Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero,” is the leader of Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s largest homegrown criminal group. He is also Venezuela’s strongest pran, a term referring to powerful bosses of prison gangs with power to run criminal operations outside prison walls.
Niño Guerrero’s base is currently Tocorón prison in the state of Aragua, from where he oversees Tren de Aragua’s rapid expansion inside and outside Venezuela.
On September 20, 2023, Venezuelan authorities launched a large-scale security operation inside Tren de Aragua’s base, Tocorón prison. Up to 11,000 police and military personnel entered the site, backed up by armored vehicles, to seemingly take control of the prison.
“Niño Guerrero” was born on December 2, 1983 in Maracay, Aragua, just over a hundred kilometers from Caracas. Guerrero first got his start in organized crime in the early 2000s when he was accused of attacking police officers and microtrafficking.
According to records from Venezuela’s Supreme Court of Justice, on September 3, 2005, Niño Guerrero killed a police officer in Aragua in September 2005, which first brought him notoriety. At that time, the gang he would end up leading, Tren de Aragua, was becoming known locally for kidnapping and extortion.
Niño Guerrero was arrested in 2010 for selling stolen goods and drug trafficking in his native Maracay. He also faced three outstanding homicide charges and was jailed in Tocorón. He rapidly became an influential gang leader within the prison and already had the power to order crimes from behind bars. In August 2012, Niño Guerrero escaped from prison along with 14 associates, although little is known about how this escape took place.
In June 2013, he was arrested again in Barquisimeto, a city in the state of Lara. Niño Guerrero had been carrying out home invasions and robberies for several months and was highly sought-after by police.
He was jailed in Tocorón but enjoyed a certain freedom of movement. In 2015, while imprisoned, Niño Guerrero appeared at a party in a Maracay neighborhood controlled by Tren de Aragua. Speaking to residents, he presented himself as the leader of the gang and vowed he would improve living conditions for them.
A year later, Niño Guerrero went on trial in Maracay on a wide range of charges, including multiple homicides, robberies, drug trafficking, weapons possession, and escaping from prison. In February 2018, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison, a sentence he is still serving today.
This, however, did nothing to diminish the power of Niño Guerrero or Tren de Aragua. The group continued to expand its power through Venezuela and in 2020, the gang was estimated to have at least 1,000 members who answered to Tocorón.
In Tocorón, Niño Guerrero’s power is reflected in the luxuries he has built there. From the few stories of visitors to the prison, he is believed to live in a two-story house inside the prison. He has also had a swimming pool, a baseball field, a concert venue, and even a small zoo built there.
Today, Niño Guerrero oversees a sprawling criminal empire. One of Niño Guerrero’s main successes has been to engineer his gang following and profiting from the massive migration of Venezuelans across Latin America. Now, this sees him connected to operations across half a dozen countries as Tren de Aragua members use migrant smuggling as a way to get involved in drug trafficking, sex trafficking, and extortion in new areas.
Niño Guerrero has profited handsomely from the multiple criminal economies Tren de Aragua is involved in: extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, murder-for-hire, vehicle theft, migrant smuggling, sex trafficking, and human trafficking.
Niño Guerrero’s most direct involvement is in extortion at the prison he commands. At Tocorón, all prisoners must pay a fee in order to live there. In 2020, this was set at $10-15 dollars, although there is debate as to whether this fee was to be paid weekly or monthly.
Furthermore, his criminal governance is firmly established in the nearby town of Maracay. For several years now, Guerrero is believed to be running daily life in Maracay, with his men imposing curfews, seizing vehicles and goods at will, and residents being punished for a range of transgressions.
He has also overseen the expansion of Tren de Aragua throughout Venezuela as well as setting up a presence in Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia. However, it remains unclear to what extent Niño Guerrero directly oversees the operations of Tren de Aragua members abroad and how much profit from their activities makes its way back to Tocorón.
Niño Guerrero sustains his power through the territorial control he exercises in the center of Venezuela, especially in the state of Aragua. To date, Tren de Aragua’s presence has spread to other states, including Lara, Trujillo, Sucre, Miranda, Guárico, Carabobo, and Bolívar.
Added to the above is the rapid, although patchy, international expansion of Tren de Aragua. In Colombia, the gang has appeared in the capital Bogotá where it is amid a dispute to control drug trafficking with local gangs. Members of Tren de Aragua were first arrested in Peru in 2018 and Brazil in 2019, having sought to set up extortion and drug trafficking operations.
In Chile, Tren de Aragua has set up operations in over a dozen cities, mostly using Venezuelan migrants as victims for their crimes, forcing them to pay fees to cross borders, making them transport drugs, or coercing them to work in the sex trade. A similar situation has happened in Ecuador, where members of Tren de Aragua have extorted their compatriots in the country.
Allies and Enemies
Given the range of Tren de Aragua’s operations in Venezuela and beyond, Niño Guerrero has developed a strong network of lieutenants. A number of these in Venezuela are known, including Wilmer Pérez Castillo, alias “Wilmer Guayabal,” José Santana, alias “Santanita,” José Alvarado, alias “Goyo Chevrolet”, Larry Amaury Álvarez, alias “Larry Changa,” and a man identified only as Kleiverson, alias “Flipper,” who runs Tren de Aragua’s foundation through which it organizes social campaigns, Fundación Somos el Barrio JK. One of the gang’s original founders, Johan José Romero, alias “Johan Petrica,” has left Tocorón but is believed to remain close to Niño Guerrero. Johan Petrica currently runs illegal mining operations in the south of Bolívar state.
Tren de Aragua has also made a number of alliances with smaller gangs in Venezuela, including the Veras, led by alias “Carlos Conejo”, the Coty gang and the El Asdrúbal gang. Niño Guerrero has also reached agreements with criminal organizations as important as Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) along the Brazil-Venezuela border.
In relation to the enemies, these change depending on the country. In Bogotá, the authorities have pointed out that Tren de Aragua faces a range of smaller criminal gangs for control of drug trafficking. In Cúcuta, a Colombian city that borders Venezuela, it was reported that Tren de Aragua clashed with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the last great guerrilla in the country, in 2021.
Niño Guerrero is one of the most recognized and powerful criminals in Venezuela. There is no sign his power, and that of Tren de Aragua, will not continue to grow.
Currently, there is no indication that Niño Guerrero’s leadership of Tren de Aragua is being contested or that the group’s cohesion is threatened. With complete impunity at Tocorón, he will continue to run the gang from safety and build up his status as a criminal leader.
The only caveat is whether he eventually runs afoul of the authorities. While Tren de Aragua has certainly secured plenty of protection among officials and police, President Nicolas Maduro has been able to consolidate his control of most criminal economies in Venezuela. Other notorious gang leaders such as Carlos Luis Revette, alias “El Koki,” enjoyed impunity for years until that protection was pulled and they were hunted down.
For this reason, while the plan takes its course, Guerrero will continue to receive the benefits of being a powerful criminal leader without the risks of being on the front lines or in risky areas. This would allow him to have a long and relatively safe life, something uncommon for criminals of international stature.
All this has helped the rapid growth of the Tren de Aragua in various sections of Latin America. Thus, while the leaders of the Train are faithful to the Warrior Boy, this powerful criminal from Venezuela can do nothing but strengthen himself.
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