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This is the dangerous Venezuelan gang infiltrating the US that you probably know nothing about but should

In World
June 09, 2024

An alleged multistate human trafficking ring forcing immigrant women into prostitution. The mysterious killing of a former police officer in South Florida. Attacks against police officers in New York. The arrest of a drug dealer in Chicago.

Local and federal officials say these apparently unrelated crimes have a common denominator: Tren de Aragua, a transnational criminal gang that originated in a Venezuela prison and has slowly made its way south and north in recent years. They say it’s now operating in the United States. The scale of its operations is unknown, but crimes attributed to alleged members of the gang have worried elected officials and some Republican members of Congress have asked the Biden administration “to formally designate the vicious Tren de Aragua as a Transnational Criminal Organization.”

For several years, the criminal group has terrorized South American countries, including Venezuela, its country of origin, as well as Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Peru. Retired general Óscar Naranjo, a former vice president of Colombia and chief of the Colombian National Police, told CNN Tren de Aragua is “the most disruptive criminal organization operating nowadays in Latin America, a true challenge for the region.”

‘Watch out for this gang’

Tren de Aragua adopted its name between 2013 and 2015 but begun operations years before, according to a report by Transparency Venezuela. “It has its origin in the unions of workers who worked on the construction of a railway project that would connect the center-west of the country and that was never completed” in both Aragua and Carabobo states.

The group’s leadership, according to the report, operated out of the notorious Tocorón prison, which they controlled. When Venezuelan officials raided it last September, they found a swimming pool and several restaurants inside the prison walls, in addition to weapons seized from inmates, including automatic rifles, machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Members of the Bolivarian National Police stand guard in the Tocorón prison in Tocorón, Aragua state, Venezuela, on September 23, 2023. Gang leaders who ruled a prison in Venezuela that was stormed by more than 11,000 soldiers and police had fled the country a week before the operation, a prisoners' rights group said. - Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the Bolivarian National Police stand guard in the Tocorón prison in Tocorón, Aragua state, Venezuela, on September 23, 2023. Gang leaders who ruled a prison in Venezuela that was stormed by more than 11,000 soldiers and police had fled the country a week before the operation, a prisoners’ rights group said. – Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

By 2015, a former Venezuelan law enforcement official told CNN, “They were already in their prime.” That year they forged an alliance with Primeiro Comando da Capital, a Brazilian criminal organization. It was only a matter of time before they would extend their tentacles throughout South America.

In Colombia, Tren de Aragua, and a rival guerrilla group known as the National Liberation Army, “operate sex trafficking networks in the border town of Villa del Rosario in the Norte de Santander department. These groups exploit Venezuelan migrants and internally displaced Colombians in sex trafficking and take advantage of economic vulnerabilities and subject them to debt bondage,” according to the US State Department 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report about Colombia. Police in the region say the organization has victimized thousands through extorsion, drug and human trafficking, kidnapping and murder.

Now, US Customs and Border Protection and the FBI say the gang is established in the US.

“They have followed the migration paths across South America to other countries and have set up criminal groups throughout South America as they follow those paths, and that they appear to follow the migration north to the United States,” Britton Boyd, an FBI special agent in El Paso, Texas, told CNN said.

US Border Patrol chief Jason Owens, who has confirmed multiple arrests at the southern border of alleged Tren de Aragua members over the last year, issued a warning in early April. “Watch out for this gang. It is the most powerful in Venezuela, known for murder, drug trafficking, sex crimes, extortion, & other violent acts,” Owens said on X.

There are more than 70 cases in which Tren de Aragua is mentioned in law enforcement documents or prosecutors’ complaints. From that total, the Customs and Border Patrol in Texas has identified 58 as gang members between the fiscal year 2023 and last May. The rest appear in complaints made by victims or arrest reports that point to the possible involvement of the suspects with this organized crime group.

‘If left unchecked’

In New York, police say Bernardo Raul Castro-Mata, a 19-year-old from Venezuela, shot two police officers last week. Castro-Mata entered the country illegally last July, a member of Immigration and Customs Enforcement told CNN. The Venezuelan has tattoos associated with Tren de Aragua – which court documents for a suspected gang member in Georgia describe as five-pointed crowns, five-pointed stars and teardrops – the New York Police Department told CNN. Castro-Mata had no prior arrests but is a suspect in several robberies in Queens.

Castro-Mata remains in custody and has pleaded not guilty to charges. When contacted by CNN, his attorneys declined to comment.

But of all the crimes attributed to the gang, including the kidnapping and murder of a former Venezuelan police officer in South Florida in November 2023, one stands out. In late April, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Department received a 911 call from a Spanish-speaking woman saying she was being held against her will at a residence and “forced to have sexual intercourse with unknown males for money.” The woman later told investigators that she was forced to have sex with strangers “to pay off a $30,000 USD debt to a trafficker for bringing her to the United States.”

Officials arrested two suspects – both Venezuelan nationals – at the location, Allbert Herrera Machado, 23, and Osleidy Vanesa Chourio-Diaz, 26. Agents later arrested another Venezuelan, Josmar Jesus Zambrano-Chirinos, 23, identified in the complaint as a leader of the sex trafficking operation being conducted by the Tren de Aragua in the US. Zambrano was “operating ‘stash houses’ used for human trafficking in Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, New Jersey, and Florida,” according to the criminal complaint reviewed by CNN. Herrera Machado and Chourio-Diaz were not linked to Tren de Aragua in the complaint.

If the allegations against the suspects are true, it would mean that the gang already has the ability to operate trafficking rings in the US the same way it has done in several South American countries. The challenge for law enforcement officials is that it’s very difficult to know how many members of Tren de Aragua are already in the country, in spite of the arrests. What some Venezuelan immigrants in Florida and other states have told CNN is that they are already beginning to see in their communities the same type of criminal activity they fled from in Venezuela.

Álvaro Boza, a former Venezuelan police officer now living in Florida, says he fled his country in large part because the gang had become so powerful. He says they could kill law enforcement like him with impunity. A fellow police officer who refused to cooperate with the gang in his native Aragua state was shot 50 times, Boza says. “He refused and was murdered. They tied his body to a motorcycle and dragged it throughout the San Vicente neighborhood to demonstrate the power of the Tren de Aragua,” Boza said.

In March, a group of Republican members of Congress led by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and his fellow Republican Representative Ana María Salazar sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to take action by designating the gang as a “transnational criminal organization.”

In the letter, the legislators said “If left unchecked, they will unleash an unprecedented reign of terror, mirroring the devastation it has already inflicted in communities throughout Central and South America, most prominently in Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.”

CNN’s Jaide Timm-Garcia contributed to this report.

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