Bomb threats targeting multiple courthouses in Chile suggest that the transnational criminal organization of Venezuelan origin, Tren de Aragua, is ramping up its efforts to target the country’s judiciary.

A man anonymously phoned Chilean police to warn of potential bomb attacks at courthouses in four cities — Linares, Concepción, Temuco, and Arica — on May 16, Arica’s regional attorney general Mario Carrera told reporters.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua: A Phantom or a Reality?

So far, there is no concrete evidence that a Tren de Aragua member was behind the threat. However, police received the call while officers were conducting a security operation in the Cerro Chuño neighborhood, in the northernmost region Arica, where a Tren de Aragua faction known as the Gallegos maintained a strong presence prior to the arrests of dozens of members in June 2022. Officers were seeking to prevent the Gallegos from regrouping.

Simultaneously, police searched cells at seven prisons housing Gallegos members, discovering a handcuff key in the cell of one of the group’s leaders, according to Mario Carrera.

“I believe that we are entering a phase where the Gallegos are directly defying the state, which is something that is not traditionally very common in Chilean crime,” Pablo Zeballos, a former Chilean police intelligence official and organized crime consultant, told InSight Crime.

The trial of 38 alleged Gallegos members, which was originally set to be conducted virtually using Zoom, has been beset by obstacles. On April 22, the day it was supposed to commence, Chile’s Supreme Court suspended proceedings, ruling that holding a virtual trial impinged on the defendants’ right to freely speak with their lawyers. 

The trial recommenced in Arica on May 6, with defendants accused of crimes including murder, kidnapping, and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Eleven of them face life sentences if found guilty.

Three potential judges sought to excuse themselves from presiding over the trial, one because he was on the same amateur soccer team as one of the accused, Chilean media reported. And threats have forced the prosecutor to relocate and travel with two bodyguards, according to Chilean news site La Tercera

Chilean prosecutors also opened an investigation after an Arica judge provided the defense team with the identities of 57 protected witnesses, including undercover police officers.

InSight Crime Analysis

Individuals have made bomb threats at Chilean courts in the past, but targeting four courts simultaneously is unprecedented and a sign that Tren de Aragua is trying to upend the country’s security situation.

If left unchecked, Tren de Aragua’s threats against the state may ramp up, Zeballos warned.

“If a stop is not put to the intimidation, things will escalate quickly, resulting in, for example, the murder of prosecutors, the murder of judges,” he said. “What begins with a threatening letter ends in a few days with a homicide, with a high-level assassination.”

SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua: From Prison Gang to Transnational Criminal Enterprise

Beyond mere disruption or an effort to intimidate legal authorities, the bomb threats may have also been an indirect message to Chilean criminals both within and outside of prisons.

“It is a message to local crime that the networks are still active,” said Zeballos.

Concerns about the danger Tren de Aragua presents forced prison officials to relocate some of the group’s members in the past. But the imprisoned members originally found themselves outnumbered and mistreated by Chilean inmates, Zeballos said. Radical actions remind potential rival criminal structures both inside and out of prisons that Tren de Aragua has tremendous reach and power.

The organization has also employed corruption, as evidenced by their ability to get keys to their handcuffs. The operating sub-director of Chile’s prison service insisted a prison official could not have been responsible for the handcuff key ending up in the Gallegos’ member’s cell, but a prison official allegedly sold cell phones to leading member Carlos González Vaca, alias “Estrella,” in 2022. And a lawyer representing Tren de Aragua members told Chilean news site El Desconcierto in March that inmates often buy cell phones from prison guards.

What’s more, two investigative police officers are currently in preventative custody for their alleged involvement in a Tren de Aragua human trafficking ring uncovered in Santiago in November 2022.

Featured image: Police conduct a security operation targeting the Tren de Aragua cell, the Gallegos. Credit: Regional Attorney General’s Office of Arica and Parinacota