criminal economy commonly run by small, loose-knit, decentralized networks with little armed or territorial presence, Tren de Aragua has been able to establish sex trafficking networks on a scale, and with a reach, that few other criminal actors have achieved within South America.
Much like with the gang’s human smuggling operations, authorities in Chile, Colombia, and Peru told InSight Crime that Tren de Aragua participates in the entire process, from identifying and recruiting victims to transporting and exploiting them.
The route toward sexual exploitation usually begins online. Many women and girls are lured by false job offers abroad. These may be posted on social media or arrive directly, with the targets contacted by other women — many of whom may also be victims of human trafficking. Others are deceived by a tactic known as enamoramiento (falling in love), where a member of Tren de Aragua entraps them by pretending to be their boyfriend.
Once their victims have been convinced to move to another country or accept the job offer, other members of the group arrange transport and accommodation in transit countries. To do this, they often use the same logistics and infrastructure as migrant smuggling, according to judicial documents obtained by InSight Crime that contain testimony from trafficking survivors.
The documents describe how the journeys are coordinated by “asesores” (advisors).
“[The asesor] is the person who does all the paperwork, buys the tickets, the food, and accompanies the girls throughout the journey,” reads one case file.
At this point, many still believe they are traveling to a legitimate job. However, upon arrival, the victims are often informed they have a large debt with the group and must pay it off by providing sexual services or recruiting other victims, according to security forces, judicial officials, and nongovernmental sources consulted by InSight Crime.
Women are then exploited in traditional prostitution venues, such as bars and brothels, or they are exploited online, with the group running pornographic webcam operations, and using messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat to arrange “escort” services and to post explicit material.
Those who try to break free are often killed, and the killings publicized. Judicial documents and audiovisual materials show how Tren de Aragua scares other women into compliance by circulating videos and images of these murders on social media and sending them to survivors with threats and warnings, revictimizing the women in the videos and making gender-based violence an instrument of control.
“Peru doesn’t have organizations that are as violent as in Colombia or Ecuador, so it’s a huge market, enormous. And exploiting women, well, that’s their specialty,” a source from the Peruvian Attorney General’s Office told InSight Crime anonymously as she didn’t have authorization to speak on the record.
Going Local: The Economies That Show Entrenchment
Tren de Aragua’s exploitation of migrants in both smuggling and trafficking has provided the financial base for its expansion across South America. But as its cells have penetrated underworlds in their host countries, they have looked to take control of local, more sustainable local sources of income.
These cells begin by looking for low-hanging fruit: criminal economies that have little competition and low barriers to entry.
In many regions, their first step has been to take over the local sex trade.
Sex workers are highly vulnerable due to the stigma and criminalization of sex work, as well as the lack of protection provided by authorities. Venezuelan sex workers are often even more vulnerable thanks to their economic situation, lack of a local community, and sometimes illegal migration status. Tren de Aragua cells often start targeting the most vulnerable — Venezuelan sex workers — then expand operations to include locals as well.
Residents and human rights workers in the Colombian border town of La Parada told InSight Crime that sex workers there must have permission from Tren de Aragua to work in the area, and that the gang controls and profits from all aspects of the sex trade. Many of these women suffer the same kind of violence that Tren de Aragua employs with its human trafficking victims and feel they have nowhere to turn for protection.
“Once they gain women’s trust, they do a kind of study, asking who your mother is, who your family is,” explained a human rights worker in Cúcuta, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of reprisals from the gang. “Then, when they want to exploit women, they threaten their mothers, saying they know where she lives.”
As Tren de Aragua has become more established, it has expanded into more generalized extortion. Authorities in Colombia and Peru told InSight Crime that the group extorts a range of businesses like bus companies, restaurants, shops, construction sites, and bars.
In the Peruvian cities of Lima and Arequipa, Tren de Aragua cells have also moved into loan sharking, locally referred to as gota a gota (drop by drop). In these rackets, the gang provides informal loans with exorbitant interest rates to victims who cannot access traditional bank loans and feel they have no other options.
