Extortion, prostitution, murder, robbery, drug trafficking, gold laundering, smuggling: the “Tren de Aragua” gang became a multinational crime group that emerged in Venezuela in a few years, which Ronna Rísquez has documented in a book that has earned her threats of death.
Born in the Tocorón prison, in the north-central state of Aragua, the gang is made up of some 5,000 men, according to this journalist, who took three years for this investigation in which she had access to the detention center itself.
“Inside the men I saw with firearms were prisoners who belong to the organization,” he told Rísquez in an interview with AFP. “The National Guard is outside, at the entrance,” she clarified.
Tocorón added that it seems “a hotel” intended for “the leaders of the band”. He explained that it has a swimming pool, a zoo, a betting room, a bank, a baseball field and even a nightclub called “Tokio”, where famous artists and celebrities perform.
To maintain all this infrastructure, they extort money from the prison population: each prisoner pays the “cause,” a fee of about 15 dollars a week, that is, “3.5 million dollars a year,” according to Rísquez.
Those who do not pay are subjected to acts of violence, forced to sleep outdoors or limited to eating little or nothing.
The resources are managed by the “pran” (leader of the gang in the prison) Héctor Guerrero Flores, known as “Niño Guerrero”, according to the author.
Sentenced to 17 years in prison for homicide and drug trafficking, among other crimes, Guerrero is officially jailed but appears to be able to come and go as he pleases, sometimes enjoying Venezuelan beaches on a yacht, the investigation revealed.
The prison serves as his base, where he is well protected by an army of inmates on his payroll.
Beyond the borders
The “Aragua Train” emerged in 2014, operating in “classic” mafia activities: kidnappings, robberies, drugs, prostitution and extortion, but later expanded to the illegal exploitation of gold in a country that has some of the largest deposits auriferous in the world, adds Rísquez.
Its tentacles, which also extend to legal businesses, reach the remote town of Las Claritas, in the mining state of Bolívar (southeast), managing to control aspects of daily life, from shops to health services.
This criminal organization 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,” the author remarks.
“Among these 7 million Venezuelans who left the country, there are members of criminal groups who no longer had anyone to kidnap, rob… The gang identified a criminal business opportunity in this immigration,” he explains.
The “Aragua Train” also joined the mafias of human traffickers known in Latin America as “coyotes”, in addition to managing prostitution networks with Venezuelans in Peru, Ecuador and Chile, attracting new members in precarious situations, on the routes migratory
“In Chile they found that there was no other armed group capable of competing with them. Now they are in force from north to south, according to the Chilean authorities themselves,” says Rísquez.
In Brazil, the gang has made a notable “alliance with the main armed group, the PCC” (First Command of the Capital, a group originally from Sao Paulo also created in a prison) around arms sales and prostitution.
“It is impossible to read the book without wondering, as the pages turn, how the development of such a criminal organization is possible without the consent of the Venezuelan State,” writes publisher Sergio Dabhar on the cover, forced to secretly print the book so as not to expose who do.
Dabhar is in negotiations for the translation of the play into other languages.
“The book presents different risks for the author,” underlines the former attorney general of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo.
In fact, Ronna Rísquez has received death threats after the publication.
Moreno Ocampo also warns that “a different risk is that his effort is ignored”, since he believes that “the book should be used to face the problem”. “Our challenge is to turn this book into a lever for change,” she stressed.