The Tren de Aragua is Venezuela’s most powerful, homegrown criminal actor. Its headquarters are in the Tocorón prison in Aragua state and involved in everything from extorsion to kidnappings, homicide, vehicle theft, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking and contraband.
It expanded rapidly in 2020 and 2021, setting up a major presence along the border trails separating Colombia and Venezuela, as well as along the border with Brazil. It has also has been involved in smuggling Venezuelan migrants in other parts of the region, including Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Bolivia.
The gang was named InSight Crime's "Criminal Winner" in 2020 for being the first homegrown Venezuelan criminal actor to expand rapidly into other countries.
The Tren de Aragua’s origins date back to the 2000s when, during construction on Venezuela’s railway system, a workers’ union saw an opportunity to enter the criminal world. The first members of the group began by demanding bribes in order to give people certain job posts but they soon turned to extortion, kidnap and robbery.
The rise of Tren de Aragua seems to be connected with the career of one of the highest-ranking officials in Venezuela, Tareck El Aissami. During his time as interior and justice minister between 2008 and 2012, prison gangs saw a rapid development, including Tren de Aragua. And police sources consulted by InSight Crime said that Tren de Aragua fortified its operations after El Aissami became governor of Aragua in 2012. During his time as governor, between 2012 and 2017, Aragua had the highest number of homicides in the country.
Since then, Tren de Aragua has maintained close connections to its home state but has ambitiously expanded. In July 2019, reports began to emerge of the gang moving into border areas with Colombia. Freddy Bernal, a high-ranking member of the Venezuelan regime, reported the presence of Tren de Aragua members moving marijuana from the state of Táchira to the central state of Barinas.
Also in July 2019, eight members were arrested in the border town of Cúcuta. Colombia's non-governmental Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación - PARES) reported that the migration had been achieved with the support of Los Urabeños, one of Colombia’s most powerful and extensive criminal networks.
Since then, Tren de Aragua has grown in strength at the Colombian border, clashing with state forces and with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and FARC dissidents in the Venezuelan state of Arauca and Colombian department of Apure in 2020 and 2021.
Brazilian security forces reported in September 2019 that Tren de Aragua cells were operating in Pacaraima, in northern Brazil, and that captured members of the gang were starting to sow cells inside the Brazilian prison system. Brazilian media noted the gang had gained a foothold in the country through human smuggling and extorting Venezuelan migrants on the border.
In November 2020, Ecuadorean police announced that they had dismantled a cell of the group in Tulcán on the Colombia-Ecuador border. The group was involved in extorting the local transport system and smuggling migrants from Colombia into Ecuador, en route to Peru. In Peru itself, another member of Tren de Aragua was arrested, adding to evidence that splinter cells have taken root in the country.
In October 2021, Chilean investigators launched a raft of inquiries into a number of Tren de Aragua members, helping Venezuelan migrants illegally cross from Bolivia.
The leader of the Tren de Aragua is Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero." He is based in the Tocorón prison from where he oversees the gang and the Fundación Somos El Barrio JK, an institution which the group registered in order to secure state resources and support.
After being jailed for the murder of a police officer in 2005, he came to notoriety after breaking out from Tocorón in 2012. It is unknown exactly how or when he took over the leadership of Tren de Aragua but he has led the group since at least 2015.
In total, the Tren de Aragua has more than 2,700 members, including both armed criminals and others who gather "intelligence" for the group. While the group is a national force across Venezuela, it has consolidated its power in Aragua where, as it ranks swelled, those of the state police dwindled.
Little is currently known about how its operations are managed outside Venezuela. Small bands of members, affiliated to Tren de Aragua, have been actively involved in smuggling migrants across a number of borders in the region but more information is needed on how these actions are coordinated with leadership in Aragua, especially in Tocorón prison
The Tren de Aragua’s base of operations is in Aragua state, within which the group has two principal enclaves: the Tocorón prison and the community of San Vicente in the southeastern municipality of Giradot. This sector has more than 20 neighborhoods and functions as a sort of “peace zone,” where police forces are largely barred from entering. The Fundación Somos El Barrio JK is based in San Vicente.
Police sources and residents of San Vicente confirmed to InSight Crime that the letters of the Fundación Somos El Barrio JK represent the initials of the organization’s principal leader, named Kleiverson, alias “Flipper,” as well as his wife, Jennifer De Sousa, known as “Catira.”
Despite Tocorón already facing huge overcrowding, Tren de Aragua’s earnings and power have been boosted during 2020 by transfers of inmates from other prisons. Meanwhile, the gang has clamped down on the population of San Vicente, imposing curfews and patrolling openly with heavy weaponry, according to police statements and video seen by InSight Crime. Sources in the Aragua police claim the gang has taken over gas stations in Aragua, increasing gasoline costs significantly at a time when fuel is in severe shortage.
