A former army lieutenant allegedly recruited Venezuelan soldiers to provide firepower for the Tren de Guayana gang's bid to take over illegal gold mining operations in southern Venezuela, revealing the ever more complex web of collaboration between the military and criminal gangs.
The allegation was made in a filmed confession by ex-sergeant Ricardo Andrés Figueroa Largo. The video, dated July 12, 2021, was shared by local journalist Germán Dam on Twitter.
In the video, Figueroa states he and other soldiers were contracted for $1,000 per month by an army lieutenant. According to Dam’s investigations the lieutenant was a member of the 51st Infantry Brigade who took early retirement.
Figueroa had already deserted the army when he received the offer from the lieutenant, who said he would be working as a security guard for a gold company in Bolívar state, according to Dam’s investigations. But on arrival, Figueroa was forced into the ranks of Tren de Guayana and deployed in an operation to retake a mine occupied by rival gang 3Rs Organization.
In a separate video, Figueroa describes how the rival gang captured him. Both videos are shot by his captors, raising questions about the level of coercion involved in the confession.
Nevertheless, his claims were echoed by human rights lawyer Tamara Suju. She argued that mercenaries were deployed in a coordinated campaign between Tren de Guayana and the army to take control of the Atenas mine in Bolívar.
“The army went into the area to displace the miners and give the mine to the other gang,” she told Diario Las Américas.
Venezuela’s 51st Infantry Brigade occupied the mine in April 2021. At the time, displaced miners told local media that the military incursion had been supported by masked men dressed in black.
InSight Crime Analysis
While InSight Crime cannot independently confirm Figueroa’s story, it is consistent with numerous recent reports to InSight Crime regarding coordination between the army and Tren de Guayana.
According to local miners, social leaders and underworld sources who spoke to InSight Crime, the goal is to wrest control of profitable mines from small miners and unfavored gangs in Bolívar, a large state rich in gold deposits in southern Venezuela.
Tren de Guayana currently controls mining operations in the municipalities of Roscio and El Callao, and runs extortion rackets in Ciudad Guayana. It is led by Rony Yackson Colome Cruz, alias “Ronny Matón,” who took over following the death of the previous leader, Phanor Vladimir Sanclemente Ojeda, alias “El Capitán.”
According to testimony from a security force whistleblower, under its previous leadership, Tren de Guayana was one of several sindicatos that enjoyed the protection of former Bolívar governor Francisco Rangel Gómez.
After Rangel Gómez left the governorship in 2017, any continued links between the local government and the gang were left in limbo. El Capitán was killed by the military counterintelligence directorate (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar – DGCIM), and the group came under sporadic attack from security forces in El Callao.
Despite these attacks, Tren de Guayana gained strength in the municipality of Roscio, in the east of Bolívar, between 2018 and 2019.