Gangs allied to Venezuela’s mega-gang, Tren de Aragua, remain operational despite multiple security operations against it, calling into question the Venezuelan government’s declaration that it dismantled the major criminal organization.

On June 4, officers from Venezuela’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC) arrested three alleged extortionists from the criminal gang Los Negritos. The gang operates in the San Vicente’s neighborhood of Maracay, the capital of Aragua state, and one of Tren de Aragua’s operational centers.

Los Negritos is one of many gangs associated with Tren de Aragua in the state. In exchange for acting under the larger gang’s direction, Los Negritos benefited from the impunity offered by agreements between government officials and the mega-gang. 

Since March 6, security forces have carried out at least 22 other operations in Aragua. They have left 26 people dead and led to the capture of 85 alleged gang members, according to media monitoring by InSight Crime. 

However, despite Tren de Aragua’s known links to gangs such as Los Negritos, authorities have avoided mentioning the mega-gang’s name in security operations.

SEE ALSO: Venezuelan Military ‘Invades’ Notorious Prison 

These operational deployments come months after Venezuelan authorities took over Tocorón prison — the Tren de Aragua’s former nerve center — in September 2023, and announced the dismantling of the group. However, the gang’s leaders, including overall leader, Hector Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero,” managed to escape. To date, no leaders have been recaptured.

Disorganized Crime

With Tren de Aragua’s headquarters gone and its leaders nowhere to be seen, criminal governance and activity in Aragua has shifted.

Following the takeover of Tocorón, the criminal groups under the umbrella of Tren de Aragua withdrew, leading to a temporary reduction in some crimes.

“They all ran scared and hid, but they are coming back,” a local investigator told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. 

SEE ALSO: Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua Loses Its Home

But, as the months passed and with no new Tren de Aragua leader emerging, the gangs returned and gradually resumed operations, police sources who asked to remain anonymous told InSight Crime. At the same time, new small criminal gangs began to emerge in some parts of the state, said the same sources.

At this point, crimes that were previously controlled by the mega-gang, such as robberies and burglaries, began ticking upwards, according to two police officials who spoke to InSight Crime. 

Security forces have met this rise in crime with violence. During the first quarter of 2024, there was a 100% increase in police lethality compared to the same period last year, according to figures from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia), an organization that tracks violence in the country.

Tracking Tren de Aragua Factions

These smaller criminal gangs have been the main targets of security force operations following the takeover of Tocorón. 

One of the most targeted is the El Flipper gang, led by Kenferson Sevilla Arteaga, which for years has controlled Maracay’s San Vicente neighborhood.

Its members disappeared immediately following the Tocorón raid, allowing security forces to recover control in parts of the area, police sources, residents, and a local investigator told InSight Crime on a visit to Aragua in March. Ongoing police operations and arrests suggest that the gang is still battling with authorities in Maracay.

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

The Luis Manilla gang, the successor of the infamous El Conejo gang, which once controlled Las Tejerías in eastern Aragua, faces a similar situation. Now led by Luis Rafael Santana Argueta, the gang is being pursued by authorities in Aragua.

The Wilmer Guayabal, El Coty, and El Asdrubal gangs are also part of the Tren de Aragua umbrella and are being pursued. However, security forces have not mentioned Tren de Aragua nor its influence over these gangs during recent security operations.

Security Forces Take Advantage of Criminal Vacuum

Aragua was among the states with the highest police lethality rate in 2023, according to the OVV. The increase so far in 2024 accounts for the changes following the breakdown of the agreements in place between Tren de Aragua and Venezuelan security forces, under which affiliated gangs were protected.

Beyond that, law enforcement has other reasons to increase violence against gangs. Law enforcement officials have taken control of some criminal activities carried out by Tren de Aragua gangs in the state, the local investigator, residents, and a police officer with knowledge of these cases, told InSight Crime.

Micro-trafficking and extortion are among these activities. One investigator explained that local businesses that previously regularly paid extortion to one of the gangs in Maracay are now forced to pay a state security force.

A similar event occurred following the police operation that displaced criminal leader Carlos Luis Revete, alias “El Koki,” from his territory in Caracas’ Cota 905 in 2021. Police officers committed abuses against residents with the aim of extorting them, an investigation by Connectas found. 

Featured image: A message against extortion in San Vincente, Maracay, the state of Aragua, Venezuela. Credit: Venezuela Investigative Unit.