The arrest of members from a major Venezuelan gang, the Tren de Aragua, in the border state of Táchira reveals the expansion of this powerful group into what is already one of the country's most violent and active criminal areas.
Venezuelan police officials recently detained four members of the Tren de Aragua transporting 40 kilograms of marijuana from the town of Táriba, in Táchira, to the state of Barinas. The Tren de Aragua has grown to be perhaps the largest criminal organization in Venezuela, with a presence across the country as well as in Peru.
Freddy Bernal, a former Venezuelan police officer and lawmaker who has been named as "protector" of the state of Táchira, first reported the involvement of the megabanda (a criminal gang with over 100 members), stating that they were transporting a type of synthetic marijuana, known as "crispy," in sugarcane packages.
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The presence of the Tren de Aragua in Táchira had already been reported in late May, after the death of one of its members in an alleged confrontation with officers from Venezuela’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas - CICPC).
The Tren de Aragua originated in the state of Aragua, which continues to be its power base and where it has established a reputation for kidnappings, extortions, homicides, robberies, and car theft.
While the group's leader, Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño” Guerrero, has been jailed, this has not curtailed their activities. Guerrero Flores is now the prison boss, or “pran,” of Tocorón prison, from where he runs the gang's criminal activities.
Colombian authorities in the border city of Cúcuta have also recently confirmed the megabanda's expansion to Venezuela's western border region.
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The expansion of the Tren de Aragua to new territories near Colombia, specifically Táchira, poses a significant threat on both sides of the border. Across Venezuela and abroad, the gang has proven its ability to recruit large numbers of members and to equip them with military-grade weaponry.
In recent years, the megabanda has made steady progress in Venezuela, especially in the state of Bolívar, where it controls illegal gold mines. In Peru, five of its members were arrested and jailed for planning a major bank robbery.
Recently, Colonel José Palomino, commandant of the Metropolitan Police of Cúcuta, declared that at least 10 irregular groups are responsible for the upsurge of violence along the border.
"There is a special situation on the Venezuelan side, with 'colectivos,' militias and a new group named the Tren de Aragua appearing,” explained Palomino.
Its arrival to the state of Táchira risks bringing it into direct conflict with criminal groups already battling it out for control of cross-border criminal economies, such as the Rastrojos and Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), as well as Venezuelan colectivos.
At the moment, little seems able to stop the continued growth and strengthening of Tren de Aragua. Police sources in Aragua told InSight Crime that the group is present in at least six Venezuelan states and that its growth has been due to government backing, although this has not been independently verified.