With dozens of Venezuelan athletes now playing on Major League Baseball teams in the United States, a powerful gang has begun to extort local academies and scouts in charge of finding, training and developing them in their home country.
In late August, heavily armed men in north-central Aragua state appeared in a video in which they threatened scout Alexis Quiroz, who owns the AQ Sport Agency baseball academy, El Pitazo reported.
Weeks earlier, two of Quiroz’s bodyguards were shot at in the state capital of Maracay. Gunmen also shot up Quiroz’s home prior to the attack on his bodyguards, according to El Pitazo. The attack was allegedly carried out by members of the Tren de Aragua, a powerful "megabanda," or gang of more than 100 members.
SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua Profile
In the video threat, the armed gunmen warned Quiroz that his family, staff and players will "suffer the consequences” if he "did not come to his senses."
“Look at what happened to the two bodyguards,” they added.
Quiroz and the AQ Sport Agency responded to the recent threats in a September 1 press release. "Criminal gangs try to sow terror and attack our staff and facilities. Faced with this situation, our organization denounced and appealed to the competent security authorities," the statement read in part.
InSight Crime Analysis
Major League Baseball (MLB) contracts are worth millions of dollars, so it comes as little surprise that criminal groups might think targeting the scouts tasked with helping star players secure those contracts in the United States would lead to a big payday.
However, these academies are not flush with money, suffering from the same economic insecurity as the rest of the country. In recent years, several MLB teams’ academies in Venezuela have been shuttered entirely, unable to maintain their facilities or provide food and other services to their prospects.
More than a quarter of MLB players in 2020 were born outside the United States. After the Dominican Republic, Venezuela ranked second with 75 players featured on opening day rosters this year, according to league data.
The salaries of Venezuelan baseball players are astronomical when compared to the average Venezuelan, who likely earns around or even less than $4 a day, the country’s minimum wage in 2020. In July 2019, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed 16-year-old outfielder Luis Rodriguez -- the fourth-ranked international prospect at the time -- to a contract worth almost $2.7 million.
Baseball academies like the one run by Quiroz in Aragua are a crucial part of premier players securing MLB contracts. The AQ Sport Agency is part of an official partnership between MLB and dozens of independent trainers in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela designed to “help develop international baseball.” In Venezuela alone, MLB works with 30 trainers like Quiroz.
The Venezuelan state of Aragua has produced some of Major League Baseball’s most impressive players. José Altuve, who won the World Series with the Houston Astros in 2017, was born in Maracay, Aragua's capital city near the northern Caribbean coast. Detroit Tigers infielder Miguel Cabrera, a seven-time all-star and World Series champion who is almost certain to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when his career ends, according to analysts, was also born in Aragua.
This trend of top-level talent coming from the state continues today. The MLB's second-most touted international prospect, 16-year-old phenom Wilman Diaz, is from Aragua and trains with Quiroz at AQ Sport Agency.
The state also serves as the Tren de Aragua's stronghold, where it runs extortion, car theft and kidnapping rings. The megabanda -- known for extreme violence -- now has tentacles stretching across Venezuela and into nearby countries.