The Tren de Aragua is Venezuela’s most powerful local “megabanda,” or large criminal gangs with more than 100 members. This group is largely based out of the Tocorón prison in Aragua state and involved in everything from extorsion to kidnappings, homicide, vehicle theft, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking and contraband.
The Tren de Aragua’s origins date back to the 2000s when, during construction on Venezuela’s railway system, a workers’ union saw an opportunity to enter the criminal world. The first members of the group began by demanding bribes in order to give people certain job posts but they soon turned to extortion, kidnap and robbery.
The rise of Tren de Aragua seems to be connected with the career of one of the highest-ranking officials in Venezuela, Tareck El Aissami. During his time as interior and justice minister between 2008 and 2012, prison gangs saw a rapid development, including Tren de Aragua. And police sources consulted by InSight Crime said that Tren de Aragua fortified its operations after El Aissami became governor of Aragua in 2012. During his time as governor, between 2012 and 2017, Aragua had the highest number of homicides in the country.
The leader of the Tren de Aragua is Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero.” He is based in the Tocorón prison from where he oversees the gang and the Fundación Somos El Barrio JK, an institution which the group registered in order to secure state resources and support. registered the group in order to secure state resources and support.
After being jailed for the murder of a police officer in 2005, he came to notoriety after breaking out from Tocorón in 2012. It is unknown exactly how or when he took over the leadership of Tren de Aragua but he has led the group since at least 2015.
In total, the Tren de Aragua has more than 2,700 members, including both armed criminals and others who gather “intelligence” for the group. While the group is a national force across Venezuela, it has consolidated its power in Aragua where, as it ranks swelled, those of the state police dwindled. One state police officer in Aragua said the megabanda now outnumbers the police. “Previously, the state police had a post in every three neighborhoods. In reality, there are now only about 52 police posts when we used to have 123,” he said.
The Tren de Aragua’s base of operations is in Aragua state, within which the group has two principal enclaves: the Tocorón prison and the community of San Vicente in the southeastern municipality of Giradot. This sector has more than 20 neighborhoods and functions as a sort of “peace zone,” where police forces are largely barred from entering. The Fundación Somos El Barrio JK is based in San Vicente.
Police sources and residents of San Vicente confirmed to InSight Crime that the letters of the Fundación Somos El Barrio JK represent the initials of the organization’s principal leader, named Kleiverson, alias “Flipper,” as well as his wife, Jennifer De Sousa, known as “Catira.”
The Tren de Aragua is present in at least seven states of Venezuela. In addition to Aragua, the group has managed to also consolidate its presence in the states of Carabobo, Sucre, Bolívar, Guárico, Trujillo and Miranda.
In order to expand, the gang has frequently established alliances with criminal actors in other states, as well as sending some its members across the country to set up new criminal revenue streams. For example, in the eastern state of Bolívar, two Tren de Aragua members, Larry Amaury Álvarez, alias “Larry Changa,” and Johan Petrica, set up a lucrative operation which controls part of the gold mines in the state. From here, the gang moves illegally mined gold and coltan to Brazil. In the state of Sucre, the Tren de Aragua moves drugs and contraband such as copper to Trinidad and Tobago.
Police sources confirmed to InSight Crime that Niño Guerrero also directly controls the extortion of local shopkeepers and agricultural workers in the state of Guárico, which neighbors Aragua.
Venezuelan security forces have warned of the Tren de Aragua’s presence in Táchira state, which shares a border with Colombia. InSight Crime field investigations in this region have confirmed that Tren de Aragua members are not permanently based in Táchira but travel through the state to reach Colombia.
The megabanda’s criminal tentacles have also stretched out beyond Venezuela. Authorities across the region have confirmed the group’s presence in Peru, Colombia and Brazil. The public security secretary of Brazil’s Roraima state, Olivan Junior, warned that members of the group have openly announced their affiliation to Tren de Aragua when jailed in Brazil.
Allies and Enemies
The Tren de Aragua has links with other megabandas and organized crime groups that operate in other regions, and seems to be skilled at making alliances with authorities. But in late 2019 and early 2020, Venezuelan security force units, such as the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales — FAES), carried out more operations against the group, detaining and even killing its members.
In Aragua state, a criminal group known as “Los Carajitos Locos del 19,” largely comprised of younger individuals, has tried to push the Tren de Aragua out of the state. However, a number of the group’s members have been killed in confrontations with Tren de Aragua members.
In the state of Carabobo, one of the group’s allies is Néstor Richardi, the gang leader in Tocuyito prison. In addition to being implicated in extortion activities, he has even tried replicating many of the criminal economies the Tren de Aragua are involved in.
In Guárico state, two of the Tren de Aragua’s main allies are the Tren del Llano megabanda, led by Gilberto Malony Hernández, alias “Malony,” and another megabanda led by Manuel Alejandro Moyetones, also known as “Mandarria.” According to reviews of police and media information, Mandarria may actually be in Peru.
The Tren de Aragua also has an alliance with a megabanda, known as the Tren del Norte. This gang is headed by Edwin Ramón Soto Nava, alias “Mocho” Edwin, who was previously jailed in Tocorón prison, where he met Niño Guerrero.
According to a source within Venezuela’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), Niño Guerrero also has links with state security forces. “He meets with certain security force officials and shares information he has on gangs, not to dismantle them, but rather in exchange for money or to gain control over the territories dominated by these other criminal organizations,” the source told InSight Crime.
But while there is no evidence to confirm the Tren de Aragua’s links to state officials, Prison Minister Iris Varela has made public visits to the San Vicente community to meet with the Fundación Somos El Barrio JK.
On May 4, 2019, members of the megabanda attacked a military convoy in the area surrounding the Tocorón prison to push back against the presence of security forces in the group’s territory. A general from the armed forces and five other members of the country’s security forces were killed in the attack. Despite the fact that CICPC Commissioner Douglas Rico assured the incident was directed from prison, no official action has been taken against the group to date.
The territorial expansion of the Tren de Aragua is ongoing. This has made it not just a significant domestic threat to security in Venezuela but it has made incursions into the neighboring countries of Colombia, Brazil and Peru.
While it is the first Venezuelan megabanda to expand on such a scale, Venezuelan security experts have told InSight Crime that it has achieved its success in thanks to support from the Venezuelan government, which has not acted in any concerted way to curb the group’s expansion.