HomeNewsAnalysisGameChangers 2020: Tren de Aragua and the Exportation of Venezuelan Organized Crime
ANALYSIS

GameChangers 2020: Tren de Aragua and the Exportation of Venezuelan Organized Crime

COCAINE / 30 DEC 2020 BY VENEZUELA INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EN

Venezuela has long been known as a strategic rearguard for Colombia's guerrilla groups. Yet 2020 saw the acceleration of a newer dynamic: Venezuelan gangs now rival their Colombian counterparts in numbers and firepower, and are using the devastated country as a springboard for international expansion, even while the coronavirus pandemic rages around them.

This trajectory is exemplified by Tren de Aragua (Train of Aragua), Venezuela’s premier “megabanda,” or large criminal network. From humble beginnings as a prison gang in the penitentiary of Tocorón, in the state of Aragua, Tren de Aragua now commands a noteworthy and diversified criminal network, using Tocorón as a nerve center to control members throughout the Venezuelan prison system and a federation of affiliated groups on the outside.

The “train” is a loose reference to their leadership structure in the jails, but by 2020, the gang’s core membership had grown to an estimated 2,700, according to police sources consulted by InSight Crime. Its wider federation is active in at least nine states: Aragua, Guárico, Carabobo, Trujillo, Miranda, Bolívar, Sucre, Lara and Táchira, with the possible addition of Zulia.

*A criminal winner is an organization or a person that has greatly advanced their criminal goals in spite of tremendous odds or against prognostications; changed the underworld via some form of ingenuity, alliance or other means; established unprecedented power or hegemony; or otherwise illustrated tremendous criminal and/or corrupt prowess. The winner is determined by InSight Crime's staff, which votes on three candidates provided by the website's editors.

Evidence shows that the group has also extended its tentacles into Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Simultaneously, it has diversified its criminal portfolio, moving into more sophisticated criminal economies and adapting its modus operandi to turn Venezuela’s economic crisis into a criminal opportunity. Its increasing involvement in human smuggling operations suggests that the exodus of Venezuelan migrants has provided both cover and fuel for its international expansion.

Already, others are moving in the same direction. As activity by other Venezuelan gangs is increasingly reported deep into Colombia and even further afield, 2020 has shown that Venezuelan organized crime is now poised to become a continental threat.

Consolidation in Venezuela

Going into 2020, Tren de Aragua was already the dominant player on Venezuela’s criminal scene. Since its formation in the late 2000s, its leader, Héctor Rustherford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño” Guerrero, has been the undisputed pran, or prison gang leader, of Tocorón, running the penitentiary as his personal criminal fiefdom. His gang charges prisoners an extortion known as the “causa” (cause), bringing in an estimated $1.5 million per year. With this, Guerrero has remodeled Tocorón as more of a resort than a prison. A 2015 report by Runrunes found a nightclub, swimming pool, restaurants and even a zoo within the compound.

Guerrero uses Tocorón as a stronghold from which he runs drug dealing, carjacking, kidnapping and extortion networks throughout the region. Crimes are ordered from the prison, carried out by Tren de Aragua’s members on the outside, and payments are delivered directly to Tocorón. Many operations are coordinated from the gang’s enclave in San Vicente, a neighborhood 30 kilometers from Tocorón. There, the gang blocks the entry of security forces and has supplanted some state functions through an influential foundation that acts as a front for the gang, Somos El Barrio JK.

Furthermore, Tocorón has served as a refuge for pranes from across Venezuela. Guerrero even hosted a congress of gang leaders from other prisons, according to a source from Venezuela’s criminal investigations unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC). In this way, Guerrero has become a pran of pranes, extending his criminal model throughout the prison system and building a coalition of allied gangs on the outside.

Although this federation has been active for several years, 2020 demonstrated the scale of Tren de Aragua’s ambitions. In May, residents reported that the gang had established a visible, armed presence in Sucre’s Paria Peninsula. The incursion likely built on operations in support of the local San Juan de Unare gang in 2018, local residents and experts told InSight Crime.

