Crime & Justice

Transnational crime group preys on migrants in South America

By Iñaki Martinez Azpiroz and Sebastian Silva

Santiago, Feb 1 (EFE).- Born in a Venezuelan prison, the criminal organization known as Tren de Aragua has extended its tentacles into Colombia, Chile, Peru and Bolivia and poses a threat to public safety throughout the region.

The gang’s spread was facilitated by the mass exodus of people from Venezuela amid hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages in that oil-rich Andean nation and its victims include many Venezuelan migrants.

Lise Martin, 34, told EFE that when she and her three children entered Chile a year ago after a difficult trek from Venezuela, she was approached by several men who offered money in exchange for her 3-month-old son.

“We were my three children and me and I had to push myself and be brave. I had to do so because in Maracaibo my son was going to die. We didn’t have power, water or gas and had very little food,” she said in Colchane, a highland village on Chile’s border with Bolivia.

The Venezuelan Association says that 35 percent of the roughly 700,000 Venezuelans who have settled in Chile in recent years entered the country without authorization, via clandestine crossings.

“We know of cases in which they (Tren de Aragua) stole people’s documents and the migrants are left at their mercy,” association president Patricia Rojas said.

Tren de Aragua, which makes most of its money from extortion, targets migrants because they are vulnerable, Venezuelan journalist Ronna Risquez tells EFE.

The gang got its start running a protection racket behind bars at Venezuela’s Tocoron prison and many in the lower ranks of Tren de Aragua found themselves forced into working for the group.

Risquez, who specializes in reporting on organized crime, says that Tren de Aragua’s tactic consists of trying to insinuate itself into existing criminal enterprises.

“The border between Bolivia and Chile has been the instrument of Tren de Aragua because, controlling the border passes, they manage the traffic of people and drugs,” the chief prosecutor in the northern Chilean of Tarapaca, Raul Arancibia, explains.

“They are territorial bands, taking positions in certain places with high degrees of vulnerability, zones where the state is not very present,” he tells EFE.

It was Tren de Aragua’s boss, still locked up in Tocoron, who ordered the creation of a Chilean branch led by Carlos Gonzalez, alias “Estrella” (Star), according to Francisco Artaza, a reporter with Santiago daily La Tercera.

The outfit’s structure outside Venezuela consists of three levels: a lieutenant in direct contact with the high command in Tocoron; the heads of front companies that launder the proceeds; and a large number of foot-soldiers who do the dirty work.

Under this arrangement, only 5 percent of Tren de Aragua operatives are permanent legal residents, the rest are undocumented persons who move among countries through the border crossings controlled by the gang, Artaza tells EFE.

He and Risquez agree that most of Tren de Aragua’s foreign revenues flow back to Venezuela disguised as family remittances from expats.

That system makes it very difficult for authorities to follow the money, prosecutor Arancibia points out. EFE


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