Young Men at the Beach
The Tren de Aragua has demonstrated a remarkable ability to negotiate and form alliances Marshall

Tren de Aragua, a Venezuelan criminal organization, has rapidly expanded its influence across Latin America, emerging as a significant transnational threat. Born within the confines of Tocorón prison, the gang has leveraged control over prison systems, adaptability, and a diverse criminal portfolio to spread its operations across multiple countries.

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

Tren de Aragua's initial 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 operational bases is not unique to the gang; it reflects a broader trend seen in Latin American criminal organizations. Tren de Aragua's dominance in Tocorón enabled 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 for expansion. The gang has demonstrated a remarkable ability to negotiate and form alliances, allowing it to operate either as a primary criminal entity or as a service provider to larger groups in new territories. This flexibility, combined with a broad range of criminal activities—such as migrant smuggling, trafficking of migrant women, drug trafficking, extortion, robbery, kidnapping, contract killings, and illegal mining—has enabled the gang to thrive without relying solely on violence.

Technology plays a significant role in its operations. The gang effectively uses social media and remote communication to coordinate activities across countries. This technological proficiency allowed their leader, even while imprisoned in Venezuela, to oversee operations in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, highlighting the gang's sophisticated organizational structure.

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

The gang's presence is not confined to Venezuela. It has established 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 extend to the United States, although this remains under investigation.

However, Florida senator Marco Rubio recently requested it be designated as a transnational criminal organization. He added that the gang has reached American cities during a Senate Foreign Affairs committee hearing about criminal networks and corruption in The Americas.

"This is a vicious gang. They initially set themselves up in Venezuelan prisons and later became endemic in Peru, Panama, Bolivia and Brazil," he said.

"Now we're seeing evidence they reached the U.S. Every day we see reports from Chicago, south Florida and New York showing that they are here."

However, in contrast with Rubio's requests, specialized outlet InSight crime said there is scant evidence supporting such claims.

Reports linking Tren de Aragua members to criminal activities in the United States have surfaced sporadically in recent months, but these incidents appear to have been 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 notable presence or criminal activity linked to the gang within their jurisdictions.

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

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

The Venezuelan government's takeover of Tocorón prison in 2023 marked a significant setback for the gang. This move, along with the arrest of key leaders in Colombia and Peru, suggests a possible fragmentation of the organization. Enhanced international cooperation has been crucial in 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 Tocorón prison, which generated approximately $3.5 million annually, poses a financial challenge for the gang. However, their proven ability to adapt and innovate may help them find new ways to sustain their operations. Continued international cooperation is essential to effectively dismantle this transnational criminal organization and curb its influence across the region.

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