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Coming from Venezuela, this criminal gang quickly spread throughout the region by exploiting migrants. His trademark: extreme violence.

The Tren de Aragua, a growing criminal gang

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More than 11,000 soldiers and police stormed the Tocoron prison, Venezuela, on September 23, 2023.

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At the end of September, the government of Venezuela carried out a dramatic raid on several penitentiary facilities in the country. The goal: to regain control of the prisons, in the hands of armed gangs for years.

After the recapture of the Tocoron prison, in the state of Aragua, the media were invited to tour the facilities. There were restaurants, a baseball stadium, a nightclub, a swimming pool, a zoo…

In addition, the Minister of the Interior mentioned having found sniper rifles, grenades, explosives, rocket launchers and various munitions. There were also computers for mining cryptocurrencies.

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Rocket launchers, grenades and high-caliber ammunition were found in Tocoron.

The inmates who controlled the prison benefited from an endless windfall : the extortion of other prisoners, who were required to pay them a tax, a situation denounced by prisoner defense NGOs.

The leaders of Tocoron were not limited to extorting money from their fellow prisoners, they controlled a criminal network, the Tren de Aragua (Aragua Train), which extends across much of Latin America and would have between 2000 and 5000 members.

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The criminal gang consolidated its hold on the Tocoron prison first, then establishing cells outside and co-opting small gangs until they became the dominant group in Aragua state in the 2010s, says Charlotte Newell, an investigator at InSight Crime, an organization that studies organized crime in the Americas , which we joined in Medellin.

The organization has expanded to five other states in Venezuela. This makes them, by far, the most powerful gang in the country, notes Newell. It is also now the only Venezuelan gang to have succeeded in expanding internationally.

Ten years ago, the Tren de Aragua was little more than a prison gang, confined within the walls of Tocoron Penitentiary and largely unknown outside its home state […] Today 'today, it is one of the fastest growing security threats in South America.

A quote from From an InSight Crime report published in September 2023

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The Minister of the Interior of Venezuela, Remigio Ceballos, held a press conference in the Tocoron prison, after its resumption on the 23 September 2023.

According to InSight Crime, the organization was created from a union of workers who worked on the construction of the Aragua railway and who allegedly took advantage of it to carry out several criminal activities, including the extortion of subcontractors. Imprisoned in Tocoron, they would have continued their activities from the penitentiary center, allying with other criminal groups in the region.

The gang has followed migrants leaving Venezuela en masse since 2018. It first established itself in Colombia, the first destination for Venezuelans, then in the other countries where they arrived, namely Peru and Chile. Its presence is also reported in Ecuador, Bolivia and the state of Roraima, Brazil.

In some cases, however, it could be of bands of imitators who use his name to give themselves more credibility, specifies Charlotte Newell.

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Members of the organization have been captured by the United States Border Patrol, according to CNN, but, so far, they do not appear to have established themselves in the region, points out Charlotte Newell.

According to our analysis, so far the Tren de Aragua has not consolidated in Central or North America, Newell maintains. It is not excluded that he would try, but it would be quite difficult.

It's because he prefers easy terrain , she explains.

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Police officers carry out identity checks in Santiago, Chile, March 29, 2023. The crimes of the Tren de Aragua fuel xenophobia against Venezuelan migrants, deplore the organizations that help them.

The Tren de Aragua looks for places where there is little competition from other criminal gangs and where the state does not have much x27;experience in the fight against violent gangs.

This explains their success in Peru and Chile, two countries little recognized for criminal violence.

They are very opportunistic and tend to take the easy way out.

A quote from Charlotte Newell, investigator at InSight Crime

If the Tren de Aragua follows Venezuelan migrants, it is because they are its first victims.

Some 7.7 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, including 6.5 million in Latin American countries.

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The Tren de Aragua has built an interconnected network of smugglers and small criminal gangs who help undocumented migrants cross borders, from Venezuela to Chile, through Colombia, 'Ecuador and Peru.

They developed following migratory flows, by human trafficking and extorting migrants.

A quote from Charlotte Newell, investigator at InSight Crime

They offer Venezuelans a turnkey service. To those who cannot afford to pay them, they offer loans at usurious rates or serve as mules to transport drugs from one point to another. For young women and adolescents, it is prostitution. The network identifies young women as soon as they arrive in Villa del Rosario, on the Colombian side of the border, and pushes destitute migrants into a vicious cycle of debt and sexual exploitation.

In addition to human trafficking, the group's portfolio of activities includes illegal mining, smuggling, drug trafficking, theft, extortion, loan sharking, kidnappings and hitman services.

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Venezuelan prostitutes prepare to work in a bar in Calamar, Colombia.

Another aspect that characterizes the Tren de Aragua is its use of extreme, highly publicized violence to terrorize the population.

It is This is a strategic tactic to make local populations fear them so that they will comply with their demands for extortion and pay ransoms for the kidnappings, notes Charlotte Newell. p>

In Colombia, three members of the gang were arrested in May 2023 for the murder of four people in Bogota, whom they allegedly tortured before killing and dismembering them. The remains were left on the public highway in plastic bags. Several homicides bearing this macabre trademark have been attributed to them in recent years in the Colombian capital.

The raid on the Tocoron prison will not put an end to the group's activities, especially since the main leaders of the group, including its alleged leader, Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias el Niño Guerrero, fled before the arrival of the army.

Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores is wanted by Interpol, which specifies that he could be in Colombia, Brazil, Chile, in Peru, Ecuador or the United States. He is described as armed and dangerous.

According to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, the fact that the Tren de Aragua was able to operate from the prison for years and that its leader escaped at the right time demonstrates that all this was done knowingly, if not in collusion with the State.

With CNN, El Espectador

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