The Tren de Aragua is Venezuela’s most powerful, homegrown criminal actor. Its headquarters are in the Tocorón prison in Aragua state but the gang is involved in virtually every facet of organized crime in Venezuela, ranging from extorsion to kidnappings, homicide, vehicle theft, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking and contraband.
The group, helped by a large number of members, has managed to survive thanks to long periods of impunity fostered by the government of President Nicolás Maduro. In addition, it has maintained and increased its power and presence by establishing alliances with and recruiting small criminal gangs in key territories of Venezuela and other countries in the region.
Since 2018, the group has expanded rapidly throughout Latin America along routes used by Venezuelan migrants. It has been involved in migrant smuggling in the border areas of several countries. Likewise, presumed members of the group have settled in cities across Colombia, Peru, Chile, and other countries.
The group was born out of a workers' union laboring on the construction of a railway project running through the states of Aragua and Carabobo. This rail connection gave rise to the name Tren de Aragua, or Train of Aragua. After the project began in 2005, the union charged for job assignments and extorted money from contractors. When construction was halted in 2011, the syndicate was already functioning as a criminal gang.
However, the Tren de Aragua did not become the criminal group known today until 2013. That year, Héctor Rustherford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero,” was imprisoned in Tocorón prison and established an alliance with the union members. There, he quickly climbed the prison hierarchy to become a pran, as prison leaders are known in Venezuela.
Various factors helped Tren de Aragua to grow stronger. On the one hand, Venezuelan prison reforms passed in 2013 to improve security were never applied in Tocorón. Guerrero began to collect for the "cause," a monthly amount that prisoners had to pay him to live safely at the prison. This income allowed the construction of a gym, a swimming pool, a playground, a restaurant, and a nightclub within the prison.
Outside the prison, the Tren de Aragua encountered few obstacles in establishing its control and operations. Guerrero recruited leaders of criminal gangs from the San Vicente neighborhood, located in Maracay, the capital of Aragua, some 30 kilometers from Tocorón, and established another operations center there. One such gang, known as the “El Flipper” gang, after the alias of its leader, Kenferson Sevilla Arteaga, complete control of the neighborhood.
The gang then legally established an institution, known as “Fundación Somos El Barrio JK,” to receive resources and support from the government, including from then-Prisons Minister Iris Varela. The group also imposes strict norms in the community under the aegis of this foundation.
During his term as governor of Aragua, Tareck El Aissami dismantled a large part of the Aragua police apparatus and turned San Vicente into one of the well-known "zones of peace," which security forces could not enter. In San Vicente, the Tren de Aragua gathered so much power that the police officers and their families were forced to leave their homes. Those who refused to leave were violently murdered.
Some of the criminal gangs already operating in Aragua established non-aggression pacts with Guerrero, among them Tren del Llano. However, after the death of Tren del Llano's leader in 2016, the Tren de Aragua took control of its areas of influence in Aragua and part of Guárico state, according to police sources who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their safety.
However, between 2015 and 2017, its growing strength finally drew an official response. Security forces carried out the People's Liberation Operation (Operación de Liberación del Pueblo - OLP), a series of raids against criminal groups nationwide. But the Tren de Aragua endured.
Guerrero continued to gain more power, and even accelerated his expansion, both inside and outside prison. Inside Tocorón, he consolidated his power after allegedly murdering Venezuela's first pran, Wilmer Brizuela, alias "Wilmito", in Tocorón in April 2017.
Over the years that followed, the gang expanded its network to other states in Venezuela through alliances with smaller gangs.
Since 2018, the gang began its expansion to Sucre, a coastal northeastern state which lies a short distance by sea from Trinidad and Tobago, seeking to start trafficking drugs to the Caribbean, according to sources interviewed by InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. Although it was later displaced by the Tren del Llano, the group maintains control of Güiria, one of the coastal towns closest to Trinidad and Tobago.
One of its first attempts to establish itself along Venezuela's borders came in 2018, especially between the Venezuelan state of Táchira and the Colombian department of Norte de Santander. The gang fought guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and criminal gangs such as the Gaitanistas, which exercise control of clandestine crossings, known as trochas. The Tren de Aragua sought to establish itself in the Colombian cities of Cúcuta and Villa del Rosario, both near the border. Its presence worsened its conflict with the ELN, which resulted in a wave of confrontations and homicides.
The same modus operandi took it to other countries in the region, where the Tren de Aragua has established satellite groups. Since 2018, its members have expanded along transnational routes used by Venezuelan migrants. It began by smuggling migrants across borders but then ventured into human trafficking, extortion, sexual labor, and drug trafficking. There are currently credible reports about the Tren de Aragua's presence in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.
