05/18/2024

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Bolivian government minister Eduardo Del Castillo presents alleged Tren de Aragua members at a press conference Ministro de Gobierno de Bolivia, Eduardo Del Castillo, presenta en rueda de prensa a presuntos integrantes del Tren de Aragua

Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua: A Phantom or a Reality?

Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua: A Phantom or a Reality?

In early April, police officers in Oruro, eastern Bolivia, received a tip that a group of men were going to pick up weapons and ammunition from a home in the city.

They stopped four Venezuelans, one of them a minor, armed with guns and grenades. The group threatened the officers, warning them they were members of Tren de Aragua – a notorious Venezuelan criminal group that has swept across South America. The men were eventually arrested, and the three adults later paraded in front of the press.

It was a red flag for Bolivia – the most publicized appearance of alleged members of the Venezuelan group to date in the South American country. Police are now searching for others linked to those arrests, and the state’s prosecutor said he has not ruled out that Tren de Aragua may also be connected to the murder of a Venezuelan whose body was discovered inside a suitcase in Oruro on January 9, according to Bolivian media outlet Opinión.

SEE ALSO: Is Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua ‘Invading’ the US?

But not all officials agreed. The vice minister of the interior and police denied Tren de Aragua was operating in Bolivia in an interview with national news broadcaster Unitel, cited by Brújula Digital. Eduardo Del Castillo, the government minister who announced the arrests, also seemed to backtrack in a press conference reported in El Deber the following week, refusing to comment on the presence of a “transnational criminal group” in the country.

The Bolivian authorities’ conflicting stances reflect those of officials across the Americas. Some governments – including those of the United States, Chile, and Peru – consider the gang a major security threat. Other countries are more skeptical. In Venezuela, the foreign minister recently claimed Tren de Aragua was a media creation, before backtracking. 

Below, InSight Crime looks at why governments in the Americas tend to disagree on the threat posed by Tren de Aragua.  

Tren de Aragua’s ‘Criminal Brand’ Complicates Identification

Tren de Aragua came to prominence as a gang whose leadership operated from Tocorón prison in the Venezuelan state of Aragua.

The group later expanded beyond Venezuela’s borders, taking advantage of the exodus of migrants fleeing the country’s economic and security crises from the mid-2010s onward. Tren de Aragua’s criminal economies now include human trafficking, extortion, and small-scale drug trafficking. 

Though the group has a significant presence in Chile, Peru, and Colombia, many of its cells bear distinct names without reference to the wider organization. This may help Tren de Aragua fly under the radar in countries getting to grips with the gang.

In Peru and Chile, factions of the group operate under names such as the Gallegos, the Hijos de Dios, and Dinastía Alayón, making it difficult for law enforcement to correctly identify which groups are connected to Tren de Aragua.

SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua’s Criminal Portfolio: Adapt or Die

The confusion is clear. While the head of the Peruvian police’s homicide investigation division, Ricardo Sabino Espinoza Cuentas, told InSight Crime that Dinastía Alayón is a separate Venezuelan criminal group, other sources within the police and Attorney General’s Office insisted it is part of Tren de Aragua.

Tren de Aragua’s formidable reputation also plays a part. The gang’s fear campaigns, characterized by deliberate projections of violence – including the disposal of dismembered bodies on street corners and videos of murders – have given Tren de Aragua a “criminal brand” that imposters have sought to capitalize on. Pretenders falsely claiming to be members of the group to inspire fear and guarantee compliance from victims have further complicated law enforcement’s efforts to correctly identify genuine Tren de Aragua cells in Peru, Chile, and Colombia.

Additionally, the group’s factions across the continent appear to operate with a high degree of autonomy, meaning even successful efforts to tackle one cell will not necessarily impact or lead to the discovery of another.

Political Lines

In Venezuela, a lack of transparency and cooperation on the part of national authorities has made it more difficult for law enforcement abroad to identify members of the group. The Venezuelan government’s official stance on the gang remains inconsistent. 

Venezuela’s foreign minister, Yván Gil, claimed that Tren de Aragua was a “fiction created by the international media” in a press conference on April 8, drawing condemnation from his counterparts in Chile and Peru.

Gil backtracked four days later, saying his country’s police forces had “ended Tren de Aragua in Venezuela,” and promised to assist Chile in tackling organized crime.

Gil’s statement appears to have inspired Bolivia’s government minister Eduardo Del Castillo to reverse his own stance on Tren de Aragua’s presence there, referencing the fact Venezuelan authorities had insisted they had dismantled the group and saying he could not discuss it further.

The Bolivian government enjoys a far more amicable relationship with its Venezuelan counterpart than it does with other neighbors in the region. And the Bolivian government’s stance toward the gang appears to be politically motivated rather than based on evidence, according to Iván Paredes, a journalist specializing in transnational crime who has been covering Tren de Aragua in Bolivia since 2022.

“It is the political line they follow, the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela,” he told InSight Crime. “But I had contact with some police officers a year-and-a-half ago when we were investigating this group. They told me that this mafia does exist.”

He said its presence was most notable near Pisiga, a city along Chile’s northern border with Bolivia.

Paredes’ assertion coincides with reports of Tren de Aragua’s presence in the south of Bolivia since at least June 2022, where it is allegedly operating a migrant smuggling and drug trafficking route between Peru and Chile. 


Overestimating Tren de Aragua’s Strength

International relations and local politics may have also played a role in the United States’ response toward Tren de Aragua. Tensions are running high between the United States and Venezuela amid a wave of political repression on the part of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and the US presidential campaign has begun.

Some US lawmakers have called to designate Tren de Aragua a transnational criminal group, despite shaky evidence of any significant presence in the United States, and a low likelihood of significant expansion there. The stance allows some lawmakers to justify a tough-on-crime approach behind the crackdown on immigration, as the number of Venezuelans entering the United States has skyrocketed in recent years.

Yet overstating the gang’s presence risks allowing law enforcement across the region to mislabel Venezuelan criminals as Tren de Aragua members, potentially obscuring any investigations into the group.

Portraying the group as a greater transnational threat could also inspire copycats to piggyback on a criminal brand that has gained strength thanks to national media attention.

Featured image: Bolivian government minister Eduardo Del Castillo presents alleged Tren de Aragua members at a press conference. Credit: Bolivian police

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