Venezuelan authorities celebrated the death of the country’s most wanted criminal at the hands of law enforcement this month but the killing of the gang leader known as El Picure appears to be more the result of a police vendetta than a concerted effort to rein in organized crime.
On May 3, commandos of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) tracked one of Venezuela’s most notorious criminals to a house in the town of El Sombrero in the central state of Guárico. After a gunfight that claimed the lives of nine alleged gang members and one GNB, the agents posed for a picture with the body of the gang boss in the style of the famous image of the Colombian commandos that took down Pablo Escobar in 1993.
“El Picure is dead. The myth is finished!” they announced via their internal communications.
The head of the GNB and the minister of interior, justice and peace congratulated the troopers who participated in the assault and vowed to continue their crusade against the violent criminal bands that they call “paramilitaries.” But more than a symbol of official triumph, El Picure’s death is likely to be remembered as an enduring symbol of police inefficiency.
José Tovar Colina was leader of one of Venezuela’s biggest, most well established and violent gangs, called the Tren del Llano, or Train of the Plain. He went by the alias El Picure, the Venezuelan name for a large rodent common to much of Latin America.
Just 27 years old, El Picure had managed to stay a step ahead of the authorities for eight years, slipping away from numerous operations to capture him. His gang first appeared on the national public radar in 2013, when they spectacularly confronted police in the town of Barbacoas, 250 kilometers southeast of the capital, Caracas.
It was not the first time members of the band had exchanged gunfire with the authorities. But on this occasion they were armed with assault rifles, and after repelling a police raid they followed the officers back and mounted an attack against the police station. Members of the gang blocked the streets throughout the town and threatened to blow up any vehicle that moved with an antitank weapon.
“El Picure is dead. The myth is finished!” announced the soldiers
Following the incident, the judicial police (CICPC) created a file on the gang and its principal members. The GNB’s anti-extortion and kidnapping unit and the National Police also launched investigations.
According to these investigations, El Picure’s gang’s main activities were car thefts and extortion. They had 25 members when the CICPC complied its file, but successive reports on the gang noted it continued to grow despite the occasional loss of foot soldiers in confrontations with the authorities. At last count, the Tren del Llano was estimated to include 40 men and at least four women.
It is uncertain how the band got its name. A GNB report indicates that several of El Picure’s lieutenants, who have also now been killed, were union members in charge of collecting extortion fees in exchange for jobs laying the railway that runs through the center of the country. However, other large criminal organizations in Venezuela are also called trains: the Tren del Pacifico operating on the island of Margarita; Tren de Aragua in the state of the same name; Tren Azul in the northeastern state of Sucre, and Tren de Apure on the border with Colombia.
It is likely that the name originated in prison, where underworld bosses called “pranes,” “prames,” or “principals,” exercise dominance over one or several structures they call “cars.” If a boss amasses several cars, then it is considered a train. Sociologist Luis Cedeño, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Organized Crime (Observatorio Venezolano del Delito Organizado), says that “megabands” like that led by El Picure tend to reproduce on the streets the structures and codes of the prison world.
The Tren del Llano recruited its members in the state of Guárico, above all from the El Sombrero neighborhood Concha de Mango, where El Picure grew up. The gang would even regularly organize block parties in the area, announcing them on its Facebook page.
One of those parties, labeled the Gran Rumba Tren del Llano, caught the authorities’ attention in 2013. Judicial police tried to capture El Picure at a rodeo style event, a traditional pastime in which riders on horseback try to pull a bull to the ground by grabbing his tail. But he escaped the trap, as he had numerous other attempts to capture him.
The GNB said the gang boss was able to evade them due to his extensive knowledge of local geography and his Special Forces training from his time in the Navy and the incident fed the legend of El Picure — a legend that has inspired Hip Hop and Reggaeton songs.
However, it was the Tren del Llano’s killing of 11 state agents during El Picure’s time as its leader that made the gang stand out. These murders included agents from military counter-intelligence, state intelligence, the judicial police and regional police officers as well as the first sergeant of the GNB that was killed in the operation that took down El Picure.
It was this violence that made El Picure the police’s biggest target. Security forces extended their manhunt to include all of his friends and cohorts. Two days before they caught up with him, police killed El Picure’s older brother and the father of one of his girlfriends.
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After the death of El Picure, the Tren del Llano has now been left decimated and leaderless and its future is uncertain.
Previously, the Tren del Llano had attempted to form alliances with other criminal gangs, including the Tren de Aragua, the Valles del Tuy, which operate just outside of Caracas, and the Sin Techos (Roofless) and El 70, both of which operate in the capital, and surviving members of El Picure’s gang could incorporate into these other criminal structures.
They may also turn to the gang led by Juvenal Bravo, who unhitched himself from El Picure’s train some four years ago and had recently made incursions in Guárico. The GNB accuses Bravo of leading Venezuela’s most active gang of kidnappers, who were allegedly responsible for more than 230 victims during the last months of 2014 and the beginning of 2015.
Unlike El Picure, Bravo has gone to great lengths to avoid confrontations with state agents, at times releasing his victims at the first hint of police patrols. While he may not have the mythical status of El Picure, Bravo’s more low key profile could help him expand his operations to the areas until recently controlled by the Tren del Llano.