How Tren de Aragua controls the fate of migrants from Venezuela to Chile

The Tren de Aragua, the largest local gang in Venezuela, has become a transnational criminal threat. With expertise in migrant smuggling, human trafficking and extortion, the group has tracked the exodus of Venezuelan migrants and found ways to set up permanent operations in several Latin American countries. Its latest victim is Chile, where the Tren de Aragua has become a major security issue.

On the streets of Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz, a couple cleaned car windows and sold candy, with their daughter in tow, as they had done every day since arriving in early 2022. But that day , the husband left his wife and daughter. alone for a few hours. When he came back, they were both gone.

His first guess was reasonable: his family had likely been detained by Bolivian authorities for being undocumented, news outlet El Deber reported. But as he asked other Venezuelan street vendors if they had seen anything, no one had.

SEE ALSO: Profile of Tren de Aragua

His search became increasingly desperate over the next few days. It was then that the Tren de Aragua came into contact. A Bolivian source with knowledge of the case, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, told InSight Crime how the gang trained him. They told the man that his family had been kidnapped and sent to Chile. If he wanted to see them again, he would have to transport cocaine from Bolivia to Chile in a double-bottomed suitcase. Without further recourse, the man agreed.

He didn’t go far.

He was arrested by authorities in the central city of Oruro on his way to Chile and is still in pre-trial detention. The whereabouts of his wife and daughter are still unknown.

This type of nightmare scenario has become increasingly common for Venezuelan families in Bolivia. InSight Crime has documented similar cases in the cities of Santa Cruz, La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro and Pisiga. According to El Deber’s investigation, the Tren de Aragua systematically preys on undocumented migrant women in vulnerable conditions, brings them to Chile and sexually exploits them.

Chile’s response

Chilean authorities have made this one of their top security priorities. In mid-July, Javier García, the mayor of Colchane, a village on the country’s border with Bolivia, confirmed that the Tren de Aragua is transporting people, drugs and weapons to Chile near his village. Last March, prosecutors in Chile’s northern border region of Tarapacá reported that Tren de Aragua cells were linked to homicides, kidnappings, migrant smuggling and human trafficking for exploitation. sex and extortion.

Chile has become the southernmost stop for the Venezuelan gang, which has already extended its reach through Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. As Chile is a target destination for thousands of Venezuelans, the Tren de Aragua has likely made the country a priority.

The expansion of the Tren de Aragua in Chile has extended a network of human trafficking routes that the group has set up or taken over, and which begins much closer to home.

Country of origin: Colombia and Venezuela

Tren de Aragua managed to build muscle on the already crowded and undisputed criminal territory. While several rivals had already settled on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, Tren de Aragua carved out a place for itself along remote trails criss-crossing the border. It helps migrants, usually undocumented Venezuelans, to enter Colombia. But while many migrants pay for their services and are free to go, others are forced into crippling debts, forced to transport drugs or kidnapped for sex trafficking.

“In cities like Cúcuta [an important border city in Colombia], there are people who organize the whole trip. They plan routes across borders that reach countries like Peru. They help people move along the trails. But they also take away [victims], especially minors. All the complaints I received relate to the Tren de Aragua,” a migration expert working at the Colombia-Venezuela border, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime.

Migrant smuggling, the voluntary movement of people across national borders and human trafficking, where victims are detained against their will or forced into exploitation, are closely linked.

In March 2022, a gang affiliated with the Tren de Aragua was dismantled in Puerto Montt, a port city in southern Chile. According to prosecutors, he received Venezuelan women trafficked by the mega-gang from Colombia and Venezuela. While they went to Chile of their own free will, once they arrived in towns like Puerto Montt, Talca and Temuco, they were told they had insurmountable debts, which had to be paid in sexual services. As evidenced by the case of Bolivia, men may also be forced into drug trafficking to ensure the safety of their families.

The precarious conditions of Venezuelan migrants provide multiple sources of income for the Tren de Aragua.

Interconnected networks

To keep a grip on migrants moving from Venezuela to Chile, the Tren de Aragua has built an interconnected network of coyotes (smugglers) and smaller criminal gangs, which help to receive, abduct and criminalize migrants.

“What exists is a network outside of Venezuela that crosses Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia before finally reaching Chile. They are interconnected, support each other, receive migrants from different regions and bring them to the places where they are heading. It is not a national network, but rather an international network, dedicated to this,” Hardy Torres, deputy attorney general of the province of Tamarugal, in northern Chile, told Ciper media.

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2020: Tren de Aragua and the Export of Venezuelan Organized Crime

In Colombia, the Office of the Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo) reported that the Tren de Aragua recruits and transfers migrants with the help of , a Colombian criminal group, which controls the border trails in the department of Norte de Santander.

In Peru, the media reported on human trafficking networks involving Venezuelan citizens, who pay the Tren de Aragua to be allowed to force trafficking victims into prostitution in controlled areasLEDs by the mega-gang.

“The Tren de Aragua is involved in the extortion of hostels with sex workers, petty traders and motorcycle taxi drivers. They extort them in exchange for security. It used to be done by the Peruvian and Colombian gangs that controlled the area, but now it’s the Tren de Aragua. It is confirmed that they control the districts of Independencia and San Martín de Porres in the city of Lima,” Jaime Antezana Rivera, an investigator of organized crime and drug trafficking in Peru, told InSight Crime.

In the case of Bolivia, the “trocheros” or coyotes who offer to help migrants cross in exchange for money, meet in Pisiga, an urban town, located on the country’s border with Chile. Je Tren de Aragua controls these irregular border crossings on the Bolivian side, and on the other side of the border, in Colchane.

However, the group’s expansion has been so rapid and has covered so much ground that there are doubts as to the control that Tren de Aragua’s leader, Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero”, can exercise over the operations in Chile from its base. InSight Crime has not yet confirmed the extent of contact between Chilean cells and Tocorón, or whether Tren de Aragua’s operations in Chile are conceded to smaller groups involving Venezuelans.

Northern Chile: the entry point for migrants

Chile’s four northern regions – Arica and Parinacota, Tarapacá, Antofagasta and Atacama – have become the gateway for irregular migrants in search of a new life.

Police statistics showed that the registered irregular entries of migrants into these areas increased from 2,905 in 2017 to 56,586 in 2021. Most of them arrived in Tarapacá, especially around the Colchane border post.

According to Pilar Lizana, a researcher and security expert at the Chilean think tank AthenaLab, Tren de Aragua focused on moving migrants from Pisiga in Bolivia to Colchane due to the lack of security and the porous nature of this vast desert area.

Unfortunately, this led to other serious consequences. In 2021, the national homicide rate in Chile fell by 25% to 3.5 per 100,000 people, but in Tarapacá it increased by 183% to 9.7 per 100,000. And that figure could still be under -valued.

“We are seeing an increase in homicides, of which 60% now involve a firearm and 70% are due to settling scores. [between criminal gangs]”, explained Lizana. She added that the wave of violence was probably due to a struggle for control of Tarapacá and its human trafficking routes.

Tren de Aragua is undoubtedly in an excellent position to brutally defend their territory, if need be. He has proven his will to do so at home, with dozens of murders attributed to the group in Venezuela, as well as in Colombia.

James V. Hayes