Peru’s gota a gota markets were traditionally controlled by Colombian gangs or loose networks, but Tren de Aragua has successfully taken over, sometimes violently forcing out its Colombian rivals.
“In Arequipa, Tren de Aragua started by extorting Colombian lenders. First, they kidnapped them, beat them, and threatened them so they’d fall into line,” said the same source from the Peruvian Attorney General’s Office.
Tren de Aragua also appears to have taken advantage of its migrant smuggling infrastructure to move into small-scale drug trafficking. As the Tren cells build up their local knowledge, they frequently move into retail drug sales. Throughout the region, the gang sells a variety of drugs directly to consumers, including marijuana, cocaine, ketamine, MDMA, and the synthetic drug known as tusi.
In Chile, Tren de Aragua has been reported to use domestic buses, to smuggle both migrants and wholesale quantities of drugs.
The gang has also been reported to deploy the “hormiga” (ant) method of using multiple individuals to move small quantities across a border. To do this, they often force migrants to move packages that are typically 1 kilogram or less of drugs, across the border from Bolivia into Chile, and — according to public officials and non-governmental organizations serving migrants in the area — the border between Ipiales, Colombia, and Tulcán, Ecuador.
There are also some indications that the group is moving into the small-scale production of some drugs. A Peruvian National Police (Policía Nacional Peruana – PNP) investigation discovered that one Tren de Aragua cell had its own facility to produce tusi. While tusi is the common name for the drug 2CB, what is sold in Latin America typically does not contain any 2CB and is a mix of other synthetic drugs dyed pink, making it relatively simple to produce. Another investigation in Chile led to a small seizure of coca base and the precursor chemicals used in the production of cocaine.
Could Tren de Aragua Become a Drug Trafficking Organization?
The size and nature of drug seizures made against Tren de Aragua suggest that the drugs were likely intended to supply the gang’s own local drug sales networks. But the gang’s control over movement corridors and border crossing and growing financial clout raises the possibility of it taking the leap into transnational drug trafficking.
For the moment, though, that seems a distant prospect. There is little evidence so far that it has the criminal connections, logistical capacity, or state penetration required to move large shipments of drugs for transnational networks.
“They’re never going to get into large-scale trafficking. Why not? Because the cartels will come and run circles around them. Forget it,” scoffed Jorge Chávez Cotrina, the national coordinator of Peru’s Specialized Prosecutor’s Office Against Organized Crime.
The patterns evident in Tren de Aragua’s construction of its criminal portfolio to this point suggest it will similarly be limited in any attempts to move into the most lucrative transnational criminal economies, despite its regional expansion.
The gang has seen the most success in economies where it has faced little competition, such as migrant smuggling and human trafficking, or where the key to success is crude violence, as with extortion, rather than knowledge, experience, connections, control of infrastructure, or up-front capital.
“[Tren de Aragua] is not involved in everything, they go where they see the most opportunity,” explained General Luis Jesús Flores Solís, the head of the PNP’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Directorate (Dirección Contra la Trata y Tráfico Ilícito de Migrantes).
With the loss of its home base, the prison of Tocorón in Aragua state, and the fact that the Tren leadership is now on the outside, it is likely there will be a quantum shift in the direction of Venezuela’s most powerful criminal structure, which may now be forced to adapt from being a prison gang to a federation of transnational cells.
All eyes, both in law enforcement and the underworld, are on Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero,” the leader of the gang, and his key lieutenants. Deprived of their comfortable operating base and fortress in Tocorón prison, they are likely to get more directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the gangs, in Venezuelan and abroad.
The gang has suffered a blow to its income streams as extortion within Tocorón which all prisoners had to pay to Niño Guerrero, known as la causa, has now disappeared. This was worth millions of dollars a year, and the Tren leadership will have to make up this money by finding new streams of income.
Tren de Aragua will either adapt to the new conditions, find alternative revenue streams and a new command and control system, or risk breaking up into a loosely aligned criminal federation.
What are your thoughts?
Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.
We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.