VENEZUELA: TREN DE ARAGUA, LEAD BY HECTOR RUSTHERFORD GUERRERO FLORES (aka: Niño Guerrero) + the Exportation of Venezuelan Organized Crime (Colombia, Brazil, Peru + Ecuador)
ABOVE + BELOW – Héctor Rustherford Guerrero Flores (aka: Niño Guerrero)
Venezuela has long been known as a strategic rearguard for Colombia’s guerrilla groups. Yet 2020 saw the acceleration of a newer dynamic: Venezuelan gangs now rival their Colombian counterparts in numbers and firepower, and are using the devastated country as a springboard for international expansion, even while the coronavirus pandemic rages around them.
This trajectory is exemplified by Tren de Aragua (Train of Aragua), Venezuela’s premier “megabanda,” or large criminal network. From humble beginnings as a prison gang in the penitentiary of Tocorón, in the state of Aragua, Tren de Aragua now commands a noteworthy and diversified criminal network, using Tocorón as a nerve center to control members throughout the Venezuelan prison system and a federation of affiliated groups on the outside.
The “train” is a loose reference to their leadership structure in the jails, but by 2020, the gang’s core membership had grown to an estimated 2,700, according to police sources consulted by InSight Crime. Its wider federation is active in at least nine states: Aragua, Guárico, Carabobo, Trujillo, Miranda, Bolívar, Sucre, Lara and Táchira, with the possible addition of Zulia.
Evidence shows that the group has also extended its tentacles into Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Simultaneously, it has diversified its criminal portfolio, moving into more sophisticated criminal economies and adapting its modus operandi to turn Venezuela’s economic crisis into a criminal opportunity. Its increasing involvement in human smuggling operations suggests that the exodus of Venezuelan migrants has provided both cover and fuel for its international expansion.
Already, others are moving in the same direction. As activity by other Venezuelan gangs is increasingly reported deep into Colombia and even further afield, 2020 has shown that Venezuelan organized crime is now poised to become a continental threat.
Consolidation in Venezuela
Going into 2020, Tren de Aragua was already the dominant player on Venezuela’s criminal scene. Since its formation in the late 2000s, its leader, Héctor Rustherford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño” Guerrero, has been the undisputed pran, or prison gang leader, of Tocorón, running the penitentiary as his personal criminal fiefdom. His gang charges prisoners an extortion known as the “causa” (cause), bringing in an estimated $1.5 million per year. With this, Guerrero has remodeled Tocorón as more of a resort than a prison. A 2015 report by Runrunes found a nightclub, swimming pool, restaurants and even a zoo within the compound.
Guerrero uses Tocorón as a stronghold from which he runs drug dealing, carjacking, kidnapping and extortion networks throughout the region. Crimes are ordered from the prison, carried out by Tren de Aragua’s members on the outside, and payments are delivered directly to Tocorón. Many operations are coordinated from the gang’s enclave in San Vicente, a neighborhood 30 kilometers from Tocorón. There, the gang blocks the entry of security forces and has supplanted some state functions through an influential foundation that acts as a front for the gang, Somos El Barrio JK.
Furthermore, Tocorón has served as a refuge for pranes from across Venezuela. Guerrero even hosted a congress of gang leaders from other prisons, according to a source from Venezuela’s criminal investigations unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC). In this way, Guerrero has become a pran of pranes, extending his criminal model throughout the prison system and building a coalition of allied gangs on the outside.
Although this federation has been active for several years, 2020 demonstrated the scale of Tren de Aragua’s ambitions. In May, residents reported that the gang had established a visible, armed presence in Sucre’s Paria Peninsula. The incursion likely built on operations in support of the local San Juan de Unare gang in 2018, local residents and experts told InSight Crime.
Tren de Aragua’s presence in this drug trafficking hotspot, coupled with arrests of gang members with drug loads in the Colombian border state of Táchira in 2019, supports claims that the gang has shifted from local drug distribution to involvement in bigger drug transport operations. According to an expert studying the prison system who did not want to be identified, Tren de Aragua’s primary role is not to move shipments themselves, but rather to protect corridors and provide cover to drug traffickers.
Tren de Aragua’s operations are facilitated by its network of alliances with smaller local gangs, which has allowed it to extend its influence into further states while avoiding armed confrontation. Former CICPC officer Sergio González described this model as a form of criminal outsourcing, in which Tren de Aragua provides smaller gangs with logistical support, additional manpower and weaponry. These affiliated groups manage local criminal economies such as drug distribution, while sending a cut of profits and intelligence on police operations back to Tren de Aragua. Gangs that have been drawn into this criminal franchise include Carlos Capa in Miranda and Tren del Llano in Guárico, according to police sources and local media.
