Tren de Aragua: The New MS-13?

Trent Barr
Trent Barr
Trent has years of experience and training in open source intelligence gathering and journalism. He specializes in Latin American, German, and Vatican affairs, with a broader interest in European politics. Trent serves as the Latin America Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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Tren de Aragua, otherwise known as the Aragua Train, is Venezuela’s largest and most powerful criminal organization. While the gang found its origins in prison, it quickly expanded—now boasting a global presence—following the mass displacement of Venezuelans as they fled the nation due to deteriorating security conditions and an economy in a tailspin.

Born in Prison

Tren de Aragua started in Venezuela’s Tocoron prison, located in the state of Aragua. The gang’s name may refer directly to either the state itself or to an incomplete railway project abandoned by officials due to the country’s economic situation, corruption, and lack of security in the region amid civil unrest and factionalism.

Venezuelan prisons are categorically dangerous places largely due to the various gangs’ control over the prison system in the country. This power can be traced back to President Hugo Chavez, President Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor, who began communist rule in Venezuela. In 2011, a massive prison riot engulfed El Rodeo prison and spread across both of the prison’s complexes, Rodeo I and Rodeo II. The riot reportedly began with a struggle between the prison’s gangs which ultimately culminated in a violent riot. Chavez deployed military units to quell the riot, an operation that would take 27 days before the prison was back under the government’s control.

Former President Hugo Chavez. (Photo – Ft.com)

When the dust settled, 23 were killed and 70 others were injured, according to officials. However, the intensity of the riot has led some to speculate that the numbers are higher and were altered to save face for Chavez’s government. Analysts point towards the arsenal of weapons prisoners had access to during the riot, with 20 semi-automatic pistols, seven assault rifles, five shotguns, eight grenades, 5,000 bullets, and narcotics seized by authorities inside the first complex alone. This contraband was smuggled in by authorities within the prison system, who traded firearms and narcotics for cash.

Following the aftermath of the brutal riot, Chavez announced reforms for Venezuela’s prison system, forming the Ministry of People’s Power for Penitentiary Service and placing a loyal politician at its head, Iris Varela. Varela had no experience handling prisons and faced numerous issues such as widespread corruption, overcrowding, crumbling infrastructure, poorly paid employees, and rampant gang violence. In order to address these issues, Varela chose to ally Venezuela with a number of gang leaders known as “Pranes,” a move that only served to intensify Venezuela’s prison issues.

This policy would allow Tren de Aragua’s most notorious leader, Hector Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Nino Guerrero,” to construct a large number of improvements to the prison, including a zoo, nightclub, and a restaurant in 2012. Guerrero expanded the organization, first exerting influence in the nearby San Vicente neighborhood where the gang began to establish a strict social hierarchy through a number of rules to control the populace. The government, in a bid to limit violent confrontations with criminal structures, allowed the gang to exert this control with other organizations enjoying similar benefits across Venezuela in what has been termed as “peace zones.”

Nino Guerrero. (Photo – Venezuelan Interior Ministry)

Within the same year that Guerrero made these improvements, the gang leader escaped from Tocoron before being recaptured in 2013 after authorities traced him to a number of home robberies in Barquisimeto located in Venezuela’s north-eastern Lara state. Despite being recaptured and sent back to prison, Guerrero made several appearances outside of prison at parties and other social gatherings.

The organization began to expand quickly establishing a presence in at least five of the 23 states within Venezuela either through conquest or alliances with smaller criminal groups. During this time Tren de Aragua established its main strategies to generate income, which included kidnapping Venezuelans and holding them for ransom, trafficking individuals, smuggling migrants, drug trafficking, illegal mining, and robbing a variety of businesses, crimes similar to those of MS-13, a Salvadoran gang formed in Los Angeles amid the Salvadoran Civil War.

The gang would make its first move toward an international presence in 2018, establishing itself on the border between Venezuela and Colombia. It was here that they would meet fierce resistance from the already established and highly sophisticated Colombian criminal outfits, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Clan del Golfo, also known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC). These groups have been active within northern Colombia and southern Venezuela for decades, with both of these groups tracing their lineage back to the Colombian Conflict, an ongoing, multifaceted conflict between right-wing paramilitaries, communist guerrillas, and Colombian forces that has raged on for over 60 years, making it Latin America’s longest ongoing conflict.

Members of the ELN (Photo – Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse)

This position on the Venezuelan-Colombian border offered a massive monetary advantage, with Tren de Aragua beginning to extort and smuggle Venezuelans seeking to flee the drastic economic situation within Venezuela. Notably, the gang is known to provide shelter for migrants into Colombia, allowing them to incur a large amount of debt before exploiting them for sex trafficking, according to the US Department of State.

Traveling with this flow of Venezuelan migrants, a number of members of the organization began settling across the Americas, forming their own gangs in Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and the United States. These newly established cells quickly expanded their criminal portfolio, each embracing a different form of crime in order to secure monetary gain and expand their influence.

