THE TREN DE ARAGUA is expanding in Chile. Here's how

The Venezuelan mega-gang Tren de Aragua is the first transnational organised crime group to operate in Chile, a country experiencing a crime crisis of historic proportions. Here's how they did it, the names behind the phenomenon and what's to come.

Text: Ronna Rísquez      Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla 

This article was originally published in BBC News Mundo.

“The severity of some of the homicides is something that we have not seen before in the history of the country. I’m referring to dismemberments, torture and burying people alive”.

This is how prosecutor Mario Carrera described to Tele13 Radio the crimes for which Los Gallegos, the gang that as of this week is starring in what is considered the most important trial in the history of organised crime in Chile, is being prosecuted.

The 38 defendants –34 Venezuelans and four Chileans– face charges of aggravated homicide, kidnapping, carrying weapons and drug trafficking, and are considered a cell of the Tren de Aragua, the Venezuelan mega-gang that in recent years turned Chile into a major centre of operations, the largest outside of Venezuela, according to Chilean police officials.

El Tren is, in fact, the “first transnational criminal group” that the Chilean justice system has dealt with and one of the causes of the recent spike in violence and homicides. 

The Attorney General’s Office even blames the group for the death of former Venezuelan military dissident Ronald Ojeda, and the very existence of the Aragua Train has been the cause of a diplomatic dispute with authorities in Caracas, which went so far as to deny the existence of the mega-gang, something that Chile, one of the countries that is suffering a rise in violence at the hands of the group, considered an “insult”.

But how was the Tren established, how has their presence expanded in the country and how is the Chilean justice system confronting a type of criminality it has never seen before?

To understand this, we must first go back to a different judicial case.

The death of Mariana

Mariana (not her real name) collapsed shortly after crossing the border between the town of Pisiga in Bolivia and Colchane in northern Chile, more than 3,600 metres above sea level.

She had been walking for about 40 minutes, enduring low temperatures, strong winds and rain, over desert terrain and in inadequate clothing. She was travelling with her 5-year-old son, her mother, a younger brother and 50 other foreigners.

When Chilean police officers, carabineros, tried to help her, the 32-year-old Venezuelan migrant was already dead.

Her case was reported, without further details, as one of the five deaths of migrants that occurred in the first quarter of 2021, when they tried to cross through irregular passages into Chile.

But behind her death there is more than just the physical exhaustion of a young mother. Mariana and her family are part of the 11 cases of victims of the Tren de Aragua that appear in the indictment filed against 12 members of the criminal organisation in March 2022 by Raúl Arancibia Cerda, who was the regional prosecutor of Tarapacá, in northern Chile.

“This is the first organisation (the Aragua Train) that meets all the characteristics of transnational organised crime (…) to be formalised in the country (Chile),” says the indictment document to which BBC Mundo had access.

Former regional prosecutor Arancibia said that, at least up to the time he formalised the indictment in 2022, “Chile was alien to this type of criminality”.

But how did such a young criminal group –in existence for less than 10 years– commanded from inside a prison in a country more than 4,700 kilometres away, manage to establish itself with such strength and ease in Chilean territory?

They were the ones who gave the instructions and exposed the migrants "to extreme conditions", putting the "physical integrity and life" of all at risk, according to the document drawn up by the prosecutor's office in the Tarapacá region.

The causes of its expansion

Migration appears to be the first factor.

Today there are more than half a million registered Venezuelans in Chile, although the figure could be double that, due to the large number of people who have entered the country through informal channels.

Mariana’s family is among thousands of victims of migrant smuggling, and her story combines some of the variables that explain how the Tren de Aragua settled in Chile and turned this country into their “second home”, as confirmed to BBC Mundo by an official from the Chilean Investigative Police (PDI) who investigated the group between 2021 and 2023 and who preferred not to give his name.

At the beginning of 2021, when the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was still keeping several borders closed and the situation of Venezuelans was worsening in their host countries, Edgar, one of Mariana’s brothers who lived in Chile, hired the services of an alleged travel agency to move four members of his family from Colombia to Iquique, on the northern border of the southern country, according to the indictment filed by prosecutor Arancibia.

Edgar agreed to pay $2,400 for his relatives to join him. He paid $600 each for Josefina, his mother; Juan Carlos, his younger brother; Mariana, his 32-year-old sister; and José, his 5-year-old nephew and Mariana’s son. (All names are fictitious; the indictment identifies them only by acronyms).

The family group set out on the journey in early March 2021.

But when they arrived in Tumbes, Peru, the men transporting them demanded $80 extra per person to continue the journey to Lima, and $250 per head to reach Colchane, Chile. So Edgar transferred another $1,360.

By this point he had realised that there was no such travel agency. They were in the hands of smugglers from the Tren de Aragua, an organisation that from Venezuela has already expanded to at least six Latin American countries.

On the night of 22 March 2021, after staying hidden for a couple of days in the España hotel in Pisiga, Bolivia, Edgar’s relatives began the journey to cross the border and reach Chile.

At the head of the “expedition” were three men who, according to the accusation, were identified by their nicknames: “Estrella” (Carlos González Vaca), who has been identified as one of the leaders of the Tren de Aragua in Chile; “Zeus” (Zeus Velásquez Aquino) and “Águila” (Juan José Trejo Varguilla). All of them are Venezuelan nationals and members of the mega-gang, according to the investigation carried out by Chilean authorities.

