“El Tren de Llano” (Train of the Plain) is one of the first so-called “megabandas” or criminal gangs to develop in Venezuela. The criminal enterprise is active in drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and murder and was known both as “El Tren de Llano” and “El Picure,” the street name of its formidable founder José Antonio Tovar Colina, one of Venezuela’s most wanted criminals until he was killed by the Bolivarian National Guard in May 2016.
Tovar began his criminal life in the state of Guárico as a small-time car thief and drug trafficker. The origins of his gang El Tren de Llano can be traced back to 2008, where it began as a small-scale criminal enterprise limited to stealing cars from local farms in the central state of Guárico and Aragua.
The original 10 members of El Tren de Llano are thought to have first met in prison, a common trend in the formation of subsequent megabandas, although it isn’t clear from coverage of the gang whether Tovar did time in jail himself before forming the group. Another twenty other core members joined up on the outside.
Sociologist Luis Cedeño, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Organized Crime (Observatorio Venezolano del Delito Organizado), says “megabandas” tend to reproduce on the streets the structures and codes of the prison world.
In Venezuela’s penitentiaries, convict chiefs called “pranes” control smaller criminal groups called “cars.” If a boss amasses several cars, then it is considered a train, explaining why the name of various megabandas in Venezuela includes the word “tren.”
In July 2013, Tovar appeared on the radar of the authorities after he killed Renny Jesús Mejías, a detective from the investigative police (CICPC). By that time El Tren de Llano had expanded to kidnappings and assassinations alongside trafficking drugs, and was heavily armed. It began to pose a significant threat to the Venezuelan state, and launched numerous attacks on the security forces, often using grandes and high-calibre weapons. The increasing size and criminal activity carried out by the group placed Tovar in the crosshairs of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), the CICPC and, eventually, Interpol.
The gang is responsible for the kidnapping and robbery of the vice-minister of Indigenous Communities of Concha de Mango, the killing of 5 people at a party in Valle de la Pascua, the assassination of two police officials in Aragua and the robbery of multiple vehicles and uniforms from a local plant belonging to PDVSA, the state-owned oil company (Petroleos de Venezuela).
Among the most violent acts came in November 2014 when El Tren de Llano massacred 11 people on a farm in Aragua during a confrontation with a smaller rival gang “Memo.” Memo was taken by surprise as it was attempting to extort the farm residents posing as El Tren de Llano. Though 11 bodies were found, authorities have asserted the possibility that El Tren de Llano removed several bodies from the crime scene.
Reportedly, Tovar’s gang created rural squads that specialized in extortion to directly target local farmers and businesses. By the end of 2015, CICPC voiced concerns that the growing megabanda was potentially gaining territory close to Caracas. As a result of El Tren de Llano consolidating power and carrying out escalating acts of intimidation against locals and police officials, the investigation headed by the CICPC intensified and Tovar became one of the most wanted criminals in Venezuela.
On May 3, 2016, an operation to catch him was launched by the National Guard. The confrontation with the police on the streets of Tovar’s home neighborhood and base El Sombrero resulted in his death.
El Tren de Llano was headed from its inception by Tovar, who recruited the ten-man nucleus of the group from former prisoners at the General Penitentiary of Venezuela (PGV). Throughout his time as the leader of El Tren de Llano, he is understood to have maintained contacts with pranes in the PGV, according to a profile of Tovar by RunRun.es. Following his death on May 3, 2016, there is some uncertainty with regards to the future of the gang and its leadership.
El Tren de Llano was based in the state of Guarico and also had considerable control in Aragua. By 2014, it established an operational base in the neighborhood of El Sombrero in the state of Guarico, which also happened to be the hometown of leader “El Picure.” By the end of 2015, there were major concerns raised that El Tren de Llano was making gains in the state of Miranda and territories surrounding Caracas.
Allies and Enemies
Over the course of his criminal history, Tovar developed relationships with both international and local criminal gangs. In its early years, el Tren de Llano was alleged to have connections to Colombian armed groups, specifically paramilitaries, through which his group sourced both drugs and weapons. El Tren de Llano also reportedly maintained ties with another neighboring megabanda called “El Tren de Aragua,” though the exact relationship remains unclear. Before the death of Tovar in May 2016 there were rumors circulating that the two megabandas intended on joining forces.
The death of Tovar has left El Tren de Llano without an immediate heir, but experts doubt that his death will lead to the end of the gang, despite government claims to the contrary. Given the high-profile pursuit and annihilation of the gang’s leadership, it’s possible that Tovar’s successor (or successors) may pursue a more discreet, low profile and strategy.
Nevertheless, no member has yet emerged as the new and clear leader of the megabanda, although there are a number of frontrunners.
Gilberto Malony Hernández, known as “Maloney,” is one of them. Aged 31, he was in charge of one of the regional branches of El Tren de Llano in Altagracia de Orituco, Guarico when Tovar was alive, and according to some media reports is wanted for more than 10 different offenses, among them homicide and robbery.
Juvenal Antonio Bravo Sánchez, alias “El Juvenal,” head of the rival gang to Tren de Llano, has also been signalled as a possible successor. Other possible contenders include an uncle and cousin of Tovar’s, known by the street names “Pomponi” and “Topocho,” respectively.