Authorities in Colombia have captured a number of Venezuelan gang members, alarming officials who say that the groups are playing out rivalries from their home country while worming their way into local criminal rackets.
Though members of Venezuelan gangs have been present in the countries’ porous border region for some time, cities in Colombia’s interior, including Bogotá, are now reporting more acts of violence connected to them.
In June, members of a gang that operates out of the northwestern Venezuelan border state of Zulia took responsibility for a double homicide in the capital, El Tiempo reported. The group -- led by Erick Alberto Parra Mendoza, alias "Yeico Masacre" -- boasted of the slaying of Sleiter José Leal, a Venezuelan suspected of ties to Los Melean, another criminal group based in Zulia.
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Yeico Masacre’s longtime war with Los Melean has been connected to much of the violence spilling into Colombia. According to El Tiempo, at least 12 murders in Colombia have been linked to the feud, including the killing of two of Parra Mendoza's family members in Ibagué, a Colombian city 230 miles southwest of the capital. And in January, Los Melean apparently were behind the targeted killing in Barranquilla of another Zulia-based gang leader.
This year has also seen arrests in Colombia of members of Tren del Norte, Tren del Llano, Cartel del Malecón and other Venezuelan "megabandas" -- gangs whose ranks can swell into the hundreds.
Their activity in Colombia appears to have picked up sometime in mid-2019. This was around the time that members of the powerful Tren de Aragua megabanda -- based in central Aragua state -- were arrested in Táchira, a state along the Venezuela-Colombia border. The region is full of informal crossings, known as "trochas," used to smuggle goods and people into Colombia.
In July 2019, eight members of Tren de Aragua were arrested in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander in connection to numerous homicides in the area. Later in the year, Deivi Antonio Herrera Mata, alias "El Cirujano," also a member of Tren de Aragua, was arrested in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta on charges of torture, dismemberment and forced disappearance of residents.
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While authorities have struggled to quantify how many Venezuelan criminal groups have established themselves in Colombia or how deep their networks run, the murders of these gang members and a rise in their arrests suggest a pattern of criminal migration.
Megabandas have increasingly made their way to the Colombia-Venezuela border where gang members pursued by authorities or other gangs can lie low. The lawless frontier also provides opportunities for the gangs to establish new criminal rackets, which can range from large-scale drug and human trafficking operations to theft and extortion of local businesses, a local border official told InSight Crime.
Venezuela's economic tailspin has caused megabandas to abandon longtime strongholds and change their activities. For example, in 2017, a gang migrated to the illegal gold mining region of Bolívar state in southern Venezuela, after illicit proceeds from local drug sales, extortion rackets, kidnappings and robberies dried up.
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Colombia's sprawling cities also offer opportunities for group members to hide out, or to claim gradual territorial control in fringe neighborhoods. Yeico Masacre and Los Melean appear to have focused on small-scale activities like theft, extortion, street-level drug sales and prostitution in Colombia, according to El Tiempo. Venezuelan women in Colombia have been known to become victims of human trafficking, including forced labor and sexual exploitation.
It would be relatively easy for gang members to set themselves up in such rackets, given their contacts in the underworld and with desperate Venezuelan migrants in Colombia.
The most ambitious Venezuelan groups have demonstrated a proclivity for this kind of expansion. Fifteen Tren de Aragua members, for example, planned extortion and robbery operations in Peru while trying to start a satellite network in 2018. Other members tried to take advantage of their 2019 arrest in Brazil to establish a network within the country’s prison system.
Hugo Acero, Secretary of Security, Coexistence and Justice (Secretaría de Seguridad, Convivencia y Justicia) in Bogotá, told InSight Crime that he believes the gang members in the capital are directly linked to Venezuela and not copycat groups using the names of known gangs.
Of the nearly 500 people killed in Bogotá this year, nearly ten percent were Venezuelan nationals, El Tiempo reported.