Chile’s Investigative Police (PDI) arrested 55 members of Venezuelan criminal gang Tren de Aragua in different parts of the country in June. The crimes the criminals have been charged with include drug trafficking, arms violations, kidnapping for ransom, money laundering, and human trafficking for sexual exploitation, among others.
According to Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, some members of the organization’s leadership were among the detainees, including Carlos González Vaca, a Caracas native and right-hand man of the leader of the Tren Aragua in Venezuela, Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero, alias Niño Guerrero.
In addition, “The PDI has placed 171 people implicated in the gang’s operations at the disposition of the courts,” PDI Director General Sergio Muñoz told Chile’s National Television network Televisión Nacional. Tren de Aragua members have been sighted in different Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru.
According to InSight Crime, an organization that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Tren de Aragua went from being a local prison gang to the most powerful criminal group in Venezuela and a real threat to transnational security. “In 2022, Chile had a 32 percent increase in homicides, many of them concentrated in the northern region with the arrival of the Venezuelan mega-gang,” InSight Crime indicated.
“The approach to the Tren de Aragua and the recent capture of the criminals announced by our director general is not a coincidence, but the fruit of the PDI’s maturity and experience and of learning the modus operandi of other criminal groups,” Chief Inspector Paulo Contreras, who leads the PDI’s Organized Crime unit nationwide, told Diálogo on July 5. “We’ve already disrupted the Juárez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel in their attempts to set up shop, among others, and international cooperation such as that of the United States is a key factor in this.”
In Chile, reported El Mercurio, the Tren de Aragua began its operations in the Tarapacá and Coquimbo regions in the north of the country, before moving on to the Valparaíso and Metropolitan regions in the central part of the country, reaching as far as the Bío-Bío region in the south. There, it carries out crimes ranging from human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation to arms and drug trafficking, with money laundering as a common denominator.
“The group innovated by using the Venezuelan migrant crisis for transnational expansion, taking advantage of migrants and the Venezuelan diaspora to establish operations in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile,” Insight Crime said. “This geographic expansion at home and abroad facilitates the economic expansion of activities such as human trafficking and small-scale micro-trafficking.”
Chilean security forces quickly detected the gang’s actions. Based on an approach to the gang dating back to 2021, the Chilean police used investigative methodologies deployed with countries that had already detected cells or signs of the criminal group in their territories, such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Here, Interpol served as the main axis of a collective multinational effort to organize a robust interagency response capacity.
In June 2022, FBI Director Christopher Wray met with Muñoz, his counterpart in the PDI, to sign a memorandum of understanding. This agreement established a framework for the two-way expansion of joint training and exchanges between both countries’ law enforcement agencies to facilitate a more robust exchange of information and to align their crime prevention efforts, the U.S. Embassy in Chile said on June 23.
Concerning the Tren de Aragua, Contreras said that the United States is watching closely how the fight against the gang is being addressed in Chile and other countries in the region, in order to be prepared to confront them in the event their presence, which is still nascent in the country, were to grow.
“That memorandum of understanding is very active […]. Today we have an upstanding and trusting relationship with various U.S. agencies. Not only with the FBI, but also with the DEA, with Homeland Security, and with the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives],” Contreras said. “They are benchmarks in public and citizen security and in the prosecution of crimes. Regarding the FBI, today we are accelerating and advancing in information and experience exchanges, in criminalistic work, and in the continuous training of our detectives.”