Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s most powerful home-grown criminal syndicate has just lost its home base, while its leadership is in the wind.  A new, and potentially more dangerous, chapter has begun in its criminal evolution.

On September 20, 2023, 11,000 police and soldiers surrounded and then took control of Tocorón prison in Aragua state. The stated aim of the operation was to “dismantle and put an end to organized crime gangs and other criminal networks operating from the Tocorón Penitentiary,” according to a government communique that never mentioned the Tren de Aragua by name.  The result was the eviction of the gang’s leadership from their private fortress. But Tocorón was not only the headquarters of Venezuela’s most notorious gang, it was also the nerve center of a criminal network that stretches to the Southern tip of South America.

*This article is the first 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 news filtered out that Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero,” and other top gang leaders had slipped away before the operation — likely thanks to a tip-off, or perhaps even a negotiated exit — it became clear that no “dismantling” had taken place. But it was the end of an era in which the gang could operate with impunity from within the protection of the prison walls as it built a transnational criminal empire off the backs of Venezuela’s seven million migrants.

Tren de Aragua must now evolve to survive, not only in Venezuela, but also in Colombia, Peru, Chile, and possibly beyond. And its future may be shaped as much by its criminal diaspora as by events in Venezuela. 

The Prison Break

Tren de Aragua started as a prison gang confined within the walls of Tocorón. But in the space of a decade, it has become one of the most rapidly growing security threats in South America. 

The group in its current form began to take shape inside Tocorón under the leadership of Niño Guerrero. Its influence grew thanks to the unofficial government policy of devolving power in Venezuela’s violent and uncontrollable prisons to gang bosses known as pranes.

“The government decided to essentially do nothing, and deliver the jails to the prisoners,” Roberto Briceño León, the director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV) told InSight Crime in 2018.

This policy was instituted by a new prison ministry created in 2011 and led by Iris Varela, a diehard loyalist of then-President Hugo Chávez. As the pran of Tocorón, Niño Guerrero successfully leveraged this new government strategy, as well as alleged links to prominent politicians including Varela, to turn the prison into his base of operations. 

As its power grew within Tocorón, Tren de Aragua began to establish cells and co-opt smaller gangs on the outside.  It began to project its power beyond the prison walls and throughout the state of Aragua, where the prison is located. 

However, Aragua represented just the first phase in the group’s national expansion. Currently, Tren de Aragua maintains a presence, either directly or through links with satellite gangs, in at least six of Venezuela’s 24 states, according to InSight Crime’s monitoring and investigations.

SEE ALSO: Hybrid Governance and the Criminal Fiefdoms of Tren de Aragua

This geographical spread was accompanied by an expansion into a broad range of criminal economies. What began with the simple extortion of prison inmates evolved into a diverse criminal portfolio, including everything from gold mining to cybercrime.

Those leading the expansion had direct ties to Tocorón. High-ranking members of the group were dispatched as emissaries once they left the prison, and alliances were forged with local crime bosses incarcerated in Tocorón, according to testimonies of residents, social leaders, and former prison guards, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. Former prisoners were also deployed as manpower and shock troops in zones around the country as Tren de Aragua established new outposts. 

As would later be the case for the group’s transnational network, Tren de Aragua’s structure and operations within Venezuela varied based on local conditions and criminal opportunities. However, even when operators in the domestic network acted with some level of autonomy, they ultimately answered to Niño Guerrero and the leadership in Tocorón, former prison guards and investigators in Venezuela told InSight Crime.

A Criminal Migration

While Tren de Aragua was growing in strength, Venezuela was sinking into crisis. Its economy was in a tailspin, and the government responded to popular unrest with violent repression and growing authoritarianism. Venezuelans began to flee the country in an unprecedented mass migration. And the Tren went with them.

The first reports of the group’s presence outside of Venezuela emerged in 2018 in neighboring Colombia — the first stop and the most common end destination for many Venezuelan migrants. As detailed in the second part of this investigation, there have since been signs of Tren de Aragua’s presence in the top regional destinations for Venezuelan migrants, with the gang laying down roots in Colombia, Peru, and Chile, and reports of their appearance in Ecuador, Brazil, and Bolivia. 

While this expansion likely began as an opportunistic response to the criminal opportunities created by the migrant crisis, it has since evolved, becoming more organized and coordinated as the network developed.

In each country, Tren de Aragua cells have formed in reaction to the local context, and its regional growth has been neither uniform nor homogenous. But while each cell may specialize in a specific criminal economy based on local conditions, InSight Crime interviews with high-ranking security officials and prosecutors, as well as judicial documents, show that most share the same basic modus operandi and pyramid-type structure, in which there is clear leadership.