These new arrivals have sparked fear across the Americas, with politicians in the United States blaming illegal migration for the newly established gang-affiliated cells and issuing warnings that the criminal organization could soon become a large player within the country due to the speed of their expansion and willingness to work alongside other criminal groups. In Colombia, authorities have taken a proactive stance against the gang, launching raids against properties connected to the organization and intercepting a number of the group’s drug shipments, largely marijuana. Ecuador and Chile have taken a similar path, but Ecuador’s current struggle against domestic gangs has impeded the nation’s operations against Tren de Aragua as authorities’ main focus lies upon gangs with ties to Mexican cartels such as Second Generation and Los Choneros.

Police preparing to storm El Inca prison in Quito, Ecuador, in January. (Photo – Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images)

This expansion was largely facilitated by the gang’s leadership living safely in Tocoron prison, organizing the gang’s successful expansion and sending orders to cells across the Americas. However, Tren de Aragua would face a significant blow after Venezuelan authorities raided Tocoron, effectively expelling the gang’s leadership. Despite this operation, authorities failed to find Guerrero and other senior gang leadership within the prison, with the gang leaders likely being tipped off by authorities working alongside the criminal organization or having been enjoying freedom prior to the raid.

Despite the disappearance of Guerrero and other leaders, Venezuelan authorities praised the operation, which included an estimated 11,000 soldiers, claiming that the gang had been “completely dismantled” with the fall of their headquarters. Guerrero remains free to this day. Despite Guerrero likely still acting as the leader of Tren de Aragua and the freedom of a number of the gang’s leadership, the raid still acted as a blow to the criminal organization. Without a safe base of operations, leadership is now exposed to a number of dangers including rival criminal organizations, authorities, and internal power struggles.

“He [Guerrero] was free. Complete freedom,” Venezuelan Minister of Internal Relations, Justice, and Peace Admiral Remigio Ceballos, said following the raid. “And so, well, we presume that he is somewhere, because he was not here, right? Yes, he was here, but he was already free.”

Similarity to MS-13

Tren de Aragua has a number of similarities with the infamous American-born Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gang. Both organizations profit largely from extortion and human trafficking and while MS-13 was founded by Salvadorans fleeing the civil war, Tren de Aragua was able to establish itself transnationally with the mass exodus of Venezuelans fleeing dire living conditions in Venezuela.

Furthermore, Tren de Aragua also recruits prospective members in a similar manner, targeting youth in poor living conditions. The gang often targets middle school to high school-aged children, typically forcefully recruiting young men at school, on their way to religious service, or while outside their homes. In the United States, investigations revealed that recruitment often takes place at shelters for migrants. Leaders and recruiters will often visit these shelters, using WhatsApp to communicate with prospective members and organize their criminal activities.

Venezuelan National Guard units on patrol. (Photo – Agenzianova)

Where the two differentiate somewhat is in organization. MS-13 is known for its largely independent operations, with each cell answering to a national leader. In comparison, Tren de Aragua’s own system has leaders carrying out orders from Guerrero in Venezuela. The system utilized by MS-13 allowed the gang to largely remain intact despite crackdowns by El Salvador’s President, Nayib Bukele, who fiercely cracked down on the gang following the murder of 87 Salvadorans within a 72-hour period in 2022. This independent leadership allowed cells in foreign nations to continue without any serious issues while building up the organization’s power in prison in order to maintain their power across El Salvador.

Tren de Aragua’s presence in the United States has elicited similar fears to when MS-13 arrived in the US, with lawmakers claiming that a stronger border would be ideal in addressing the presence of international criminal organizations, which a number of lawmakers equate to an “invasion” on the nation’s southern border, and largely focusing on migrants from Latin America.

Operations Within the United States

Tren de Aragua has a significant presence in the United States, with the gang being connected to a number of killings, attacks, and human trafficking operations across the East Coast. The gang probably infiltrated the United States amid the mass exodus of Venezuelans from their home country attempting to flee the abysmal financial situation, deteriorating security, and political repression from President Maduro’s government.

One such case occurred in Florida, where a former Venezuelan police officer was murdered by three alleged members of Tren de Aragua. The gang members allegedly used women to lure the former officer to a nearby hotel. When the victim returned to his truck, three men attacked him, killing the former officer and leaving his body in the backseat of his truck. Investigators allege that the trio had targeted the officer in order to steal a key to a safe that was stolen shortly after the murder. According to the family, this safe held the former officer’s life savings in gold.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, authorities responded to a call from a woman claiming to have been being kept against her will and forced to have sex with multiple men in exchange for money in order to pay off a debt to traffickers who smuggled her into the United States. When authorities arrived on the scene, they arrested two Venezuelan men before arresting a third by the name of Josmar Jesus Zambrano-Chirinos, who was subsequently identified as the leader of a sex trafficking operation by Tren de Aragua. Zambrano-Chirinos was linked to the operation of a number of “stash houses” for human trafficking in Florida, Texas, Virginia, New Jersey, and Louisiana.

These arrests showcase Tren de Aragua’s alleged operations within the United States, with the criminal organization employing similar tactics that previously saw success in Latin America in the US. The organization is further strengthened by the large increase in illegal immigration into the United States following the loosening of COVID-19 travel restrictions opening a “floodgate” for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who were waiting to cross the border.

