The Venezuelan criminal gang Tren de Aragua is already operating in Chile and currently has a presence in the far north of the country and in the cities of La Serena, Coquimbo region, and Estación Central, Santiago province, the Chilean television channel Canal 13 reported in early January 2022. The gang’s activities in the country came to light in March 2021, when a unit from the local prosecutor’s office in Iquique identified several foreigners who were trafficking drugs into Chile and revealed being attacked by this group for refusing to pay to cross the border, the Chilean newspaper La Tercera reported.
The information set off alarms among the country’s security agencies. “This is a very dangerous criminal gang, which engages in extortion, robbery, kidnapping, even homicide,” said Prefect Fernando Rojas, head of the Robbery Investigation Brigade (BIRO, in Spanish) of Chile’s Investigations Police (PDI, in Spanish) in La Serena.
The Tren de Aragua, which InSight Crime, an international investigative organization that specializes in organized crime in Latin America, described as “the most dangerous gang in Venezuela,” has more than 2,700 armed members in Venezuela, and has already extended its tentacles to Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and more recently Bolivia, where it engages in drug sales, arms trafficking, human trafficking, and smuggling. The group, which creation dates back to the 2000s and is based in the Venezuelan state of Aragua, grew stronger under the Hugo Chávez regime and has expanded rapidly in the region in the last two years, the organization said.
One of the Tren de Aragua’s growth strategies has been to establish “alliances with criminal actors in different states, as well as sending some of its members across the country to set up a new revenue stream […], including following the path of Venezuelan migrants to neighboring countries,” Insight Crime said.
In La Serena, for example, PDI agents arrested a group belonging to this gang that was extorting Venezuelan women involved in the sex trade. “They threatened them, saying that they were members of this gang and that they [the women] had to pay a weekly sum of about $120. If they did not pay, they threatened to harm their families,” Commissioner Esteban Calderón of the PDI’s BIRO in La Serena, said.
Gangs like the Tren de Aragua operate with a business model that works like a franchise, with goals, profitability, and logistics, where nothing is improvised. “These organizations study each country they enter, which includes hiring professional consultants from legal firms, sociopolitical studies, and real estate brokers to acquire properties,” Guillermo Holzmann, a Chilean defense analyst and scholar at the University of Valparaíso’s School of Economics and Administrative Science, told Diálogo.
“Chile’s recent allegations would represent a significant expansion of the Tren de Aragua’s operations, converting it from a transnational gang heavily tied to Venezuela into a true regional threat,” InSight Crime concluded in an October 2021 report.