The Tren de Aragua is present in at least seven states of Venezuela. In addition to Aragua, the group has managed to also consolidate its presence in the states of Carabobo, Sucre, Bolívar, Guárico, Trujillo and Miranda.
In order to expand, the gang has frequently established alliances with criminal actors in other states, as well as sending some its members across the country to set up new criminal revenue streams. For example, in the eastern state of Bolívar, two Tren de Aragua members, Larry Amaury Álvarez, alias “Larry Changa,” and Johan Petrica, set up a lucrative operation which controls part of the gold mines in the state. From here, the gang moves illegally mined gold and coltan to Brazil. In the state of Sucre, the Tren de Aragua moves drugs and contraband such as copper to Trinidad and Tobago.
Police sources confirmed to InSight Crime that Niño Guerrero also directly controls the extortion of local shopkeepers and agricultural workers in the state of Guárico, which neighbors Aragua.
Venezuelan security forces have warned of the Tren de Aragua’s presence in Táchira state, which shares a border with Colombia. InSight Crime field investigations in this region have confirmed that Tren de Aragua members are not permanently based in Táchira but travel through the state to reach Colombia.
The state of Lara saw the explosion onto the criminal scene of José Santana, alias “Santanita,” a previously little-known gang leader whom Venezuelan authorities believe is operating under orders from Guerrero. Violently extorting car dealerships, using grenades to destroy businesses who do not comply and circulating threats via social media, Santanita’s gang has been a priority target for Venezuelan authorities throughout 2020, but he has also eluded capture so far. Similarly, the northwest state of Zulia has seen the sudden resurgence of Tren del Norte, a prison gang whose leader was imprisoned in Tocorón until 2017 and reportedly grew close to Guerrero. After several years of decline, the gang was linked to a wave of grenade attacks in the state capital Maracaibo during late 2019 and into 2020, raising speculation the gang had secured more powerful backing.
In 2020 and 2021, the gang has rapidly expanded to become a transnational criminal threat. Much of this expansion has followed the flow of Venezuelan migrants into neighboring countries and Tren de Aragua members have been involved in migrant smuggling in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. It has also set up a permanent, strong presence in the remote border trails along the Colombia-Venezuela border, where it has clashed with the ELN for control of cross-border economies, such as human smuggling and contraband.
Allies and Enemies
The Tren de Aragua has links with other megabandas and organized crime groups that operate in other regions, and seems to be skilled at making alliances with authorities. But in late 2019 and early 2020, Venezuelan security force units, such as the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales -- FAES), carried out more operations against the group, detaining and even killing its members.
In Aragua state, a criminal group known as “Los Carajitos Locos del 19,” largely comprised of younger individuals, has tried to push the Tren de Aragua out of the state. However, a number of the group’s members have been killed in confrontations with Tren de Aragua members.
In the state of Carabobo, one of the group’s allies is Néstor Richardi, the gang leader in Tocuyito prison. In addition to being implicated in extortion activities, he has even tried replicating many of the criminal economies the Tren de Aragua are involved in.
In Guárico state, two of the Tren de Aragua’s main allies are the Tren del Llano megabanda, led by Gilberto Malony Hernández, alias “Malony,” and another megabanda led by Manuel Alejandro Moyetones, also known as “Mandarria.” According to reviews of police and media information, Mandarria may actually be in Peru.
The Tren de Aragua also has an alliance with a megabanda, known as the Tren del Norte. This gang is headed by Edwin Ramón Soto Nava, alias “Mocho” Edwin, who was previously jailed in Tocorón prison, where he met Niño Guerrero.
According to a source within Venezuela’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), Niño Guerrero also has links with state security forces. “He meets with certain security force officials and shares information he has on gangs, not to dismantle them, but rather in exchange for money or to gain control over the territories dominated by these other criminal organizations," the source told InSight Crime.
But while there is no evidence to confirm the Tren de Aragua’s links to state officials, Prison Minister Iris Varela has made public visits to the San Vicente community to meet with the Fundación Somos El Barrio JK.
In 2020 and 2021, Tren de Aragua has made new and more powerful enemies. It has become a new faction contesting the border trails between Venezuela and Colombia from the ELN and the ex-FARC Mafia. The fact it can stand up to these more powerful and more experience guerrillas is a testimony of its newfound strength.
The territorial expansion of the Tren de Aragua is ongoing. This has made it not just a significant domestic threat to security in Venezuela but it has made incursions into the neighboring countries of Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Chile.
While it is the first Venezuelan megabanda to expand on such a scale, Venezuelan security experts have told InSight Crime that it has achieved its success in thanks to support from the Venezuelan government, which has not acted in any concerted way to curb the group's expansion.
The gang's expansion is a first for Venezuelan organized crime and, as it continues to grow, it may become one of Latin America's foremost criminal threats.