The gang began by collecting extortion money inside and outside of prison before diversifying its criminal portfolio. The Tren de Aragua has established multiple income streams from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, migrant smuggling, contraband, and is suspected of involvement in arms and drug trafficking.
However, extortion continues to provide one of its most lucrative criminal revenues, both through extorting prisoners at Tocorón prison, which starts at US$10 a month per prisoner, and through targeting businesses, agricultural producers, and sex workers inside and outside the country.
The gang also carries out kidnappings in Venezuela and other countries. Chile, Colombia, and Peru have all reported kidnappings by groups believed to be linked to Tren de Aragua. And in recent years, Tren de Aragua has begun stealing vehicles and kidnapping their owners.
But migrant smuggling was the scheme that allowed it to move across Latin American borders. Fueled in part by the exodus of Venezuelans in the past decade, the gang has seized control of border crossings, charging migrants, predominantly Venezuelans, and drug carriers. The group has also been linked to human trafficking for sexual exploitation and extortion of Venezuelan sex workers along the migration route to Chile.
The leader of the gang is Héctor Rustherford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero," the main prison boss in Venezuela, who leads the group from Tocorón prison.
According to records from Venezuela's Supreme Court of Justice, Guerrero started his criminal career in 2005, when he attacked a police commission and murdered Oswaldo González, a police officer in Aragua. He was first imprisoned in Tocorón in 2010 but escaped two years leader. By then, Guerrero was already the prison's leader, and news outlets reported his escape as being associated with a Venezuelan actress and model named Jimena Araya, known as "Rosita," with whom he allegedly ran a network of sexual exploitation in the jail.
His recapture and return to Tocorón led Guerrero to consolidate the Tren de Aragua along with other criminals, who became his most trusted lieutenants. These included Larry Amaury Álvarez, alias “Larry Changa”; Kenferson Sevilla Arteaga, alias “El Flipper”; and Yohan José Guerrero, alias “Johan Petrica.” The latter has been accused of now leading a powerful illegal mining gang in Las Claritas, Bolívar state.
Tren de Aragua's operations center is located in the state of Aragua, where the Tocorón prison and the San Vicente neighborhood are located in the Girardot municipality. The gang is also present in at least six other Venezuelan states: Carabobo, Sucre, Bolívar, Guárico, Lara, and Miranda.
Outside of Venezuela, suspected members of the gang have established operations in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia. While their main focus has been on border regions, some members of the group have also settled in major cities such as Bogotá, Colombia, Lima, Peru, and Santiago, Chile.
Allies and Enemies
Tren de Aragua maintains numerous links with organized crime groups, both in Venezuela and in other countries, with which it has established pacts of non-aggression and even alliances to share criminal income.
The gang has allied with other prison groups, such as a prison gang in the Trujillo Judicial Confinement Center, dominated by Álvaro Enrique Montilla Briceño, alias “El Loro,” according to journalistic investigations and sources interviewed by InSight Crime.
In addition, Tren de Aragua allegedly recruited and financed a small criminal gang in Lara state, called the “El Santanita” gang, to commit kidnappings and extortion.
There is strong evidence to show Tren de Aragua continues to seek such alliances with potential satellite groups abroad. The strongest proof of this came in the form of Gallegos Clan, a gang in Peru and Chile that acted as an armed wing for Tren de Gang. A 2021 report from Brazil stated that Tren de Aragua members had been jailed in the northern state of Roraima, near Venezuela, and were working with Brazil's largest criminal group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC). However, no more information about Tren de Aragua in Brazil has surfaced since.
But the Tren de Aragua is anything but gun-shy. It has faced multiple groups, especially the ELN, for control of border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia. But this conflict appears to have diminished in intensity in 2022.
Although the development of Tren de Aragua was driven by its relationship with key government officials, ongoing links between the gang and the state have been difficult to prove. Multiple sources have told InSight Crime that there are indications of connections to pro-government political actors, but these allegations have not been independently corroborated.
The gang's relationship with security forces has been complex. On the one hand, multiple sources interviewed by InSight Crime have pointed out that the group has managed to corrupt local and regional officials. But, over time, it has faced repeated blows at the hands of police, such as during the OLP operation.
Tren de Aragua's territorial expansion across the continent represents the first time a Venezuelan gang has acted across such broad territory. It has become a threat to regional security and dismantling it will not be easy.
On the one hand, it is unlikely that the group can be eradicated as long as it operates with impunity from Venezuela, where it has an ideal base of operations for its criminality to prosper.
In addition, the group's experience with controlling prisons and corrupting security officials makes it difficult for law enforcement to fight back. The gang has sought to replicate similar prison structures in Peru and Chile where authorities have less experience dealing with such criminal networks behind bars.