Following the murder of a former Venezuelan military official in Chile, the country’s president promised his government would root out the principal suspects: the Venezuelan crime group, Tren de Aragua.

In an interview with ADN on March 11, Chilean president Gabriel Boric pledged to dismantle Tren de Aragua, saying, “We are going to pursue them through the sky, sea, and land.”

The pronouncement, the president’s toughest direct reference to the group since its emergence in the country, came after Chile’s Attorney General Héctor Barros blamed the group for the kidnapping and murder of Ronald Ojeda, a former first lieutenant in Venezuela’s armed forces.

SEE ALSO: Three Stages in the Construction of the Tren de Aragua’s Transnational Empire

On March 1, police officers discovered Ojeda’s body in a suitcase buried under cement in Maipú, a southwestern sector of Santiago where multiple Tren de Aragua “torture houses” had previously been discovered. The same day, police arrested a 17-year-old Venezuelan for the kidnapping and murder. Interpol notices have been issued against two other suspects believed to have fled to Bolivia and Peru.

At least three individuals dressed as police officers snatched Ojeda from his 14th floor apartment in north Santiago shortly after 3:00 a.m. on February 21 and forced him into a car, which was later found abandoned with the uniforms inside.

Ojeda had been in Chile since escaping Venezuela, where he had been detained and tortured by the authorities for an alleged failed attempt to topple President Nicolás Maduro.

Maduro’s government expelled Ojeda from the military and condemned him multiple times in the years since, most recently in January 2024, when the Ministry of Defense claimed he had planned “criminal and terrorist actions” against the government.

Ojeda had not received any threats from organized crime groups prior to the kidnapping, but had felt he was in danger due to his status as a refugee, the lawyer of Ojeda’s wife, Juan Carlos Manríquez, told InSight Crime. 

The former first lieutenant believed “the regime was hunting him,” his brother told Chilean news site La Tercera

Though there is no evidence so far to support this, one of the suspects worked for former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami during his time as governor of the Venezuelan state Aragua, according to official documents published by Chilean media. During El Assaimi’s tenure as governor in Tren de Aragua’s home state, the group grew in strength and received preferential treatment from the authorities.  

Chile’s attorney general stated the crime may have been ordered by someone outside of Chile and has not ruled out that it may have been politically motivated.

InSight Crime Analysis

Whether or not someone from within the Venezuelan state contracted Tren de Aragua to carry out the kidnapping, the crime seems to mark a new phase in the group’s criminal evolution.

In the past, Tren de Aragua’s actions have been more rudimentary and crude, posting videos online threatening to kill civilians in Lima, Peru, and dumping dead bodies on street corners in Bogotá, Colombia.

SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua’s Criminal Portfolio: Adapt or Die

However, Ojeda’s kidnapping — with its use of police uniforms, and the decision to take him from his home instead of using the simpler and more commonly employed method of snatching him while he was in public — shows an unusual level of sophistication and moxie.

“This is a pretty considerable plan,” Manríquez told InSight Crime. “They carried out at least six stages, a preliminary study, an extraction … [It involved] support people, several cars, the escape route, distraction tasks… and testimonies indicate that during the execution of this event they delivered reports that the operation was underway. In other words, this shows that there is some leader.”

Investigators have not declared who ordered Ojeda’s kidnapping and murder, however the planning it would have required suggests his captors were well aware of their victim’s status and the attention the crime would generate. The lack of a ransom request also sets it apart from Tren de Aragua’s usual typical style of kidnapping, both in Venezuela and abroad.

 The murder marks the second time the group has been tied to a high-profile contract killing — the first being the May 2022 assassination of Paraguayan prosecutor Marcelo Pecci in Colombia — suggesting the organization is now offering this as a criminal “service.”

The organization’s expansion from Venezuela across South America was rooted in migrant smuggling and human trafficking, but its adaptability and chasing of criminal opportunities have fuelled its continued growth. Its transnational cells are now involved in crimes ranging from extortion to sexual exploitation to small-scale drug trafficking.

The gang has also demonstrated signs of seeking to manipulate Chile’s institutions via intimidation or corruption. Multiple judges have sought to excuse themselves from a trial against the Gallegos, with one of them doing so on the basis of a friendship with one of the accused, according to El Mostrador. The Supreme Court has now ordered the removal from the judiciary’s website any information that would identify the judges involved in the case, presumably out of fear of potential reprisals.

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