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Venezuelan transnational gang expands operations from South and Central America to U.S.

Law enforcement officials are probing the rise of the Tren de Aragua Venezuelan gang in Miami, Florida, and the Chicago area of Illinois in the heart of the American Midwest

Stock photo of man behind prison bars
Stock photo of man behind prison bars | Shutterstock

January 26, 2024 6:23pm

Updated: February 5, 2024 2:50pm

Law enforcement officials are probing the rise of the Tren de Aragua Venezuelan gang in Miami, Florida, and the Chicago area, located in the heart of the American Midwest.

The new stories come after earlier 2022 reports from ADN that revealed warnings from former Venezuelan intelligence officials who said the Maduro regime was intentionally freeing hardened criminals and sending them through the Darien Gap jungle region to the United States.

Tren de Aragua is the largest criminal gang in Venezuela, boasting a membership of 2,700 with its home state in Aragua, and with an additional presence in Carabobo, Sucre, Bolivar, Miranda, and Trujillo.

Now the gang is starting to surface in multiple major cities across the United States.

Since October 2023, the Tren de Aragua’s presence has risen in the Chicago area, according to a report filed by Telemundo Chicago, which says the Cook County Sheriff’s Office confirmed through emails that the gang’s members were in the major metropolitan area.

In November, the Chicago Police Department issued warnings that the Tren de Aragua had embedded its members in the recent arrival of 20,000 migrants who came to the midwestern city.

That same month, a retired Miami police officer was also lured into a South Florida hotel room and killed by Tren de Aragua gang members in a Doral parking lot.

The gang’s rising presence in the United States follows its expansion throughout the Western Hemisphere in major Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru. They are known for engaging in drug-trafficking, human smuggling and trafficking, racketeering, bribery, and kidnappings for ransom.

Capitalizing off the migration crisis and mass exodus from Venezuela, the Tren de Aragua have trafficked women from the Bolivian Border to the Chilean capital of Santiago, according to a 2021 report published by Infobae.

In September 2022, ADN America reported that former ex-Venezuelan military officers were issuing warnings to the U.S. that the Maduro regime was emptying prisons and orchestrating the deployment of gang forces to the U.S. to wreak havoc and disrupt law and order.

In an interview with Venezuelan lieutenant and political exile José Antonio Colina Pulido, the former military officer told ADN that he was alerting U.S. authorities through his online show and social media accounts about the Maduro plan to dispatch criminals to the U.S.

“There are groups that come established, and when they are sent to states like Washington or New York they are re-grouping as a structure or a cell with a certain order, so this is not something that comes spontaneously or from people who found [another] in the jungle and decided to agree,” said the lieutenant who organized against Hugo Chavez in 2002 and has had a Venezuelan warrant for his arrest since February 2003. 

“I also have information that when these people arrive, they don't come disorganized,” Colina stressed, adding that some of the immigrants of recent exodus “come with a unit commander [or] a block commander who gives them instructions. It's not something that takes place spontaneously or that they organize on the road.”

Also at that time, Texas Republican Rep. Troy Nehls also tweeted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed that Venezuela is sending "violent criminals" to the U.S. across the southern border.

“DHS confirms that Venezuela empties prisons and sends violent criminals to our southern border. President Trump warned us about this years ago,” the Lone Star state congressman wrote.

One DHS intelligence report received by the Border Patrol purportedly instructs agents “to be on the lookout for inmates,” including some convicted of murder, rape and extortion that appear to have been purposely freed by Venezuelan socialist leader Nicolás Maduro.

The situation is a similar strategy to how Fidel Castro used the exodus from the port of Mariel in 1980 to empty Cuban prisons of dangerous criminals and psychiatric hospitals for the mentally ill as a means of creating chaos in South Florida.

In 1985, the Fort Lauderdale based Sun Sentinel reported that of the 125,000 Cuban refugees that came to the United States during that time, an estimated 16,000-20,000 were criminals. A separate 1985 report suggested that an estimated 350-400 Cubans were typically held in Miami-Dade County jails on a day-to-day basis.

The Venezuelan gang’s presence has now risen in Chicago and its surrounding suburban areas, according to a recent report published by NBC Chicago. 

Willow Spring Police Chief Garry McCarthy, who was also a former police superintendent for Chicago referred to the gang as a transnational criminal enterprise that is starting to mimic its South American activities here in the United States.

“Whether it's drug trafficking, smuggling, human trafficking, for sexual exploitation, extortion, all those things that this gang is doing in South America,” McCarthy said.

Chicago police reportedly informed their own units that “the gang has strong human trafficking operations in Latin America and that multiple agencies have confirmed its presence within the United States.”

The U.S. Border Patrol reportedly confirmed to Telemundo Chicago that 38 members of the gang were arrested in six different sectors of the U.S. border in the last fiscal year.

Art Del Cueto, vice president of the Border Patrol union, spoke with Telemundo from Arizona about the difficulties in detecting potential members of the Aragua Train.

“There are individuals who are part of this criminal group, but simply because they do not have a criminal record or anything that can distinguish that they are part of that group, they have also been released within the United States,” Del Cueto said.

Multiple transnational investigations continue throughout Latin America and in coordination with international law enforcement officers.

By October 2021, Chilean authorities were conducting multiple investigations related to Aragua Train. By 2022, Chilean authorities believed they had taken down the elements of the gang. One of the members arrested was one of the most wanted by Interpol who has been searching for the gang’s leaders in Venezuela and Peru.

Executive Editor

Gelet Martínez Fragela

Gelet Martínez Fragela is the founder and editor-in-chief of ADN America. She is a Cuban journalist, television producer, and political refugee who also founded ADN Cuba.