This increase in illegal immigration, usually financially and socially vulnerable individuals, provided a steady stream of victims for the criminal organization to exploit while also offering a way for members from Venezuela to enter the United States. Notably, illegal immigration has increased under Joe Biden’s presidency—likely at least in part due to the reduction in pandemic-era restrictions—with over 300,000 encounters between Border Patrol agents and illegal immigrants registered since the start of 2024, compared to nearly 50,000 encounters prior to Biden’s inauguration, according to US Border Patrol reports. While these encounters may suggest an increase in immigration, some believe that such an increase may be the result of improved operations conducted by Border Patrol, as this statistic covers encounters.

Migrants in line to be processed at the US-Mexico border before the lifting of Title 42. (Photo – Bloomberg)

However, another statistic implies that the worsening migrant crisis may be attributed to Biden’s policies. Deportations notably decreased under Biden’s administration, with Trump’s administration reporting deportations ranging from nearly 350,000 in 2019 to just under 200,000 in 2020, compared to Biden’s high of 150,000 to his low of 50,000, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

While this statistic alone may suggest a decrease in illegal migration, the low amount of deportations alongside the high amount of encounters with Border Patrol agents implies that there remains a large number of illegal immigrants seeking to enter the United States, with many possibly already having entered the country without encountering Border Patrol agents. These illegal immigrants, in turn, seek aid from Mexico’s cartels, MS-13, and Tren de Aragua to be smuggled or to smuggle family members left behind into the US, further strengthening the criminal organizations and encouraging their influence both abroad and domestically.

Amid the rise of violent crimes linked to Tren de Aragua in the United States, Republican senators officially petitioned Biden to declare the gang a Transnational Criminal Organization, a designation which would place the gang under the eyes of federal investigative agencies such as the FBI, DEA, and Homeland Security while also allowing stringent legal measures such as RICO to be undertaken. Twenty-one senators came together in March for this request, originally petitioned by Florida representatives Marco Rubio and María Elvira Salazar who alleged the organization’s connection to human trafficking alongside claims that the gang had “plunged communities into chaos” in Ecuador and Colombia.

US Senator Marco Rubio. (Photo – Marco Rubio)

“Tren de Aragua is an invading criminal army from a prison in Venezuela that has spread their brutality and chaos to US cities and small towns. 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. The breadth of Tren de Aragua’s operations encompasses murder, drug and human trafficking, sex crimes, extortion, and kidnapping, among other brutalities,” the petition to President Biden read.

Despite this petition alongside crimes attributed to Tren de Aragua, analysts at InSight Crime, a news outlet that primarily focuses on Latin American criminal organizations, alleged the criminal organization lacks a presence within the United States. InSight Crime reported that there was a lack of reported crimes attributed to Tren de Aragua in CourtLink, a legal database that provides access to court records and filings from federal, state, and local courts in the US. InSight Crime further points toward the method used to identify members of the Venezuelan gang, noting that news outlets and even authorities claim that suspected members had tattoos affiliated with Tren de Aragua, a common identifier for criminal organizations. Despite reports of tattoos affiliated with Tren de Aragua, InSight Crime claims that no information proving the gang uses tattoos as a way to identify members has been uncovered, leading some to speculate these reports were a premature move by authorities in an attempt to document easy ways to identify members of the criminal organization.

Two Venezuelan police officers. (Photo – Fernando Llano/AP)

Despite this lack of documentation, head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s gang task force, Ken Howard, assured InSight Crime of the group’s presence in Georgia before stressing that information regarding the gang had not yet been compiled.

“We know they’re here in the state of Georgia,” Howard said. “But as far as building out an intelligence database on the group that’s well documented and identified, I wouldn’t say we’re there yet.”

This has led some to speculate that the group’s alleged crimes and presence within the United States is in reality a political ploy by the Republican Party in order to secure support for strengthening border security.

However, a number of authorities have claimed the opposite, alleging Tren de Aragua eventually found their way into the United States and began building their criminal enterprise within its borders. One such authority is Britton Boyd, an FBI agent in El Paso, Texas, who spoke with CNN regarding the criminal organization.

“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,” Boyd told CNN in June.

Migrants walk through the jungle of Darién, between Colombia and Panama. (Photo – Fernando Vergara/AP)

This information may point toward either an increasing presence of Tren de Aragua in the US or the group’s prolonged presence within the country, with members possibly being misidentified as members of other, more prominent criminal organizations within the United States, such as MS-13 or other organizations connected to Mexico’s cartels.

Faced with a loss of the organization’s prison headquarters and amid increasing efforts by authorities to eradicate the gang, Tren de Aragua sits at a vital precipice for the organization’s future. The arrest of a large number of the gang’s members could reconstitute the group’s prison leadership structure and lead to the gang reasserting control in prisons across Latin America, granting them safe locations to organize their criminal activities and facilitate their expansion. Alternatively, the gang could enter a decline as more Venezuelan migrants seek to enter the United States rather than Venezuela’s neighboring countries. This shift in migratory patterns could mean the gang has a future within the US, but with fierce competition with established criminal elements often aligned with Mexico’s powerful cartels, this expansion would likely be a daunting task.