Tren de Aragua’s presence in this drug trafficking hotspot, coupled with arrests of gang members with drug loads in the Colombian border state of Táchira in 2019, supports claims that the gang has shifted from local drug distribution to involvement in bigger drug transport operations. According to an expert studying the prison system who did not want to be identified, Tren de Aragua’s primary role is not to move shipments themselves, but rather to protect corridors and provide cover to drug traffickers.

SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua Profile

Tren de Aragua’s operations are facilitated by its network of alliances with smaller local gangs, which has allowed it to extend its influence into further states while avoiding armed confrontation. Former CICPC officer Sergio González described this model as a form of criminal outsourcing, in which Tren de Aragua provides smaller gangs with logistical support, additional manpower and weaponry. These affiliated groups manage local criminal economies such as drug distribution, while sending a cut of profits and intelligence on police operations back to Tren de Aragua. Gangs that have been drawn into this criminal franchise include Carlos Capa in Miranda and Tren del Llano in Guárico, according to police sources and local media.

In 2020, there were signs Guerrero had extended this network even further. The state of Lara saw the explosion onto the criminal scene of José Santana, alias “Santanita,” a previously little-known gang leader whom Venezuelan authorities believe is operating under orders from Guerrero. Violently extorting car dealerships, using grenades to destroy businesses who do not comply and circulating threats via social media, Santanita’s gang has been a priority target for Venezuelan authorities throughout 2020, but he has also eluded capture so far. Similarly, the northwest state of Zulia has seen the sudden resurgence of Tren del Norte, a prison gang whose leader was imprisoned in Tocorón until 2017 and reportedly grew close to Guerrero. After several years of decline, the gang was linked to a wave of grenade attacks in the state capital Maracaibo during late 2019 and into 2020, raising speculation the gang had secured more powerful backing.

A parallel strategy has allowed Tren de Aragua to extend its influence into new criminal economies. During fieldwork in Bolívar, InSight Crime found that one of Tren de Aragua’s early members, Yohan José Romero, alias “Johan Petrica,” had been present in Sifontes municipality since around 2017, where he had taken charge of an important mining gang. Although it is unconfirmed to what extent Petrica still responds to Guerrero, his ranks have been regularly bolstered by former prisoners from Tocorón.

In October 2020, El Pitazo reported a clash between Bolívar state police and a Tren de Aragua cell in Bolívar’s southern municipality of Gran Sabana. The group had allegedly been attempting to muscle into Indigenous-controlled mining areas near the Brazilian border, suggesting that Tren de Aragua now feels confident to run illegal mining operations directly.

During 2020, Tren de Aragua also tightened its control in its core enclave of Tocorón and San Vicente. Despite Tocorón already facing huge overcrowding, Tren de Aragua’s earnings and power have been boosted during 2020 by transfers of inmates from other prisons. Meanwhile, the gang has clamped down on the population of San Vicente, imposing curfews and patrolling openly with heavy weaponry, according to police statements and video seen by InSight Crime. Sources in the Aragua police claim the gang has taken over gas stations in Aragua, increasing gasoline costs significantly at a time when fuel is in severe shortage.

The gang also demonstrated its dominance over state security forces in several armed confrontations, including a grenade attack on an ambulance carrying an injured police officer and the ambush of a police patrol in San Vicente minutes later. Two officers died in the attacks.

These incidents point to Tren de Aragua’s two-sided relationship with Venezuelan authorities. On the one hand, the gang has undoubtedly been facilitated by the tolerance, if not active support, of government officials. Tocorón prison, for instance, was left out of the “New Penitentiary Regime” designed to control criminality within prisons, likely as a result of pacts formed with former Prison Minister Iris Varela. Furthermore, there is evidence that prisoners affiliated to the gang have been deployed to criminal hotspots in support of state interests, helping them gain a criminal foothold in these states.

