Authorities in Venezuela have killed four members of a criminal group that allegedly commands 30 smaller groups, suggesting a level of sophistication and organization that could mean Venezuelan criminals are moving closer to making the leap into transnational organized crime.
The four members of a group known as Tren del Norte were killed in a shootout with security forces on May 6, reported Venezuelan newspaper Panorama. A spokesman for national police agency CICPC said the group was responsible for extortion, robbery, car theft, hired assassinations, drug trafficking, burglary and bank robbery in the northern and western sections of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second largest city.
Tren del Norte has been linked to numerous homicides, including the recent death of a woman who was attending a child's birthday party when members of the group broke into the party venue and opened fire.
InSight Crime Analysis
The organization and range of activities of Tren del Norte echoes that of an "oficina de cobro" -- a Colombian criminal structure that provides services such as assassinations and debt collecting for larger organizations, but also engages in its own activities, such as micro-trafficking and extortion. As appears to be the case with Tren del Norte, these Colombian organizations also use the services of affiliated gangs.
In addition to its size and level of organization, Tren del Norte has apparently recruited National Guard members and uses high-caliber weapons, two more indications of its sophistication.
Venezuela is already a hub for transnational crime as it is a key transit country for Colombian drug shipments headed to the United States and Europe. This is especially true in the Colombian border region, where Maracaibo is located, where drugs and contraband items like fuel are smuggled across the land border, and drug flights are dispatched.
However, aside from the country's military, the trade is dominated by foreign groups. Several Colombian organizations, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and BACRIM (for the Spanish "bandas criminales" -- criminal bands) maintain a presence in the region, while Mexico's Zetas have also been reported to operate in the region.
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The situation is exacerbated by widespread protests and civil unrest in Venezuela throughout 2014, which have kept the police preoccupied with political problems. The chaos created by these protests, coupled with a weak administration, provides fertile ground for the development of criminal groups.