Since the Venezuelan authorities announced they had retaken control of the centre of operations of the Tren de Aragua, one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Latin America, the group has taken centre stage. Journalist Ronna Rísquez, who has followed its trail for years, reflects on the past, present and future of the mega gang.

Text: Ronna Rísquez / Editing: Josefina Salomon / Illustration: Sergio Ortiz

From crime group to mega-gang. The Tren de Aragua, the most powerful criminal organization in Venezuela, was born nearly a decade ago in the Aragua Penitentiary Centre, better known as Tocorón prison. Several inmates who met there took the opportunity to recruit their members inside the prison in order to expand quickly. It is estimated that organization currently has between 3,000 and 5,000 members. The collapse of the prison system and the desperate humanitarian situation in Venezuela made recruitment easy. 

Adaptability, a broad criminal portfolio and violence. These are the three main characteristics of the Tren de Aragua’s “modus operandi”. Their adaptability allows them to easily take advantage of new criminal opportunities and gives them an edge over their competitors. They currently control a broad criminal portfolio of more than 20 crimes including drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion, migrant smuggling, trafficking of women for sexual exploitation and kidnapping, among others. They exercise violence and control by, among other things, recording the bloody murders they carry out as a way of sending messages to their adversaries. 

“A prison without bars”. This is how a local woman described her home neighbourhood of San Vicente, which has become the centre of operations of the Tren de Aragua outside the Tocorón prison. Their style of criminal governance impacts on all aspects of community life, including schools, justice and even the way in which neighbours are allowed to paint and decorate the fronts of their houses. Outside of San Vicente, the Tren de Aragua has imposed control in other Venezuelan towns, such as Las Claritas and in the south of Bolivar state, in the area known as the Arco Minero del Orinoco.

Eight countries. El Tren de Aragua has a presence in more than half of Venezuela’s states and its activities have already expanded through cells in at least eight Latin American countries. Authorities in Peru, for example, have identified members of the organization operating since at least 2018. In Brazil, members of the mega-gang have been found operating in conjunction with the First Capital Command, the country’s largest criminal organization, and one of the largest in Latin America. There is more. The Tren controls the border crossing between Táchira and Norte de Santander in Colombia, and has expanded into the country’s capital. There are also indications that they operate on the Colombia-Ecuador border as well as the border shared by Chile and Bolivia. In October 2023, US authorities announced the arrest of an alleged member of the Tren de Aragua in the United States. 

Prisión de Tocorón in Venezuela ©In.Visibles/Sergio Ortiz
The prison of Tocorón was the Tren de Aragua’s centre of operations ©In.Visibles/Sergio Ortiz.

Vertical structure. Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero”, is the official leader of the Tren de Aragua. Larry Amaury Alvárez Núñez, alias “Larry Chaga”; and Yohan José Romero, alias “Johan Petrica” are also at the top of the mega-gang and together they call themselves “the three daddies”.  Cells operating in other countries are believed to respond to these leaderships and are organized through structures based on trust and loyalty. 

And the government? Although the government of Nicolás Maduro claims that the recent military raid that retook control of the Tocorón prison, the Tren’s centre of operations, spelled the end of the organization, experts agree that this is not the case. Although the action was a hard blow to the mega-gang, as it stripped it of its main base of operations and the place where it recruited its “manpower”, the leaders and other members were not captured and their whereabouts are still unknown. Even though there’s no evidence about any links between the government and the organization, this is  not the first time that government policies have failed to stop criminal groups. The Train of Aragua, for example, managed to operate from the Tocorón prison unchallenged for years, despite the fact that external custody of the prison was provided by the Bolivarian National Guard. The government’s strategy also failed when, since 2017, it sent an extermination group to stop criminal gangs. The strategy left more than 20,000 victims of extrajudicial executions, while organized crime continues to operate.

What is the future? Although the seizure of Tocorón prison is a blow to the Tren de Aragua, it is too early to speak of the group’s dismantling. Its territorial control, the strategic vision of the organization’s leadership, its bargaining power and the revenues of more than $15 million it manages to generate each year are signs of its resilience.