“They have different people in each city to carry out their activities,” explained a source from the Attorney General’s Office Against Organized Crime in Arequipa, Peru, who asked to speak anonymously, “But that doesn’t imply that the different cells don’t work together. They definitely do.”

Coordination between these cells is necessary to manage transnational criminal economies, such as migrant smuggling and human trafficking, which are explored in the third chapter of this series, while there are also movements of personnel between cells. 

Law enforcement and journalistic investigations across South America have shown that the cells form an integrated network with direct operational and financial ties to Tren de Aragua leaders ensconced in Tocorón. 

In Peru, another source from the Attorney General’s Office who asked to remain anonymous due to open cases against the group, said investigations have shown that the leaders of the four active cells identified in Peru were all previously imprisoned in Tocorón, and that they were sent abroad under orders from the gang leadership.

“They left with instructions,” he said. “They came on behalf of the Tren.” 

The gang has even received replacement leaders sent from Tocorón after other lieutenants have been arrested, according to Peruvian prosecutors and officials in the Anti-Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Directorate of the Peruvian National Police (Dirección Contra la Trata y Tráfico Ilícito de Migrantes de la Policia Nacional Peruana – PNP). 

As personnel traveled in one direction from Tocorón, money from different cells has moved in the opposite direction. Interviews with the Peruvian homicide investigations chief Colonel Víctor Revoredo officials from the Attorney General’s Office Against Organized Crime in Arequipa as well as reports from Chilean authorities, show that cells abroad make payments directly to the organization in Venezuela.

The End of Tocorón: Decline or Evolution?

Transnational expansion allowed the Tocorón-based leaders to project power and secure wealth in ways that once seemed unimaginable for a humble prison gang. But it may have had a role to play in the group’s loss of its fortress.

Several experts have suggested the international outcry over the gang’s violent spread across the region was a factor in the Venezuelan government’s decision to move against it.

“I believe one of the reasons behind the taking of Tocorón is because there was an intervention on the behalf of the different governments, asking the Venezuelan government to act,” said Carlos Nieto Palma, general coordinator of Venezuelan prisons watchdog A Window to Freedom (Una Ventana a la Libertad).

The loss of Tocorón not only means the loss of a headquarters and operating base, it also means the loss of the protection and near-total impunity that allowed Niño Guerrero and his cohorts to build such a vast network. 

Without these advantages, the capacity of centralized leadership to coordinate disparate cells located across the region could be impacted.

If the transnational network is disrupted, there is a risk that local cells firmly entrenched in host countries could react by evolving instead of disappearing. The most likely outcome in such a scenario is that the cells would remain as autonomous local gangs, less dangerous in terms of national security, but still a serious threat in their areas of influence. 

Recent police investigations in Concepción, Chile, meanwhile point to another direction such an evolution could take. According to the investigation, a local cell is charging copycats to use its name as part of a “franchise.” This model, similar to the one used by paramilitary successor groups in Colombia, would allow the group to receive income from satellite cells without having to provide initial funds, protection, or manpower. It would increase the gang’s reach and capacity by using the franchises as criminal contractors and surrogates.

SEE ALSO: Has Venezuela Prison Raid Smashed Tren de Aragua?

Faced with increasingly intense security operations in host countries, another possibility is that large-scale arrests of Tren de Aragua members would offer an opportunity for the group to return to its roots as a prison gang, but this time in host nations. 

Given its experience not only in controlling prisons but also using its control of prisons to project power and build networks on the outside, the gang could feasibly use the setbacks of arrests to cement its position in the national criminal landscape. The risk of this has already been made clear by reports of Tren de Aragua members organizing in prisons in Colombia, while concerns about this possibility have led to prisoner transfers to high-security jails in Peru and Chile.

“Their interest in controlling prisons, that’s just one of the latent risks we have. But we’re prepared,” Colonel Revoredo told InSight Crime.

However, another possibility remains. Instead of orphaning Tren de Aragua’s transnational cells, the taking of Tocorón may increase their importance to the organization. 

Tren de Aragua’s loss of Tocorón implies the loss of income, not only from the extortion of inmates, but also from the activities run from within the prison walls, which range from microtrafficking to contraband. The transnational cells could help replace this, especially if Niño Guerrero demands an increased tribute to make up for the shortfall. In this way, the regional network could play a key role in helping the gang rebuild. 

But more pressingly, since Niño Guerrero was declared Venezuela’s most wanted criminal shortly after the raid, every country where the gang has taken root now represents a potential escape route for Tren de Aragua’s once untouchable leader. 

Wherever Niño Guerrero and the other gang leaders land, they will no longer have the option of running operations from the safe distance of their fortified headquarters, and instead may now be forced to take more direct control of operations both in Venezuelan and beyond. While this may test their leadership capabilities, it could also energize elements of the gang into further expansion and violence.

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