Tren del Llano (Train of the Plain) is one of the first so-called "megabandas" or criminal gangs to develop in Venezuela. The criminal enterprise is active in drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and murder and was known both as "El Tren de Llano" and "El Picure," the street name of its formidable founder José Antonio Tovar Colina, one of Venezuela’s most wanted criminals until he was killed by the Bolivarian National Guard in May 2016.
Since November 2021, the group has been actively persecuted by the Venezuelan authorities and its continued survival is in doubt.
Tovar began his criminal life in the state of Guárico as a small-time car thief and drug trafficker. The origins of his gang, Tren del Llano, can be traced back to 2008, where it began as a small-scale criminal enterprise limited to stealing cars from local farms in the central state of Guárico and northeastern state of Aragua.
The original 10 members of Tren del Llano are thought to have first met in prison, a common trend in the formation of "megabandas," although it isn’t clear from reports on the gang whether Tovar did time in jail before forming the group. Another twenty core members joined up on the streets.
Sociologist Luis Cedeño, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Organized Crime (Observatorio Venezolano del Delito Organizado), says "megabandas" tend to replicate the structures and codes of the prison world on the streets.
In Venezuela’s penitentiaries, prison bosses called "pranes" control smaller criminal groups called "carros," or "cars." If a prison boss amasses several cars, then his group is considered a train, explaining why the names of various megabandas in Venezuela include the word "tren."
In July 2013, Tovar appeared on authorities' radar after he killed Renny Jesús Mejías, a detective from the investigative police (CICPC). By that time, Tren del Llano had expanded to kidnappings and killings along with drug trafficking, and it was heavily armed. The group began to pose a significant threat to the Venezuelan state, and launched numerous attacks on security forces, often using grenades and high-caliber weapons. The increasing size and criminal activity carried out by the group placed Tovar in the crosshairs of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), the CICPC and, eventually, Interpol.
The gang is responsible for the kidnapping and robbery of the vice-minister of Indigenous Communities of Concha de Mango, in Guárico, and the deaths of five people at a party in Valle de la Pascua, the assassination of two police officials in Aragua and the robbery of multiple vehicles and uniforms from a local plant belonging to PDVSA, the state-owned oil company (Petroleos de Venezuela).
Among the most violent acts came in November 2014, when Tren del Llano massacred 11 people on a farm in Aragua during a confrontation with a smaller rival gang called “Memo.” Memo was posing as Tren del Llano while attempting to extort farmers. Although 11 bodies were found, authorities say it is possible that Tren del Llano removed several bodies from the crime scene.
Tovar's gang reportedly created rural squads that specialized in extortion to directly target local farmers and businesses. By the end of 2015, CICPC voiced concerns that the growing megabanda was potentially gaining territory close to Caracas. As a result of Tren del Llano consolidating power and carrying out escalating acts of intimidation against locals and police officials, the investigation headed by the CICPC intensified and Tovar became one of the most wanted criminals in Venezuela.
On May 3, 2016, the National Guard launched an operation to catch him. The confrontation with the police on the streets of Tovar's home neighborhood and operations' base, El Sombrero, in Julián Mellado, Guárico, resulted in his death.
Tovar’s death left the group severely weakened. After several years of more discreet operations, a faction of Tren del Llano re-entered the public eye in July 2019 when a video went viral of alleged members shooting their weapons in the air in Altagracia de Orituco, Guárico, in homage to two murdered peers. Subsequent police operations resulted in the deaths of four alleged gang members, but failed to locate the group’s leader.
In 2020, the group started to expand towards the coastal state of Sucre, where it displaced a local group and ally of the Tren de Aragua, known as Los Caraqueños. Nevertheless, at the end of 2021, the group was targeted by a security force operation, that ended with the death of Gilberto Malony Hernández, alias “Malony,” its leader. A few months later, members of the Tren del Llano published a video in which they could be seen extorting local agricultural producers. Then in April 2022, the group was attacked by security forces in its stronghold of Guárico, as part of Operation Thunder.
At its inception, Tren del Llano was headed by Tovar, who recruited the ten-man nucleus of the group from former prisoners at the General Penitentiary of Venezuela (PGV). Throughout his time as the leader of Tren del Llano, he is understood to have maintained contacts with pranes in the PGV, according to a profile of Tovar published by RunRun.
Following Tovar’s death on May 3, 2016, the group underwent a period of uncertainty with regards to its future and leadership. However, Venezuelan police considered Gilberto Malony Hernández, known as “Malony,” to be Tovar’s primary heir. Malony was in charge of one of the regional branches of Tren del Llano in Altagracia de Orituco when Tovar was alive. According to media reports, he was wanted for more than 10 different offenses, among them homicide and robbery.
According to some reports, a parallel faction of Tren del Llano is led by another of Tovar’s lieutenants, Manuel Alejandro Moyetones Castillo, alias “El Mandarria.” In August 2019, Peruvian media reported him to be hiding out in Lima.
In November 2021, Malony was neutralized by security forces in Sucre state. In May 2022, one of his possible successors, Carlos José Pirela Armas, alias “Carlos Pirela,” was found dead in Tucupido, Guárico. His own men are believed to have killed him. It is currently unclear who inherited leadership of the group in Guárico or Sucre, although Pirela's murder exposed the group's internal divisions.
The Tren de Llano was based in the state of Guarico and also had considerable control in Aragua. By 2014, it established an operational base in the neighborhood of El Sombrero in the state of Guarico, which also happened to be the hometown of leader "El Picure." By the end of 2015, there were major concerns raised that Tren de Llano was making gains in the state of Miranda and territories surrounding Caracas.
After Tovar’s death, the group seems to have centered its operations in Malony’s stronghold of Altagracia de Orituco, Guarico. InSight Crime’s sources in the region state that the group continues to play a role in moving drug shipments from the neighboring state of Apure towards the Caribbean coast.
In 2020, the group expanded to the coastal state of Sucre, where they settled in San Juan de Unare and San Juan de las Galdonas. However, an operation against the group in November 2021 appears to have forced them to retreat from the area.
Allies and Enemies
Over the course of his criminal history, Tovar developed relationships with both international and local criminal gangs. In its early years, Tren del Llano was alleged to have connections to Colombian armed groups, specifically paramilitaries, through which his group sourced both drugs and weapons. Tren de Llano also reportedly maintained ties with another neighboring megabanda called "Tren de Aragua," but his death appears to have curtailed this possibility. Indeed, Tren de Aragua’s leaders celebrated Tovar’s killing, claiming that it removed their principal competitor. Additionally, in the midst of its expansion into Sucre state, the Tren del Llano went head-to-head with Los Caraqueños, a cell affiliated with the Tren de Aragua in the area.
Since Tovar’s death, it is uncertain exactly how the current factions of Tren del Llano relate to one another. There was little evidence of open hostility between the groups led by Malony and Mandarria, but there also is no evidence that they cooperate. In 2019, both were heavily targeted by the Venezuelan police's special action forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES).
Since November 2021, the group has been the target of two special operations by Venezuelan security forces in Sucre and Guarico. There are several theories as to why the Tren del Llano has been targeted by the regime, among them, that the group participated in the theft of a drug shipment belonging to the Cartel of the Suns. Other sources claim they stole money destined for political campaigns in the state.
The Tren del Llano has maintained a much lower profile since the operations launched against them in November 2021 and April 2022. The group has published videos stating their goal of maintaining a presence in Sucre and Guárico, but for the moment, they seem to have retreated. Additionally, the lack of clear leadership within the group, exposes it to internal divisions that can lead to several individual groups fighting for power.