A transnational criminal organization out of Venezuela, Tren de Aragua, continues to reach across South America and into Chile. Areas in Chile where the gang is present have experienced an uptick in homicide rates. Government and law enforcement are trying to neutralize the gang’s presence via special operations, revising immigration laws, and adding police and prosecutors in certain areas.
Tren de Aragua is one of Venezuela’s largest gangs. It has more than 2,700 members and is known for migrant smuggling, human trafficking, and extortion. Its operations reach several Latin American nations, including Chile.
According to El Debar, a common occurrence for Venezuelans is to come home to find a family member missing. The initial assumption is that they have been detained by police, but that assumption often gives way to even more troubling news directly from the gang: their loved one has been kidnapped and sent to Chile. Desperate to return home, the victim is forced to traffic cocaine from Bolivia to Chile. Most do not succeed and are detained by authorities at the border.
Also from El Debar, Tren de Aragua specifically targets vulnerable populations such as women working on the streets selling goods, washing windshields, or begging for money. The gang makes most of its income from human trafficking and smuggling of these women for sexual exploitation. It is reported that this brings in more revenue for the gang than drug-smuggling.
To maintain its position in human trafficking and exploitation, Tren de Aragua uses an interconnected network of human smugglers aka “coyotes.” Coyotes and smaller criminal gangs across South America are responsible for receiving, abducting, and criminalizing migrants, as per Insight Crime.
“What exists is a network out of Venezuela that traverses Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia before finally reaching Chile,” said Hardy Torres, deputy chief prosecutor in Chile’s northern province of Tamarugal, to Ciper Chile.
Tren de Aragua Entering into Chile
Arica and Parinacota, Tarapacá, Antofagasta, and Atacama are the four main points of entry in northern Chile for migrants. According to Insight Crime, the rapid expansion of the Tren de Aragua gang has been proportional to the increase in illegal immigration into Chile in recent years.
A study by Chile’s Investigations Police (PDI) reveals that illegal entries by migrants in northern Chile spiked nearly 20-fold from 2,905 in 2017 to 56,586 in 2021. The study also revealed that this steep jump is despite the increased military presence at the borders.
Tren de Aragua expanding footprint in Chile presents growing safety concerns for Chileans as well, particularly in the regions where they operate. According to statistics from the CEAD, despite the overall 25 percent decrease in Chile’s national homicide rate to 3.5 per 100,000 residents, regions such as Tarapacá, have experienced a 183 percent increase to 9.7 per 100,000.
“We are witnessing an increase in homicides, with 60 percent now involving a firearm and 70 percent due to score-settling [between criminal gangs],” said Lizana, a researcher and security expert at Chilean think tank, AthenaLab.
Recent Action by Authorities
Operation Clandestino by the PDI, was run in northern and central parts of Chile and led to the arrest of five men and women from the criminal group in late March 2022. Among those arrested were “the leadership and armed wing of the criminal organization, including the man trusted by the leader of this criminal organization from Venezuela,” said General José Ortiz, deputy director of the PDI’s Intelligence, Organized Crime, and Migratory Security, in an interview.
As reported by BioBioChile, the mayor of Colchane, Javier García, asserts that collaboration with the Bolivian Foreign Ministry is essential in dealing with this issue.
Congresspersons on the Security Commission have also discussed legislative initiatives to mitigate the presence of these criminal organizations. Some of the discussions have been around strengthening migration laws, increasing the provision of prosecutors and police in certain regions, and creating investigative commissions to determine gaps in public institutions that deal with these types of crimes.
Ishaan Cheema is an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary, studying Kinesiology, with a focus on Exercise and Health Physiology. He always had a passion for globalism and political journalism, which he explored through Model UN conferences, debate teams, and several other extracurriculars.