A string of arrests across the Andes has targeted extortionists posing as members of the Tren de Aragua, showing how the Venezuelan gang’s growing notoriety and decentralized structure have encouraged imposters to appropriate its brand.
The group, operating in the city of San Juan de Lurigancho on the outskirts of Lima, reportedly demanded over $800 a month from a local transportation company. When the president of the company refused to pay, the group detonated an explosive device at their house, the report described. Calls and emails to Peruvian National Police (Policía Nacional del Perú) requesting confirmation of the arrests went unanswered.
Groups using the Tren de Aragua’s brand to commit crimes follow a pattern of similar events around the region, corresponding with the rise of the criminal group as a regional powerhouse.
On the Colombia-Ecuador border, a faux Tren de Aragua cell had been targeting Venezuelan migrants, local security officials told InSight Crime in February. Authorities didn’t believe the cell had connections to Tren de Aragua, but that they were using the gang’s name to intimidate Venezuelan migrants.
Imposter criminal groups using the Tren de Aragua name started to become prevalent in Santiago, Chile last year, according to Pilar Lizana, a researcher at Chilean policy think tank AthenaLab who has extensively studied Tren de Aragua.
“What was happening [in Santiago] was that the name of Tren de Aragua was being used because there was already a perception of fear of what the Tren de Aragua name and brand meant,” she told InSight Crime.
Tren de Aragua has capitalized on Venezuela’s migrant crisis to grow from a prison gang based in the Venezuelan state of Aragua to a transnational organization running lucrative extortion, migrant smuggling, drug trafficking, and human trafficking schemes throughout South America.
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Tren de Aragua’s brand is particularly attractive to foreign imposters as misinformation distorts the gang’s influence and authorities struggle to trace its bona fide members.
Tren de Aragua’s reputation has grown throughout South America as it has expanded beyond Venezuela. But perceptions of the threat posed by the gang often fail to correspond with reality. Misinformation concerning Venezuelan migrants has fed xenophobic attitudes off which imposter groups have thrived.
“Fear began to be generated towards certain nationalities that were arriving due to the many communications that we were having in the media about the actions of the Tren de Aragua,” Lizana told InSight Crime, referring to dynamics in Chile.
“That groups such as the Tren de Aragua or other organized crime groups take advantage of such a strong migratory phenomenon … is a very different thing than migration being the cause,” she added.
Adding to widespread fear of the group, the difficulty of tracking its official cells generates further confusion on which copycats can capitalize.
In interviews with InSight Crime, security officials in Colombia, Peru, and Chile all noted the difficulty in confirming if a group is part of Tren de Aragua. In multiple instances, however, the same officials used the Tren de Aragua name to refer to groups they suspected of being affiliated to the gang, despite not having confirmed these suspicions.
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