In 2020, there were signs Guerrero had extended this network even further. 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.
A parallel strategy has allowed Tren de Aragua to extend its influence into new criminal economies. During fieldwork in Bolívar, InSight Crime found that one of Tren de Aragua’s early members, Yohan José Romero, alias “Johan Petrica,” had been present in Sifontes municipality since around 2017, where he had taken charge of an important mining gang. Although it is unconfirmed to what extent Petrica still responds to Guerrero, his ranks have been regularly bolstered by former prisoners from Tocorón.
In October 2020, El Pitazo reported a clash between Bolívar state police and a Tren de Aragua cell in Bolívar’s southern municipality of Gran Sabana. The group had allegedly been attempting to muscle into Indigenous-controlled mining areas near the Brazilian border, suggesting that Tren de Aragua now feels confident to run illegal mining operations directly.
During 2020, Tren de Aragua also tightened its control in its core enclave of Tocorón and San Vicente. 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 gang also demonstrated its dominance over state security forces in several armed confrontations, including a grenade attack on an ambulance carrying an injured police officer and the ambush of a police patrol in San Vicente minutes later. Two officers died in the attacks.
These incidents point to Tren de Aragua’s two-sided relationship with Venezuelan authorities. On the one hand, the gang has undoubtedly been facilitated by the tolerance, if not active support, of government officials. Tocorón prison, for instance, was left out of the “New Penitentiary Regime” designed to control criminality within prisons, likely as a result of pacts formed with former Prison Minister Iris Varela. Furthermore, there is evidence that prisoners affiliated to the gang have been deployed to criminal hotspots in support of state interests, helping them gain a criminal foothold in these states.
These connections reach into other ministries as well. Local sources consulted by InSight Crime stated that prisoners from Tocorón were deployed to Sucre in 2018 to support the state-favored San Juan de Unare gang in its war with rival San Juan de las Galdonas. A security analyst and professor, who has extensive they believe the deployment [something is missing here?] to have been negotiated by current Oil Minister, Tareck El Aissami. Although there is no definitive evidence linking El Aissami to the gang, he was Governor of Aragua at the time of Tren de Aragua’s emergence, and expert observers told InSight Crime he is widely believed to be the group’s political godfather. El Aissami does not appear to have publicly addressed these links.
However, the gang does not have complete impunity. Its members have regularly clashed with security forces in 2020, including the CICPC and the Special Action Forces (Fuerza de Acciones Especiales – FAES), often leading to casualties within the group. Indeed, analysts consulted by InSight Crime stated that the gang has come under pressure from security forces in its traditional territories, partially driving its quest to expand.
Throughout 2020, Tren de Aragua consolidated operations in strategic areas for transnational organized crime — such as Táchira, Bolívar and Sucre — where they are well-placed to profit from cross-border contraband and migrant flows. This has likely allowed the gang to compensate for lost earnings from criminal economies that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, such as drug peddling and robbery. Simultaneously, the exodus from Venezuela and the growing Venezuelan diaspora has led to the expansion of the gang’s activities abroad.
Prior to 2020, Tren de Aragua’s presence had already been reported on the Colombian and Brazilian borders, and as far away as Peru. Peruvian police, for example, first sounded the alarm on Tren de Aragua’s presence in the country in 2018, when they arrested five members of the gang in connection to a planned bank robbery. In 2019, an attack on a betting shop in Lima was also attributed to the gang, as well as a brutal dismemberment of two men in a hotel room.
The criminal group’s presence in Colombia was confirmed in mid-2019, when 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.
Shortly after, Brazilian security forces reported 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.
During 2020, this modus operandi has also been the backbone of Tren de Aragua’s operations on the Colombian border. An international security expert in the department of Norte de Santander who requested anonymity explained that the gang has consolidated control over extorting migrants in the illegal border crossings connecting San Antonio del Táchira to Cúcuta, fending off fierce competition from rival groups. From there, the gang is battling to expand its operations into drug distribution and extortion, spurring escalating violence throughout the surrounding area.
In October, four members of Tren de Aragua were deported from Cúcuta after escaping from prison in Táchira, showing that the gang now uses Colombia as a hideout from Venezuelan authorities. The men were captured in a hotel near the bus terminal, from where they had planned to move deeper into Colombia’s hinterlands.
The incident lends credence to reports that the gang has already established cells in other regions of Colombia. Both Colombian and Venezuelan police sources have told InSight Crime that Tren de Aragua operates in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla, the south of the capital Bogotá, and in Bogota’s satellite town of Soacha.
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.
So far, the gang’s foreign cells have mostly been associated with extortion, armed robbery and human smuggling, suggesting that the impoverishment of Venezuela has driven gang members to look for new populations to exploit abroad.
