This article is part of NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order, a transnational journalistic investigation into global organized crime, its innovations, its tentacles, and those who fight it. The project, led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in partnership with Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP), began with a leak of emails from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office that was shared with InSight Crime and more than 40 media outlets around the world. Reporters examined and corroborated the materials along with hundreds of other documents, databases, and interviews. This article is republished with permission from OCCRP and piauí. Read the rest of the articles in this series here.
In 2021, a wave of assassinations shocked the dwellers of Boa Vista, the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Roraima. At the beginning of the year, the corpse of Ronniel Padilla, a 17-year-old, was found wrapped in black plastic. He had his hands and feet tied with a nylon cord, and puncture wounds were scattered across his body. Four months later, the victim was Luis Carlos Barrios, a 40-year-old man, found inside a trash bag. His body had been mutilated. In the same period, three people were executed by gunshots in the city. By the end of the year, Boa Vista had the fifth-highest rate of violent deaths – 35 per 100,000 inhabitants – among Brazil’s state capitals.
The victims had something in common: they were all Venezuelan migrants. According to investigations by the Civil Police, their murders were ordered by members of Tren de Aragua, a criminal organization active in Venezuela that, over the past years, has been advancing over the Brazilian border. Between March and August 2021, the police attributed 12 murders in Boa Vista to Tren de Aragua. Four of the victims were dismembered.
“Several Venezuelans are being killed by beheading and dismemberment, and one of the reasons for these deaths is settling scores related to drug consumption debts,” according to a report signed in August 2021 by Civil Police Inspector Leonardo da Cruz Barroncas.
Tren de Aragua emerged around 2012 from a penitentiary in Aragua state and is renowned as one of the most violent criminal organizations in Venezuela. It employs barbaric means against its adversaries. Executions are often recorded.
The group’s influence in Roraima increased with the influx of Venezuelans across the border. Between 2015 and 2019, 178,000 asylum or temporary residency requests were filed in Brazil. With the worsening economic crisis in Venezuela, migration became more intense. Roraima had, in 2022, the highest population growth in the country, although it is still the least populous state: 637,000 inhabitants live in the state, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
In 2018, Roraima registered the highest number of violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in the country, 54% higher compared to the previous year. This led the federal government to sign an agreement with the state government of Roraima to create an Integrated Force to Tackle Organized Crime (Força Integrada de Combate ao Crime Organizado) in 2019. According to the Federal Police, the increase in homicides was caused by the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), a criminal organization that emerged in São Paulo and has a broad presence in Amazonian states today.
Since then, the presence of Venezuelan gangs has become more overt. Tren de Aragua is the main group, but not the only one. There is evidence of Tren de Guyana and “Sindicato” having a presence in Roraima, and in some cases allying themselves with Brazilian gangs. A report from October 2021 signed by Federal Police Inspector Alan Gonçalves indicates that, in that year, almost every drug or weapons seizure in the state came from Venezuela. Between 2019 and 2021, over a hundred traffickers were arrested in the region, according to the Federal Police.
Tren de Aragua’s signature is the use of violence. The group was formed in the penitentiary of Tocorón, where criminals managed the prison themselves. In press interviews, the Minister of Interior, Justice and Peace Remigio Ceballos reported that high-precision rifles, grenades, rocket launchers, and even bitcoin mining machines were found in the penitentiary. After taking over neighborhoods around the prison, the group spread over Venezuela’s border regions and further, to Colombia, Peru, Chile, and other countries.
Members of this criminal group often post shocking videos on social media, showing their victims begging before being executed – a method used to frighten opponents. Murders are committed with extreme violence. In Boa Vista, some of the victims identified by the police had signs of attempted dismemberment. The group’s main activity is drug trafficking, although it also owns prostitution establishments.
“Tren de Aragua today is the most destructive criminal group in Latin America,” said Óscar Naranjo, former vice-president of Colombia and retired chief of police. In the 1980s, Naranjo fought against the infamous Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar.
Now, there are signs that some of Tren de Aragua’s members are moving north. The US border patrol told OCCRP that, since October last year, 38 suspected members of the Venezuelan group were arrested in the country. At least two of them are being prosecuted, accused of illegally entering the United States.
In October 2021, Roraima’s civil police began Operation Cuchillo. The main goal was to fulfill the warrant for Frank Alexander Bolivar Rojas, a drug trafficker known as “Pure Pito.” According to investigations, Rojas ordered the assassination of Ronniel Padilla in March 2021, and had been appointed a leader of Tren de Aragua in Brazil. According to the police, Rojas is responsible for overseeing drug distribution logistics and selling weaponry in Roraima.
After arriving at his house, police officers seized a Glock 9 mm pistol with 49 bullets and found notes that resembled drug trafficking records. Rojas was arrested along with two Venezuelan women. The operation, however, did not contain the advance of the group, which is now spreading through different cities in Roraima and interacting with other gangs.
Police inspectors Simone Arruda do Carmo and Cândida Alzira Bentes de Magalhães published an academic article entitled “Tríplice Fronteira: Aspectos do Crime Organizado em Roraima” (Triple Border: Aspects of Organized Crime in Roraima) last year. The paper claims that “in the second semester of 2022, the presence of the Venezuelan criminal groups Tren de Aragua, Tren de Guyana, and Sindicato was confirmed in at least four neighborhoods in Boa Vista.” One of these neighborhoods is known to be a part of the PCC’s territory.
They also found that Brazilian and Venezuelan criminal groups sometimes coordinate their actions. “It is a union of forces,” Carmo said in an interview with OCCRP.
In July 2020, the Federal Police fulfilled 19 prison warrants against Venezuelans accused of joining PCC. According to the Federal Police, the group acted inside and outside prisons and had been responsible for at least 29 crimes in Brazil, including homicides, armed robbery, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. They were also reported to the police for armed criminal affiliation.
OCCRP obtained access to an intelligence document from the Public Security Office of Roraima, dated March 2023, that details the armed capacity of gangs in Roraima. According to the report, criminal groups use AK-47s, Uzis, and AR-15s. The secretary of Public Safety, Edison Prola, who signed the report along with Military Police Captain Ubirajara Capaverde and Police Inspector José Avelino Junior, requested assistance from the federal government to face the criminals. “We are soliciting adequate and proportional weaponry and ammunition, with the purpose of leveling the conditions to confront organized crime in the Amazon areas belonging to the state of Roraima,” read the report. In July, the Brazilian federal government announced it was giving the state 38 million reais (about $7.8 million) from the National Public Security Fund. The money will be fully delivered at the end of the year.
The authors tried to contact Frank Alexander Bolivar Rojas’ lawyer, Antônio Agamenon de Almeida, but did not get an answer by the time this article was published. The text may be updated in case of an eventual reply.
What are your thoughts?
Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.
We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.