Authorities in Chile are on high alert due to reports that Venezuela's Tren de Aragua gang is involved in migrant smuggling in the country – new evidence of the group's regional expansion.
Chilean prosecutors have opened at least four investigations involving reports that Tren de Aragua members are involved in illegally transporting migrants from Bolivia to the country's capital city of Santiago, according to local Chilean media.
At least nine or 10 members of the gang have been detained for helping as many as 3,600 migrants enter Chile, Mega Noticias reported October 15, citing an investigation by prosecutors in Chile’s central-northern region.
Another prosecutor’s office in the northern region of Tarapacá, along the border with Bolivia, is reportedly investigating three more cases of migrant smuggling involving the gang.
SEE ALSO: Chile News and Profile
According to Carolina Suazo, a prosecutor with the Attorney General’s Office in northern Chile, witnesses spoke of the Tren de Aragua’s involvement in moving migrants in risky conditions along remote trails across the border.
The first reports of Tren de Aragua members in Chile date back to March 2021, when a group of 21 migrants reported having been attacked by armed Venezuelan men after they refused to pay for crossing the border, La Tercera reported.
Since then, Chilean police have found other instances of migrants shot by alleged Tren de Aragua members due to disputes over payment.
InSight Crime Analysis
Tren de Aragua has been expanding progressively throughout South America, often following migrant smuggling routes. Venezuela's premier "megabanda," or large criminal network, InSight crime named the group its “Criminal Winner” in 2020 due to its pattern of criminal migration to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.
It now seems that Chile and Bolivia can be added to this list of countries the group has a presence in.
Tren de Aragua has expanded greatly from its beginnings in the Venezuelan state of Aragua, where it became involved in drug and arms trafficking and vehicle theft. In 2021, the group's presence was confirmed along remote trails dividing Venezuela and Colombia, where it contested control of lucrative criminal economies like migrant smuggling. This brought it into conflict with Colombia's largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), arguably the region's strongest criminal actor.
That it should pick a fight with an adversary of this size is evidence of Tren de Aragua’s staying power.
SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua Profile
Officials from Colombia and Ecuador have also reported that the gang is active in border crossings between the two South American nations.
If correct, the presence of Tren de Aragua in Chile would represent a significant expansion of the gang's operations, converting it from a transnational gang heavily tied to Venezuela into a true regional threat.
Should Tren de Aragua establish a permanent presence in Chile and Bolivia, it would be well-positioned to expand into other significant cross-border economies, particularly drug trafficking and contraband smuggling.