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a look at the origins, strategies and future prospects of the criminal organization

Young men on the beach
The Tren de Aragua has demonstrated a remarkable ability to negotiate and form alliances
Unsplash.com/Tim Marshall

Tren de Aragua, a Venezuelan criminal organization, has rapidly expanded its influence throughout Latin America and has become a major transnational threat. Born within the confines of the Tocorón prison, the gang has taken advantage of their power control over prison systems, adaptability and a diverse criminal portfolio to spread operations across multiple countries.

Ronna Rísquez, co-founder of the investigative team tracking the organization, spoke with In.visibles to provide insight into the gang’s origins, strategies and future prospects.

Tren de Aragua’s original power base was Tocorón Prison, where the gang managed to establish control and use the facility as a central hub for their operations. This method of using prisons as operating bases is not unique to the gang; it reflects a broader trend evident in Latin American criminal organizations. Tren de Aragua’s dominance in Tocorón allowed it to grow until September 2023, when Venezuelan authorities took decisive action to dismantle the prison’s criminal activities.

However, its adaptability has been crucial to its expansion. The gang has demonstrated a remarkable ability to negotiate and form alliances. allowing it to operate as a primary criminal entity or as a service provider to larger groups in new areas. This flexibility, combined with a wide range of criminal activities – such as migrant smuggling, trafficking in migrant women, drug trafficking, extortion, theft, kidnapping, contract killings and illegal mining – has allowed the gang to thrive without relying solely on violence.

Technology plays an important role in its activities. The gang effectively uses social media and remote communications to coordinate activities in different countries. This technological skill allowed their leader, even while imprisoned in Venezuela, to oversee operations in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, highlighting the gang’s sophisticated organizational structure.

The main victims of Tren de Aragua are Venezuelan migrants. who face extortion and exploitation as they seek better opportunities across borders. The gang accuses these migrants of safe passage and sexually exploits migrant women, taking advantage of their vulnerable status. In areas under his control, it imposes strict regulations on local residents, affecting their daily lives and business activities through extortion and other forms of coercive governance.

The gang’s presence is not limited to Venezuela. It has gained a foothold in at least six Latin American countries, including Colombia, Chile, Peru and Bolivia. There are also indications that the gang’s reach may be expanding into the United States, although this is still under investigation.

However, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida recently requested that the organization be designated as a transnational criminal organization. He added that the gang has reached American cities during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on criminal networks and corruption in America.

‘This is a cruel gang. They initially settled in Venezuelan prisons and later became endemic in Peru, Panama, Bolivia and Brazil,” he said.

‘Now we see evidence that they have reached the US. Every day we see reports from Chicago, South Florida and New York that say they are here.”

Contrary to Rubio’s requests, Specialist crime agency InSight said there is little evidence to support such claims.

Reports linking Tren de Aragua members to criminal activity in the United States have surfaced sporadically in recent months, but these incidents appear to be isolated and lack clear ties to the gang’s leadership in Venezuela.

Major law enforcement agencies in urban centers across the US, including Los Angeles, Phoenix and New York City, report no significant presence or criminal activity associated with the gang within their jurisdiction.

The only specific mention came from the NYPD, which told local media that Tren de Aragua was linked to a series of cell phone robberies.

However, the gang is present in other Latin American countries, where regional governments have made efforts to combat its members through law enforcement and legal measures.

The takeover of Tocorón prison by the Venezuelan government in 2023 marked a significant setback for the gang. This move, together with the arrest of key leaders in Colombia and Peru, signals a possible fragmentation of the organization. Enhanced international cooperation has been critical to these efforts, as shared intelligence and coordinated actions have led to significant disruptions in the gang’s operations.

Despite these setbacks, the future of Tren de Aragua remains uncertain. The loss of income from the Tocorón prison, which generated about $3.5 million annually, poses a financial challenge for the gang. However, their proven ability to adapt and innovate can help them find new ways to support their operations. Continued international cooperation is essential to effectively dismantle this transnational criminal organization and curb its influence in the region.

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