Ronna Rísquez: "Regional cooperation is key to stopping
the Tren de Aragua"

From a prison mega-gang in Venezuela to an international organisation, the Tren de Aragua has had a unique criminal journey, even for Latin America. Investigative journalist and In.Visibles co-founder, Ronna Rísquez, reflects on the past, present and future of the group everybody is obsessed with.

Words: Josefina Salomón   Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla 

Since they began to implement the model that criminal organisations in Brazil and El Salvador had already exploited by using prisons as centres of operation and development, but in a country with a poor institutional framework such as Venezuela, the Aragua Train has not stopped expanding. The result? One of the transnational criminal organisations with the largest presence across the region, which has some of the most peaceful countries in South America reeling. Our co-founder, Ronna Rísquez, who has been following their trail since the very beginning, reflects on the peculiar past and potential future of the mega-gang everyone is talking about. 

Josefina Salomón (JS): Where does the power of Tren de Aragua come from?

Ronna Rísquez (RR): Its power comes from several places. One was the Tocorón prison, which is where they were born. The fact that they were in a prison that they managed to control and that they used as a base of operations is key to their development. This dynamic is common to many Latin American countries where criminal organisations use prisons, which are State resources and structures, to carry out their activities and develop their organisations. The Aragua Train did this until September 2023, when the Tocorón prison was taken over and dismantled by the Venezuelan authorities. 

Another source of power for them lies in their great capacity to adapt, to negotiate, to build alliances. This is a group that can function either as the main operator of a criminal market or as a service provider for other larger groups in territories where they want to enter. These characteristics, which are not necessarily obtained by using violence as seen with the Mexican cartels and the guerrillas in Colombia, give this group much strength.

Another characteristic of this mega-gang is that they lead a broad criminal portfolio which includes migrant smuggling, trafficking of migrant women, drug trafficking, extortion, robbery, kidnapping, contract killings and illegal mining, among others. 

In addition, they know how to use technology, including social media and remote working in the same way that many companies and organisations do. This allowed a boss who was in prison in Venezuela to control operations in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. 

JS: Prisons have played a very key role in the development of the organisation…

RR: Yes. That’s where they were born and from where they developed. The story of the Aragua Train shows how prison systems are no longer efficient for the function for which they were created, which is for people who commit crimes to serve their sentences and then return to their lives in society in a different and positive way. 

Instead, prisons were used as a kind of a recruitment ground that led to the birth and expansion of the Tren de Aragua..

Las principales víctimas del Tren de Aragua han sido los migrantes venezolanos, a quienes extorsionan, les cobran para pasarlos de un país a otro, y las mujeres migrantes a las que explotan sexualmente para sacarlas del país donde no tenían oportunidades u opciones de trabajo.

JS: Where did the name come from, and what does it mean? 

RR: By the time the train began to emerge, there were already other criminal organisations also linked to prisons, which began to call themselves “trains”. It is not clear why they called themselves that, but it is possible that it was because the groups or gangs that were inside the prisons, the leaders themselves called the structure “cars”. 

It is very likely that on leaving the prison the structure took on the name train because a wagon is something smaller, simpler. A train is bigger, it can travel longer distances. 

In the case of the Tren de Aragua, they saw that there were other “trains”: Tren del Llano, Tren del Norte, Tren de Oriente, Tren de Guayana… and they said well, let’s call ourselves the Tren de Aragua because we are in Aragua.

JS: The train has expanded in recent years, where do you have a presence now?

RR: In addition to Venezuela where the group was born, it was identified at some point as having a presence in at least six Latin American countries. Reports from police and other law enforcement officials say that they are present in Colombia, Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

It has also been reported that the group has a presence, or at least that members of the organisation have a presence, in the United States, although this is still under investigation. 

JS: The actions of this group have a great impact on the population…

RR: Yes. The main victims of the Aragua Train have been Venezuelan migrants, who are extorted, who are charged to move from one country to another, and migrant women who are sexually exploited as they flee a country where they have no opportunities or work options. 

In the territories where they establish themselves, the Tren de Aragua exercises control, a criminal governance that also affects the people who live in these localities, who have to submit to the norms and rules that the group establishes, which range from controls such as extortion; the charging of vacuna, as they call it, for having a business, for having some kind of activity, for modifying your house; to everyday actions such as deciding where you can work, or in which school you can place your child. 

When norms and rules are not followed, they may resort to violence.

JS: How does your presence in Venezuela differ from the dynamics in other countries?

RR: The dynamics in all the countries where the group has arrived are more or less similar to those they had managed to consolidate in Venezuela when they were operating mainly from the Tocorón prison. 

These dynamics have been adapted to the countries they are in. For example, in Chile, they entered very strongly with migration, with the trafficking of migrants, which in the case of Venezuela became a business later, when migration increased. 

When they identified this, they understood that they had a business opportunity there and also took advantage of the fact that the governments were gradually placing more and more restrictions on the entry of Venezuelan migrants. 

In Chile, they use migrant smuggling, migrant trafficking for sexual exploitation and extortion. In Peru, they have even ventured into a crime that does not exist in Venezuela, shark loans. They are adapting and where they find a space, they look for ways to take criminal advantage.

JS: You explained that in Venezuela, the train has become stronger in the prisons.

RR: Definitely, the Tren de Aragua was born and developed in a prison, a dynamic we see in other countries in the region. We had already seen this previously with the PCC in Brazil and we are seeing it at the moment in Ecuador. 

I think we have to look inside the prisons. Understanding what is happening in Latin America’s prison systems is vital for understanding how organised crime is operating. 

JS: What are other governments in the region doing to combat this organisation and stop its expansion?

RR: Governments in the region have tried to combat the Tren de Agua and dismantle its criminal structure using the police and its own legal tools. However, one of the challenges they had at the beginning was the fact that they did not have access to enough information about the group, about their leaders and members, something that made it hard for authorities to stop them and allowed them to expand. 

That began to change in 2023, when the Venezuelan government took over the Tocorón prison. Since then, there’s been a greater flow of information with some of the countries that had requested information about the organisation. This may also have helped lead to the arrest of some members of the group in a number of countries in the region.

I think we have to look inside the prisons. Understanding what is happening in Latin America's prison systems is vital for understanding how organised crime is operating.

JS: What is the current situation of the Tren de Aragua in the region? 

RR: The organisation has suffered a considerable blow as a result of this cooperation between the authorities of various countries in the region. The seizure of the Tocorón prison in Venezuela was the start, which was then followed by the arrest of some key leaders in Colombia and Peru. There are police officials who even speak of a possible fragmentation of the gang. In addition, the presence of some members of the group is being investigated in the United States, and officials say there is certainty that some have arrived in that country.

JS: What are the group’s future prospects?

RR: The group’s future prospects are not very clear. Once the Venezuelan authorities took over the Tocorón prison, it was definitely a blow to the organisation. This took away one of their most important sources of fixed income, the causa, a kind of tax that they collected from all the people who were in Tocorón prison. That could be as much as $3.5 million a year. Things could get tough for them without that source of income and without the prison, where they could very easily recruit new members. 

But I think one of the most important elements here is true international cooperation between countries. Without it, it is unlikely that anybody will be able to dismantle the Tren de Aragua. 

The interview has been summarised and edited for clarity.