A Venezuelan Gang Crosses Biden's Open Border
The Tren de Aragua rose to power in Nicolas Maduro’s anarchotyranny. Now they’re in Florida.
Last week, El American broke the news that members of the Tren de Aragua, the largest criminal organization in Venezuela (after the government), had crossed the southern border and were living in Orlando, Florida. The news came a week after Breitbart had claimed that Venezuelan criminals were crossing the border to live in the U.S.—more than likely continuing their criminal enterprises.
The source told El American that the criminals were living in Bogotá, Colombia, and were able to change their identity by bribing Venezuelan officials. They traveled by land to Mexico’s northern border and crossed to the U.S., then established themselves in Orlando, where one of the members bought a car and applied for a Florida license plate with his new identity. The source believed that the crossing was not organized by the Maduro regime, but an isolated act of corruption.
The Tren de Aragua was born from a union in Aragua state, west of Caracas. The union represented the workers of the construction of a railroad (hence the name, Aragua’s Train) that would have passed through the state of Aragua. The project was never finished, the money disappeared, and no one knew what happened---a common occurrence in Chavez’s Venezuela.
The workers started with typical shady union deals, charging for the allocation of workers and extorting contractors. Some of its members were sentenced for their crimes and sent to the Tocorón prison, one of the largest and most dangerous prisons in Venezuela. There, they got in touch with the now-leader of the gang, Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, better known as “Niño Guerrero,” who was serving a sentence for killing a policeman and started expanding their operations.
First, from the prison, they gained control of the nearby San Vicente neighborhood. San Vicente is a large neighborhood with over 28,000 people. Every parcel is controlled by two or more of Guerrero’s lieutenants who keep the area in order: no minors on the streets after 11 p.m., no muggings within San Vicente, and not a soul can mention the activities of the Tren de Aragua.
Then, they started leading all kinds of criminal operations from the prison: extortion, drug trafficking, hit jobs, kidnappings, and human trafficking. Then, the gang started expanding to other parts of the country. They started controlling drug trafficking routes from Sucre, a state in the northeastern part of the country that allows easy access to the Caribbean. Then they began taking part in illegal mining operations in southeast Venezuela, near the border with Brazil.
Conducting criminal operations from prison is nothing new; it happens in the U.S. and almost everywhere. But the sheer scale of the Tren de Aragua’s operations is almost unparalleled. Depending on the source, they have between 2,000 and 7,000 members, and their operations span almost half the states of Venezuela, and Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Panama, Costa Rica—and, now, the United States.
How were they able to expand so quickly from a prison? The answer is very simple and, at the same time, very complex.
It is very simple because in Venezuela it is easy to point the finger at the government when something bad happens. Nine out of 10 times, you’d be right to blame them. But the power dynamic that enabled Tren de Aragua to scale their operations up to the point of having members in the U.S. is much more complex.
Even though Venezuela is a dictatorship, Maduro does not have monolithic control of power. The Venezuelan regime is better understood as a coalition in which Maduro is the public face but there are many leaders, with different priorities and different criminal operations. Thus, a criminal gang such as the Tren de Aragua might be allied with some government factions while others attack it.
The Venezuelan prison system is a mess, and both Chávez and Maduro only made it worse. After dozens of massacres in prisons across the country, the government basically surrendered and gave away some of the prisons to the inmates, allowing them to run their operations as long as there are no mutinies or massacres within the compounds. This system paved the way for the rise of a figure known as pran, an acronym that roughly translates to “natural-born killer inmate.” The pranes are the informally recognized leaders of prisons, and Niño Guerrero is probably the most important in the country.
Guerrero’s organization is also allied with the Tren del Llano and the Tren del Norte, two of the other “mega-gangs” in Venezuela.
Tocorón, the prison that serves as the Tren de Aragua’s headquarters, has a pool, a disco, many churches, and restaurants (including a Thai restaurant and one called “The Flavor of Crime”). It also has a gym (closer to a Planet Fitness than a prison gym), clothing shops, and even a small zoo. There is an informal bank (painted with the colors of Banesco, the largest bank in the country) that makes loans in dollars with interest rates of between 10 and 20 percent. Guerrero’s house is in the middle of the prison; it has two stories and a large terrace---and he has a collection of trucks.
