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US sanctions a Venezuela gang for spreading criminal activity across Latin America

FILE - Soldiers raid the Tocorón Penitentiary Center, in Tocorón, Venezuela, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. The Tren de Aragua gang originated at the prison. The Biden administration on Thursday, July 11, 2024, sanctioned the Venezuelan gang allegedly behind a spree of kidnappings, extortion and other violent crimes tied to migrants that have spread across Latin America and the United States. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)
Original Publication Date July 11, 2024 - 9:21 AM

MIAMI (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned a Venezuelan gang allegedly behind a spree of kidnappings, extortion and other violent crimes tied to migrants that have spread across Latin America and the United States.

The U.S. also offered a $12 million reward for the arrest of three leaders of Tren de Aragua, which now joins the MS-13 gang from El Salvador and the Mafia-styled Camorra from Italy on a list of transnational criminal organizations banned from doing business in the U.S.

“Tren de Aragua poses a deadly criminal threat across the region,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement, adding that it often preys on vulnerable populations such as migrant women and girls for sex trafficking.

“When victims seek to escape this exploitation, Tren de Aragua members often kill them and publicize their deaths as a threat to others,” the statement added.

The Tren de Aragua traces its origins to more than a decade ago, to an infamously lawless prison in the central state of Aragua where a number of hardened criminals were held. But it has expanded in recent years as millions of desperate Venezuelans fled President Nicolás Maduro's rule and migrated to other parts of Latin America or the U.S.

Authorities in countries such as Colombia, Peru and Ecuador — with large populations of Venezuelan migrants — have accused the group of being behind a spree of violent crimes in a region that has long had some of the highest murder rates in the world.

Initially its focus was exploiting Venezuelan migrants through loan sharking, human trafficking and the smuggling of contraband goods to and from Venezuela.

But as the Venezuelan diaspora has settled more permanently abroad, it has joined — and sometimes clashed — with homegrown criminal syndicates engaged in drug trafficking, extortion of local businesses and murders for hire.

Among the groups the Treasury Department said the gang has teamed up with is Primeiro Comando da Capital, a notorious organized crime group out of Brazil that has also been sanctioned by the U.S.

Earlier this year, prosecutors in Chile blamed the gang, whose name means “train” in Spanish, for the killing of a Venezuelan army official who had sought refuge in that country after partaking in a failed plot to overthrow Maduro.

“The Tren de Aragua is not a vertically integrated criminal structure, but rather a federation of different gangs,” said Jeremy McDermott, the Colombia-based co-director of InSight Crime, which this month published a report on the gang's expansion.

“It has now become a franchise name for Venezuelan criminal structures operating in the region, with weakening coherence now that its home prison base is no more," McDermott said,

The group is led by Hector Guerrero, who was jailed years ago for killing a police officer, according to InSight Crime. Guerrero, better known by his alias El Nino, or Spanish for the “boy," later escaped and then was recaptured in 2013, returning to the prison in Aragua where the criminal enterprise was then headquartered.

He fled prison again more recently, as Venezuelan authorities tried to reassert control over its prison population.

His current whereabouts are unknown but the U.S. State Department, which has offered up to $12 million for his arrest and that of two other gang leaders, said it believes Guerrero and Giovanny San Vicente, another target of the U.S. bounty, are believed to be living in Colombia.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who co-chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has warned that if left unchecked, the Tren de Aragua could also start terrorizing American cities.

Among the nearly 1 million Venezuelan migrants that have crossed into the U.S. in recent years are suspected gang members tied to police shootings, human trafficking and other crimes although there's no evidence that the gang has set up an organizational structure in the U.S., McDermott said.

“Now we are seeing evidence that they have made it into the United States. Every single day, we’re seeing reports from Chicago, South Florida, and New York that these gang members are here,” Rubio said at a Senate hearing in April.

The White House, in a statement on Thursday said the Department of Homeland Security has implemented enhanced screening to vet and better identify known or suspected gang members, including Tren de Aragua members.

Maduro’s government has accused opponents of exaggerating the reach of Tren de Aragua to tarnish its reputation and said that authorities dismantled the group last year when security forces retook control of the prison that had served as its hub of illicit activity.

Hours after the U.S. sanctioned the gang, the government announced that a brother of the gang’s leader, who was arrested in Barcelona earlier this year, arrived home pursuant to a Venezuelan extradition request to Spain.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said that Gerso Guerrero, who was arrested earlier this year in Barcelona, faces up to 30 years in prison — the maximum in Venezuela — on multiple criminal charges including extortion, money laundering, weapons trafficking and terrorism.


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