Venezuelan gang Tren de Aragua has dominated Chilean news in May. Notorious for human trafficking and sexual exploitation, the gang is branching out all over Latin America. According to the regional Tarapacá prosecutor, gang members intend to stay, and Chile “has to get used to them.”
On May 24, Ciper reported that Chile’s Prosecutor General’s Office had identified 350 members of the foreign criminal organization Tren de Aragua, suggesting a big increase given the 17 PDI (Chile’s investigations police) identified just 15 months earlier.
That same day, the regional prosecutor of the northern Tarapacá Region, Raúl Arancibia, speaking with Radio AND, explained the reality: members had been in Chile for years, “we just didn’t know.” “Their plan is to settle here … we have to get used to them,” he added.
In a separate interview with CNN Chile, on May 26, Arancibia said he proposes specialized, high-security prisons to lock up members of criminal organizations like Tren de Aragua.
His interviews followed the seizure of 170 kgs of drugs and several vehicles and the arrest of 11 individuals by the PDI on May 22. The 11 detainees, Venezuelan, Dominican, and Colombian nationals, are said to be part of a large-scale, international drug trafficking operation for the gang. The vehicle that was seized, a passenger bus, was allegedly used to illegally smuggle immigrants across Chile.
According to the Chilean Interior Ministry, the PDI operation on May 22 was one of the largest blows dealt to Tren de Aragua to date. Other successful operations took place in March 2022, in January 2023, and on May 17, 2023, when one of its ringleaders, “La China,” was arrested.
Other noteworthy events were the arrest of 61 individuals linked to the organization in Peru, mid-April, and the transfer of six alleged gang members from the prison in Arica to a more secure prison in the southern city of Concepción, in March.
[1/2] En una investigación de largo aliento de la @pdi_chile junto al @FiscaliadeChile de Tarapacá, se logró detener a 11 miembros del Tren de Aragua en distintos operativos en las regiones de Coquimbo y Metropolitana.
Se incautaron 170 kilos de droga y dinero en efectivo 👇 pic.twitter.com/q4wSy96864
— Ministerio del Interior Chile (@min_interior) May 22, 2023
The Tocorón Stronghold
Tren de Aragua was founded in the late 2000s in the Venezuelan state of Aragua. The organization emerged out of a labor union for workers who constructed a railroad through the Aragua state, hence the name, which in English means, “Train of Aragua.” The union started by extorting local contractors. By the time the railway project stopped in 2011, the union had already transformed into a functioning criminal organization.
Since 2013, Tren de Aragua has been run by Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero,” from Tocorón Prison. Like the majority of Venezuelan prisons, Tocorón is almost entirely controlled by a pran, a boss of the prison gang. Tren de Aragua is the prison gang of Tocorón, and Niño Guerrero, is the pran.
Niño Guerrero was jailed in Tocorón in 2010, and quickly rose in the criminal ranks inside the prison. As the prison’s most influential pran, he soon had the power to order crimes from within the prison walls.
At that time, the gang was mainly still known for extortion within Aragua. The prison functioned as its stronghold. Through contacts and connections, the gang soon extended its operations beyond the state’s borders. Within a few years, it became Venezuela’s largest criminal organization, with a presence in several Venezuelan states and with cells in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile.
The gang’s main business remains extortion, mainly of business owners, but also of Tocorón inmates, whose families are forced to pay the gang in order to ensure their safety inside the prison walls.
However, over the years, the gang has expanded into the drug trade, forced prostitution, kidnapping, and illegal mining. In recent years, it has become a large player in international human-trafficking, smuggling illegal immigrants across country borders.
Tren de Aragua in Chile
Ciper reports that the gang’s first members arrived in Chile in 2017. Ever since, Chile has become the gang’s “most important international installation.” The gang has set up several cells throughout the country, from the northern Arica and Tarapacá regions down to the Metropolitan area and Valparaíso. Arancibia said that Tren de Aragua also leverages at least seven other gangs.
The group has enjoyed a steady business of smuggling people from Bolivia into Chile. In October 2022, Cooperativa reported that the gang was ferrying approximately 200 people per week into Chile, mostly women. Human trafficking and sexual exploitation are other profit centers for the gang in Chile.
Tren de Aragua is also working to establish strongholds in Chile’s prisons. A potentially tough nut to crack, InSight Crime writes, because Chile does not have real experience in “dealing with such criminal networks behind bars.”
Matthijs is a newly graduated journalism student from Groningen, the Netherlands. As a starting journalist and aspiring foreign correspondent, he decided to extend his 6-month university exchange in Chile to do an internship at Chile Today. He enjoys writing about a broad range of topics, but international relations, politics and conflicts are his key interests.