Extortion, prostitution, assassination, robbery, drug trafficking, gold panning, smuggling … The “Tren de Aragua” gang has become in a few years a versatile Venezuelan multinational crime, reveals Ronna Risquez in an event book which earned him threats of death.

“Born in the Venezuelan prison of Tocoron” in the Aragua region, in central-northern Venezuela, the gang “is made up of about 5,000 men”, explains the Venezuelan journalist and author, specialist in organized crime, during interview at AFP offices in Caracas. The book is the result of three years of investigation.

The Tocoron prison is entirely in the hands of the Tren de Aragua, the police remain outside. “Inside, the men I saw with firearms were prisoners belonging to the organization. They are the ones who guard the prison but not for the State. The National Guard is outside” and “sees that the prisoners circulate on motorbikes, that they have weapons…”, she explains.

Tocoron prison is “like a hotel” for “gang bosses” with a swimming pool, zoo, underground betting rooms, bank, baseball field, restaurant and even a trendy nightclub, the “Tokio”, where bands perform. known artists and show off celebrities.

To “maintain all the logistics”, the prison population is extorted: each inmate pays the “causa”, around 15 dollars per week, or “3.5 million dollars per year”, according to Ms. Risquez. Those who do not pay are exposed to violence, have to sleep outside and are not or poorly fed.

This money is used to run the prison and “the one who makes everything work is the head of the prison, head of the Tren de Aragua” Hector Guerrero Flores known as “Niño guerrero” (child warrior), she explains.

Sentenced to 17 years in prison for homicides and drug trafficking, in particular, he is officially incarcerated but seems to be able to enter and leave prison as he pleases, sometimes taking advantage of the Venezuelan beaches on a yacht, says Ms. Risquez.

The prison serves as his base, where he is very well protected by an army of prisoners in his pay.

The Tren de Aragua appeared in 2014, operating in “classic” mafia activities: kidnappings, robberies, drugs, prostitution, extortion, according to the author. It has extended its influence to other activities, some even legal, but also to gold panning and illegal mining in a country which has among the largest gold deposits in the world.

The gang has put the city of Las Claritas, in the Bolivar region (southeast) under controlled cuts, controlling all aspects of daily life, from shops to health services.

In total, according to Ms. Risquez, the group would generate all activities combined some $ 15 million in revenue per year.

But the gang has also “taken advantage” of the unprecedented crisis that Venezuela has been experiencing since 2013 to cross borders and settle in at least “eight other Latin American countries”.

“Among these 7 million Venezuelans who left the country, there are members of criminal groups who no longer had anyone to kidnap, to rob… The gang identified a criminal business opportunity in this immigration”, explains- she.

The Tren de Aragua has taken over the business of smugglers, called “coyotes” in Latin America, and operates Venezuelan prostitution networks in Peru, Ecuador and Chile.

They have also recruited new members, in precarious situations, on the migratory routes which have become an important vector of expansion.

“In Chile, they found that there was no other armed group capable of competing with them. They are now in force from North to South, according to the Chilean authorities themselves,” she said.

In Brazil, the gang has notably founded an “alliance with the main armed group, the PCC” (First commando of the capital, also created in a prison) around the sale of arms and prostitution.

“It is impossible to read the book without wondering how the development of such an organization is possible without the complicity of the Venezuelan State”, writes on the cover the publisher Sergio Dabhar, obliged to print the book on the sly so as not to not expose those who make it. He leads negotiations for the translation of the work into other languages.

Ronna Risquez, she received death threats even before the publication.

In addition to that for her life, “the book presents different risks for the author”, underlines the former attorney general of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo. He warns that “his effort is ignored”, “that the book is not used to confront the problem”.

“Our challenge is to turn this book into a lever for change,” he says.

04/01/2023 05:46:08 –         Caracas (AFP) –         © 2023 AFP