Venezuelan police sources believe there are also more systemic motives, primarily the search for drug routes to enable the gang to develop trafficking operations outside of Venezuela. Although the claim has also been made by one of Colombia’s top police officials, General Nicacio Martínez, concrete evidence is lacking. While the gang’s evolution within Venezuela suggests that developing domestic drug routes is on its agenda, it is doubtful whether its modus operandi would lend itself to the more sophisticated and competitive economy of transnational drug trafficking.
Questions also remain about the degree of control between Tren de Aragua’s core leadership and the cells bearing its name abroad. Despite the gang’s rapid expansion and proliferation of splinter groups, its leadership still seems to be highly centralized in the figure of “Niño” Guerrero. This makes it questionable whether the gang could maintain an effective chain of command between its operational hub and an international network.
On the other hand, the model of criminal outsourcing by which the gang has expanded within Venezuela suggests that the strength of the gang’s federal structure may already have superseded its visible leadership. This lends some credence to police sources who insist that these foreign cells are still tied to the central structure of Tren de Aragua.
The Exportation of Venezuelan Organized Crime
Tren de Aragua is far from the only Venezuelan gang to have spread its tentacles into neighboring countries. Indeed, its selection as Criminal Winner also serves to shine a light on how a number of prominent Venezuela megabandas are following in its footsteps.
In November 2020, the police killing of Venezuelan mafia boss Willy Meleán in Sabana de Torres, in the Colombian department of Santander, shone a light on the Venezuelan crime networks steadily consolidating within Colombia.
Los Meleán is one of several rival criminal clans based in the northwest Venezuelan state of Zulia. Although members of these gangs have historically used the north of Colombia as a hideout — as evidenced by attacks on Colombian soil as far back as 2012 — both their criminal activities and their feuds have escalated across the country during 2020.
To be sure, Colombia has become a regular battlefield for Venezuelan gang rivalries.
In January 2020, Hugo González Rico, alias “Kike,” was killed in Barranquilla in an attack attributed to rivals in Los Meleán. González was a core member of the Zulia-based prison gang Tren del Norte, historically linked to Tren de Aragua, according to police sources and local journalists consulted by InSight Crime.
A further spiral of violence was tied to the war between Los Meleán and the gang led by Erick Alberto Parra Mendoza, alias “Yeico Masacre.” A report in El Tiempo linked at least 12 murders in Colombia to this feud, including the killing of two members of Parra Mendoza’s family in Ibagué in February 2020, and a retaliatory double homicide in Bogotá in June.
These criminal structures now run robbery, extortion, prostitution and microtrafficking operations in Barranquilla, Valledupar, Santa Marta, Riohacha, Ibagué, Soacha and Bogotá, according to Semana. The clashes between Los Meleán and Yeico Masacre in Bogotá have been linked to disputes for control of drug distribution in the capital’s Fontibon, Chapinero and Santa Fe neighborhoods.
Furthermore, there is evidence that this expansion has been facilitated by corrupt Colombian officials. After the killing of Willy Meleán, an audit by Colombian authorities revealed that a registry office in Galapa, Atlántico, had fraudulently issued identity cards to 76 Venezuelan nationals, including Willy Meleán and suspected members of his gang.
These groups may also be extending their influence beyond Colombia. For instance, in 2019, it was reported that alias “Kike” — the Tren del Norte leader later killed in Barranquilla — was serving jail time in Panama, where he had been heading a criminal cell known as “Los Internacionales.” He continued to direct criminal operations, including assassinations, from jail.
But 2020 was the year of the Tren de Aragua, both within Venezuela and beyond.
PROFILE: Tren de Aragua
The Tren de Aragua is Venezuela’s most powerful local “megabanda,” or large criminal gangs with more than 100 members. This group is largely based out of 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.
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.
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. registered the group 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. One state police officer in Aragua said the megabanda now outnumbers the police. “Previously, the state police had a post in every three neighborhoods. In reality, there are now only about 52 police posts when we used to have 123,” he said.
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.”
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 megabanda’s criminal tentacles have also stretched out beyond Venezuela. Authorities across the region have confirmed the group’s presence in Peru, Colombia and Brazil. The public security secretary of Brazil’s Roraima state, Olivan Junior, warned that members of the group have openly announced their affiliation to Tren de Aragua when jailed in Brazil.
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.
On May 4, 2019, members of the megabanda attacked a military convoy in the area surrounding the Tocorón prison to push back against the presence of security forces in the group’s territory. A general from the armed forces and five other members of the country’s security forces were killed in the attack. Despite the fact that CICPC Commissioner Douglas Rico assured the incident was directed from prison, no official action has been taken against the group to date.
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 and Peru.
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.
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