These connections reach into other ministries as well. Local sources consulted by InSight Crime stated that prisoners from Tocorón were deployed to Sucre in 2018 to support the state-favored San Juan de Unare gang in its war with rival San Juan de las Galdonas. A security analyst who has extensive experience researching Tren de Aragua told InSight Crime that this release of prisoners was negotiated by current Minister of Petroleum, and former Aragua governor and Vice President Tareck El Aissami. Although there is no definitive evidence linking El Aissami to the gang, he was Governor of Aragua at the time of Tren de Aragua’s emergence, and expert observers told InSight Crime he is widely believed to be the group’s political godfather. El Aissami does not appear to have publicly addressed these links.

However, the gang does not have complete impunity. Its members have regularly clashed with security forces in 2020, including the CICPC and the Special Action Forces (Fuerza de Acciones Especiales – FAES), often leading to casualties within the group. Indeed, analysts consulted by InSight Crime stated that the gang has come under pressure from security forces in its traditional territories, partially driving its quest to expand.

Throughout 2020, Tren de Aragua consolidated operations in strategic areas for transnational organized crime -- such as Táchira, Bolívar and Sucre -- where they are well-placed to profit from cross-border contraband and migrant flows. This has likely allowed the gang to compensate for lost earnings from criminal economies that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, such as drug peddling and robbery. Simultaneously, the exodus from Venezuela and the growing Venezuelan diaspora has led to the expansion of the gang’s activities abroad.

International Expansion

Prior to 2020, Tren de Aragua’s presence had already been reported on the Colombian and Brazilian borders, and as far away as Peru. Peruvian police, for example, first sounded the alarm on Tren de Aragua’s presence in the country in 2018, when they arrested five members of the gang in connection to a planned bank robbery. In 2019, an attack on a betting shop in Lima was also attributed to the gang, as well as a brutal dismemberment of two men in a hotel room.

The criminal group’s presence in Colombia was confirmed in mid-2019, when eight members were arrested in the border town of Cúcuta. Colombia's non-governmental Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación - PARES) reported that the migration had been achieved with the support of Los Urabeños, one of Colombia’s most powerful and extensive criminal networks.

Shortly after, Brazilian security forces reported that Tren de Aragua cells were operating in Pacaraima, in northern Brazil, and that captured members of the gang were starting to sow cells inside the Brazilian prison system. Brazilian media noted the gang had gained a foothold in the country through human smuggling and extorting Venezuelan migrants on the border.

During 2020, this modus operandi has also been the backbone of Tren de Aragua’s operations on the Colombian border. An international security expert in the department of Norte de Santander who requested anonymity explained that the gang has consolidated control over extorting migrants in the illegal border crossings connecting San Antonio del Táchira to Cúcuta, fending off fierce competition from rival groups. From there, the gang is battling to expand its operations into drug distribution and extortion, spurring escalating violence throughout the surrounding area.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela’s Gangs Push Deeper Into Colombia

In October, four members of Tren de Aragua were deported from Cúcuta after escaping from prison in Táchira, showing that the gang now uses Colombia as a hideout from Venezuelan authorities. The men were captured in a hotel near the bus terminal, from where they had planned to move deeper into Colombia’s hinterlands.

The incident lends credence to reports that the gang has already established cells in other regions of Colombia. Both Colombian and Venezuelan police sources have told InSight Crime that Tren de Aragua operates in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla, the south of the capital Bogotá, and in Bogotá's satellite town of Soacha.

In November 2020, Ecuadorean police announced that they had dismantled a cell of the group in Tulcán on the Colombia-Ecuador border. The group was involved in extorting the local transport system and smuggling migrants from Colombia into Ecuador, en route to Peru. In Peru itself, another member of Tren de Aragua was arrested, adding to evidence that splinter cells have taken root in the country.

So far, the gang’s foreign cells have mostly been associated with extortion, armed robbery and human smuggling, suggesting that the impoverishment of Venezuela has driven gang members to look for new populations to exploit abroad.