They were the ones who gave the instructions and exposed the migrants “to extreme conditions”, putting the “physical integrity and life” of all at risk, according to the document drawn up by the prosecutor’s office in the Tarapacá region.

Shortly after crossing the border, Mariana began to feel unwell and her mother asked alias Águila for help, who beat the young woman. As a result, she fainted and ended up dying on Chilean soil.

“At least since 2021 in the Tarapacá region this transnational criminal organisation has operated, linked to the Venezuelan mega-gang, the Tren de Aragua, whose cell (…) has settled in various cities in the region (…) as it has also spread to other parts of the country (…)”, the indictment concludes.

The three smugglers were among a group of people arrested in March 2022.

The case is currently being prepared for trial. There are 12 defendants, including Carlos González Vaca, alias “Estrella”.

Considered the leader of the first Tren cell identified and dismantled in Chile, the prosecution is asking for two sentences of life imprisonment and 125 years in prison for crimes such as kidnapping followed by homicide, human trafficking for sexual exploitation, drug trafficking and migrant smuggling, among others.

The outbreak, the pandemic and the economy

“We believe that the arrival of the Tren de Aragua has to do with taking advantage of this migration from Venezuela to Chile,” Mauro Mercado Andaur, national head of organised crime at Chile’s Investigative Police (PDI), told BBC Mundo.

“The person who migrates across different borders often has few economic resources and a desperate need to reach their destination country. The criminal group takes advantage of the migrants’ need to do their illicit business, seduces them and even assigns them minor tasks”, he added.

But there are other elements that explain why Chile was the chosen country for the gang to settle in.

On the one hand, it coincides with the outbreak in 2019, “at a time when we had other things to focus on that we were addressing”, said Mercado Andaur, pointing to the coronavirus pandemic.

The health emergency forced a change in the dynamics and operations of the security forces, the police officer said, who had to deal with problems related to the disease while neglecting other tasks.

Chile was also one of the first countries in the region to have vaccines available, and that attracted many people looking for quality health services.

“We had to Google it”

Arancibia, the former Tarapacá prosecutor, recounted that the first time he heard about the Tren de Aragua was in December 2020, when two Peruvian women were arrested while trying to enter Chile with ketamine, a hallucinogenic drug.

“They explained that they had been forced to transport the drug by people from the Tren de Aragua. Until then we knew nothing about a Venezuelan mega-gang, nor about a prison in Tocorón (in Venezuela). We had to look it up on Google,” Arancibia said.

Although in the end they proved that the women were lying and that they had not been forced by any criminal group, the event opened the way for the first investigation into the Tren de Aragua in Chile. “They let us know what was going on”.

By then, Chilean authorities had already noticed changes in criminal dynamics in the northern border regions and the appearance of new crimes without clear causes: more sexual exploitation of foreign women; trafficking of unconventional substances, extortion; more homicides and smuggling of migrants.

Although there had historically been organised crime activity on this border between Chile and Bolivia, there were no groups, either local or foreign, that exercised control over illicit activities and imposed themselves with violence as the Tren de Aragua did.

“They found it easy to take over territories. They took over almost unpopulated areas to establish their businesses. They also began to offer services, such as smuggling migrants from one border to another, providing security for businesses or falsifying the identity documents that the Chilean authorities give to migrants”, Mercado Andaur explained.

All of this was easier in Chile, among other things, because of the absence of other organised crime groups or criminal competitors.

“Historically, our criminal groups have tended to evolve towards money laundering, but not towards controlling territory by force. Nor did they have great firepower. That is why they were easily subdued by foreign groups, such as the Tren de Aragua, and ended up ceding their spaces and submitting to them,” said Mercado Andaur, who admitted the presence of Colombian and other organisations.

Chile has one of the strongest economies in Latin America, so "the economic stability of the country and the amount of money circulating were very attractive"

Exporting crime

The mega-gang’s adaptability and broad criminal portfolio –some 20 crimes are attributed to it– also allowed it to establish itself in Chile with criminal activities that were not practised by other groups, such as sexual exploitation.

“Prostitution is legal here, but there was no pimp. They brought it here and now they control this crime in the country”, said the PDI official.

In addition to these factors, Chile has one of the strongest economies in Latin America, so “the economic stability of the country and the amount of money circulating were very attractive”, Mercado Andaur stresses.

That is why Larry Amauri Álvarez Nuñez, alias “Larry Changa”, one of the leaders and creators of the Tren de Aragua, chose Chile to establish himself and his family, according to PDI, Interpol and Colombian intelligence officials.

He arrived on a commercial flight from Caracas in 2018, ran a food shop in the Jockey Club, four blocks from La Moneda Palace, and also had several commercial establishments. He settled in Santiago and managed to set up a drug trafficking and money laundering operation for the organisation.

In 2022, when the first arrests of his colleagues took place, he fled and his whereabouts are unknown today.

In the hierarchy of the organisation, he has almost the same rank as Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero”, top boss of the Tren, one of the most wanted men in Latin America.

“There are now 70 people from the organisation in prison,” said Mercado Andaur, who added that “the group began to fragment after the arrest of the leader (a.k.a. “Estrella”) and as a result of police action”.

“We don’t deny that they are still operating, but by being so exposed they have lost their protection networks. They have a small operation. However, we remain on high alert to prevent the cells” of the Tren de Aragua, Chile’s first major transnational organised crime group, from joining forces.

This article was originally published on BBC News Mundo and is republished with permission.