As long as you behave well and pay the “causa” demanded by the pran (a monthly fee that allows you to be safe in the prison and avoid the most grueling jobs and treatment), you can enjoy yourself, and your family can freely visit and even stay with you in the prison. Estimates indicate that Guerrero receives about two million dollars per year just in causa payments.
Local NGOs blame the government for the rise of pranes. Twelve years ago, Tareck El-Aisammi was the interior minister in Venezuela. El-Aisammi was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2017 and is known as Venezuela’s liaison with Hezbollah and for providing Venezuelan passports to suspected members of Hezbollah and Hamas from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan. (This was back when a Venezuelan passport allowed one to freely roam through Latin America, and Venezuelans could easily obtain an American tourist visa.)
The NGO Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons studied 31 of the 52 prisons in the country. Eight of those are under full control of pranes, eight are controlled by Venezuelan authorities, and 15 are under a “mixed” regime between pranes and the state. All started under El-Aisammi’s watch and that of Iris Valera, the prison minister.
It was then that the causa system was established, and officials from the prisons ministry and the national guard, among others, benefited from it. Experts claim that, around 2017, the gang was able to produce about $5 million per year. Who was the governor of Aragua when the Train had this kind of earnings? El-Aissami.
And that was before the train started its international course.
The first foreign country to have claimed presence from the Tren de Aragua was Peru, in 2018. The Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, which began in 2014, resulted in over 6 million Venezuelans fleeing the country due to hunger, hyperinflation, and political persecution. A small percentage of those who fled did so to expand criminal enterprises.
On August 3 of 2018, the Division of Investigation of Theft of the Peruvian police detained five members of the gang. One of them, called Edison Barrera, a.k.a. “el Catire” (“the Blonde,” in Venezuelan slang) admitted to having killed six people as a hitman.
Brazilian authorities also claimed that the Tren de Aragua was connected with the Brazilian Primer Comando da Capital, also born in a prison, which is the largest criminal syndicate in the continent’s largest country. Chilean authorities also claimed to have the Tren in their country, where the group led operations in arms dealing, extortion, and hit jobs. It also leads human-trafficking—especially sex-trafficking—operations on the Chile-Bolivia border.
On June 16 of this year, Chilean police conducted an operation in Arica, in the northern part of the country. They found drugs, guns, and a cadaver with signs of torture, and detained 17 members of the organization, including one of its leaders, Hernán Landaeta, a.k.a. “Satan.” Peruvian women have also been detained in the Chile-Peru border and forced to carry drugs by the Tren de Aragua. The local prosecutor, Raúl Arancibia, called authorities to “avoid Iquique [a city close to the border with Bolivia] becoming another Ciudad Juárez” due to the increasing levels of violence.
The group also controls crossings at the Ecuador-Colombia border—a hotbed for drug trafficking in South America. And Bogotá probably has the largest presence outside of Venezuela. Earlier this year, 23 bodies were found dismembered in plastic bags in different parts of the Colombian capital, a level of violence rarely seen that reminded of the dark days when Pablo Escobar and cartels ran rampant in the country. The mayor, Claudia López, claimed that the Tren de Aragua was responsible for the gruesome murders. A Colombian NGO also reported that the group has links in the country with Los Urabeños (also known as the Gulf Clan), the largest drug cartel in Colombia.
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It has also fought with the ELN (National Liberation Army) and FARC dissidents to control crossings on the Venezuela-Colombia border. The fact that the Tren de Aragua, still a young organization, was able to fight off guerrillas that have decades of armed experience surprised many.
According to investigations, criminals from the gang camouflage themselves among migratory caravans from Venezuela to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile—and now the U.S., where they extort migrants and also use these caravans to smuggle drugs and conduct human-trafficking operations.
In the United States, the Tren de Aragua will do what they have done in every other country: ally themselves with other criminal organizations to murder, deal drugs, and wreak havoc. Whatever happens will be directly linked to America's wide-open southern border. So, though evidence indicates the crossing of the Tren de Aragua into Florida was not orchestrated by the Maduro regime, the Biden regime may not come out so blameless.