Venezuelan police sources believe there are also more systemic motives, primarily the search for drug routes to enable the gang to develop trafficking operations outside of Venezuela. Although the claim has also been made by one of Colombia’s top police officials, General Nicacio Martínez, concrete evidence is lacking. While the gang’s evolution within Venezuela suggests that developing domestic drug routes is on its agenda, it is doubtful whether its modus operandi would lend itself to the more sophisticated and competitive economy of transnational drug trafficking.

Questions also remain about the degree of control between Tren de Aragua’s core leadership and the cells bearing its name abroad. Despite the gang’s rapid expansion and proliferation of splinter groups, its leadership still seems to be highly centralized in the figure of “Niño” Guerrero. This makes it questionable whether the gang could maintain an effective chain of command between its operational hub and an international network.

On the other hand, the model of criminal outsourcing by which the gang has expanded within Venezuela suggests that the strength of the gang’s federal structure may already have superseded its visible leadership. This lends some credence to police sources who insist that these foreign cells are still tied to the central structure of Tren de Aragua.

The Exportation of Venezuelan Organized Crime

Tren de Aragua is far from the only Venezuelan gang to have spread its tentacles into neighboring countries. Indeed, its selection as Criminal Winner also serves to shine a light on how a number of prominent Venezuela megabandas are following in its footsteps.

In November 2020, the police killing of Venezuelan mafia boss Willy Meleán in Sabana de Torres, in the Colombian department of Santander, shone a light on the Venezuelan crime networks steadily consolidating within Colombia.

Los Meleán is one of several rival criminal clans based in the northwest Venezuelan state of Zulia. Although members of these gangs have historically used the north of Colombia as a hideout -- as evidenced by attacks on Colombian soil as far back as 2012 -- both their criminal activities and their feuds have escalated across the country during 2020.

To be sure, Colombia has become a regular battlefield for Venezuelan gang rivalries.

In January 2020, Hugo González Rico, alias “Kike,” was killed in Barranquilla in an attack attributed to rivals in Los Meleán. González was a core member of the Zulia-based prison gang Tren del Norte, historically linked to Tren de Aragua, according to police sources and local journalists consulted by InSight Crime.

A further spiral of violence was tied to the war between Los Meleán and the gang led by Erick Alberto Parra Mendoza, alias “Yeico Masacre.” A report in El Tiempo linked at least 12 murders in Colombia to this feud, including the killing of two members of Parra Mendoza’s family in Ibagué in February 2020, and a retaliatory double homicide in Bogotá in June.

These criminal structures now run robbery, extortion, prostitution and microtrafficking operations in Barranquilla, Valledupar, Santa Marta, Riohacha, Ibagué, Soacha and Bogotá, according to Semana. The clashes between Los Meleán and Yeico Masacre in Bogotá have been linked to disputes for control of drug distribution in the capital's Fontibon, Chapinero and Santa Fe neighborhoods.

Furthermore, there is evidence that this expansion has been facilitated by corrupt Colombian officials. After the killing of Willy Meleán, an audit by Colombian authorities revealed that a registry office in Galapa, Atlántico, had fraudulently issued identity cards to 76 Venezuelan nationals, including Willy Meleán and suspected members of his gang.

These groups may also be extending their influence beyond Colombia. For instance, in 2019, it was reported that alias “Kike” -- the Tren del Norte leader later killed in Barranquilla -- was serving jail time in Panama, where he had been heading a criminal cell known as “Los Internacionales.” He continued to direct criminal operations, including assassinations, from jail.

But 2020 was the year of the Tren de Aragua, both within Venezuela and beyond, and it is our Criminal Winner.

*A criminal winner is an organization or a person that has greatly advanced their criminal goals in spite of tremendous odds or against prognostications; changed the underworld via some form of ingenuity, alliance or other means; established unprecedented power or hegemony; or otherwise illustrated tremendous criminal and/or corrupt prowess. The winner is determined by InSight Crime's staff, which votes on three candidates provided by the website's editors.

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