06/24/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

Tren del Llano

Tren del Llano

Tren del Llano

Tren del Llano (Train of the Plain) is one of the first large criminal gangs, known locally as “megabandas,” to emerge in Venezuela. The group grew in tandem with the rising notoriety of its leader and founder, José Antonio Tovar Colina, alias “El Picure” who was killed by Venezuelan authorities in May 2016 after being made a most wanted criminal.

Despite facing pressure from security forces and adapting to multiple leadership changes since El Picure’s death, the Tren del Llano continues to be a key criminal actor in Venezuela’s central region.

History

Though accounts differ, reports from Venezuelan media suggest the Tren del Llano was born in 2008, starting as a small-scale gang limited to stealing cars in the central state of Guárico and the northeastern state of Aragua.

As the group grew and sourced more better weapons, its criminal activities expanded to include kidnappings, contract killings, extortion, and small-scale drug trafficking.

The group gained the attention of authorities in July 2013, after its members murdered a police detective in the town of El Sombrero, in Guárico. The detective had allegedly raided El Picure’s properties days before his murder, NTN24 reported.

As the group diversified its activities, its use of violence also grew. Tren del Llano members massacred 11 people on a farm in Aragua during a confrontation with a rival extortion gang in November 2014, helping to make El Picure one of the most wanted criminals in Venezuela.  

Security forces, led by the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), killed El Picure in May 2016 during an operation in his hometown and Tren del Llano’s base – Julián Mellado, Guárico state. His death was a major setback for the organization. The ensuing leadership vacuum and continuous government crackdowns forced the group to lower its profile for several years.

The group resurfaced in July 2019, when an apparent faction of Tren de Llano published a video of its members shooting their weapons in the air in a town in Guárico state.

 The group then made incursions into the coastal state of Sucre, in 2020, muscling into the Gulf of Paria, an important export route for cocaine and marijuana.

The state launched an operation against Tren del Llano in late 2021 after the group allegedly stole a cocaine shipment belonging to the Cartel of the Suns, a military-embedded drug trafficking network. Security forces forcedTren del Llano out of Sucre and killed its then-leader, Gilberto Malony Hernández, alias “Malony.” 

But the gang remained intact, and authorities started targeting the group in its stronghold of Guárico with a new military campaign dubbed “Operation Thunder” (Operación Trueno), beginning in April 2022.  

The state deployed 800 police officers and soldiers who arrested dozens of alleged Tren del Llano members during the early stages of Operation Thunder I. Security forces also killed 14 alleged Tren del Llano members within the first week of Operation Thunder III in August 2022. 

The offensive against Tren del Llano continued into March 2023,   when the government deployed 1,500 soldiers to a town called Altagracia de Orituco as part of a new operation aimed at bringing down the gang.  

However, human rights defenders, activists, and non-governmental organizations documented abuses by security forces, including arbitrary detentions, among other human rights violations, during the operation. 

Despite coming under repeated attacks, none of the security operations have succeeded in eradicating Tren del Llano, which continues to extort locals and attack security forces.

Leadership

El Picure created Tren del Llano and oversaw its growth into a formidable criminal gang before his death in 2016. 

Malony – who had overseen a regional Tren del Llano branch in Guárico state, emerged as El Picure’s successor, but was also killed by security forces in Sucre in 2021.

Months after Malony’s death, one of his potential successors, Carlos José Pirela Armas, alias “Carlitos Pirela,” was found dead in Tucupido, Guárico. His own men are believed to have killed him.

Since then, Malony’s cousin, Óscar de Jesús Noguera Hernández, alias “Óscar del Llano,” or “El Pipi,” has taken the reins, commanding Tren del Llano from the town of Altagracia de Orituco.  He is now one of the country’s most wanted criminals. Press reports citing GNB sources claim Tren del Llano now consists of five distinct cells answering to Óscar del Llano.

Geography

Tren del Llano still bases its operational hub in Malony’s stronghold of Altagracia de Orituco, Guárico. Mountainous terrain provides the group’s leadership and operations with a degree of protection from the incursions of security forces.

The gang also remains the dominant actor in the northeastern part of the Guárico, though it has some presence in practically every municipality in the state. 

Recent intelligence reports suggest the group is no longer present in Sucre. This loss of coastal territory could explain why Tren del Llano’s role in drug trafficking appears to have been reduced to small-scale drug distribution.

Local media has reported that at least one cell, led by Octavio José Rojas Martínez, alias “El Fiebre,” has consolidated presence in the state of Apure, particularly in San Fernando, a municipality bordering Guárico. Although Apure’s governor claimed in early April 2024 that security forces had driven the organization out of Guárico and dismantled it in Apure, police continue to arrest its members and hinder operations in both states. 

Allies and Enemies

Tren del Llano and Venezuela’s most prominent gang, Tren de Aragua, currently respect one another’s criminal territory, an NGO worker and a Guárico political leader told InSight Crime.

Prospects

Consecutive security operations have battered Tren del Llano, driving the group out of strategic territories in Sucre. 

The operations appear to have limited the group’s geographic reach and its involvement in drug trafficking. But Tren del Llano has proven itself to be adaptable and capable of regrouping around autonomous cells that may prove more resilient against security force operations. It will likely rely on profits from extortion to remain a prominent criminal group in Venezuela’s central region.

The post Tren del Llano appeared first on InSight Crime.