What they didn’t find was Tocorón’s most notorious inmate: Héctor “El Niño” Guerrero.
Guerrero, 39, heads Tren de Aragua, a criminal organization spawned in the prison that has spread across Latin America with the Venezuelan diaspora — its principal victims.
Now authorities not only in Venezuela, but also Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile, are hunting for the fugitive. Interpol has issued a Red Notice seeking his capture. And critics are asking how his gang managed to turn the prison into a luxury resort.
The cross-continental hunt underscores the fear inspired by the Tren de Aragua, which terrorizes Venezuelans who have fled the authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro with extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking and murder.
Police in Peru warned that “this dangerous criminal might have entered Peruvian territory” and could be planning crimes to maintain the “supremacy” of his extortion business there. The Peruvian government announced a reward of around $132,000 for information that helps locate or detain Guerrero in Peru.
At least 400 police officers have been deployed to Peru’s border with Ecuador to bolster security. Authorities as far away as Chile have said they’re strengthening their frontiers.
Renato Rivera, an analyst in Ecuador who focuses on organized crime, said the search for Guerrero “is revealing just how vulnerable and permeable our countries’ land borders are.”
The Venezuelan government last week ordered Operation Chief Guaicaipuro — named for a 16th-century resistance fighter celebrated by the socialist state founded by Hugo Chávez — to regain control of the prison.
Ecuador locked up a drug lord. He just released a music video from prison.
Venezuela’s interior minister crowed that the Sept. 20 operation had netted the arrests of 88 people associated with the Tren de Aragua. Authorities said it also yielded grenades, rocket launchers and ammunition. Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos, speaking to reporters at the prison as workers using heavy machinery tore the facility down, claimed to have dealt the gang a decisive blow.
“We completely dismantled the so-called ‘Tren de Aragua,’” he said.
But Maduro said several authorities and guards were also arrested for allegedly helping inmates, including Guerrero, to escape.
Humberto Prado, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, cautioned that taking control of the prison doesn’t mean the government has dismantled the gang.
Prado said the operation was probably negotiated between government forces and Guerrero.
“This is just a show for us, just to say they controlled the building again,” Prado said. Ceballos rejected the claim.
Prado noted inconsistencies between the government’s information and the observatory’s own research. The Interior Ministry announced that 1,600 Tocorón inmates were being transferred to other facilities. The Observatory of Prisons estimated that the prison held more than 3,000.
“Where are the rest?” Prado asked. “They have been running and escaping for a long time now.”
The Tren de Aragua — “Aragua Train,” for the town where Tocorón is located — was formed a decade ago by inmates who ordered kidnappings and killings from inside. By 2017, as Venezuelans began to flee mounting economic, political and humanitarian crises — an exodus that now numbers more than 7 million — the gang was looking for new markets outside the country.
“They followed the route of migration, identifying sexual exploitation of women and human trafficking as new ways to make money,” said Ronna Rísquez, the author of “Tren de Aragua: The gang that revolutionized organized crime in Latin America.”
The organization has extended its reach by contracting with smaller criminal groups outside the prison and recruiting recently released inmates, Rísquez said.
In her book, published this year, she estimates the gang’s strength at more than 5,000 members, earning millions of dollars annually from a rapidly diversifying “portfolio of crimes” — profits that have flowed back to the Tocorón prison.
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The group is accused of running prostitution rings in Peru, trafficking young women to Chile and dismembering bodies in Colombia.
Analysts in the region differ on the actual power and influence of the group, and whether smaller, unrelated gangs in some cities are using the Tren de Aragua name to stoke fear.
“I think that the Tren de Aragua is both a real and exaggerated threat,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group in Colombia. People linked to the group have tried to seize lucrative markets in Colombia in migrant trafficking and drug smuggling, she said, but have yet to establish themselves as a fixed criminal presence.
There’s been a tendency by other criminal organizations to capitalize on existing xenophobia toward Venezuelan migrants and blame their own crimes on the Tren de Aragua “as a way to hide in the shadows,” Dickinson said.
Unlike a typical armed group, she said, the Tren de Aragua is more of an underground criminal organization that carries out specific jobs. It’s “not an overpowering threat,” she said. “At least at the moment.”
Still, authorities are concerned. Colombian military intelligence analysts, for example, say the organization has a presence in six cities there, including Bogotá, the capital. In a report circulated internally this year, analysts noted the group’s presence in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Trinidad and Tobago — all countries that have received large numbers of Venezuelan migrants in recent years.
The analysts attributed the group’s growth to a range of actions and failures by Venezuelan authorities. In the Tocorón prison, the Latin American violence think tank InSight Crime reported, Guerrero rose to become a “pran,” a sort of criminal warden in a system created by former prison minister Iris Varela. The pran system granted inmates control of prisons in exchange for maintaining order and reducing violence.
Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, suggested that the raid might have been an attempt by the Venezuelan government to bring an end to the pran system.
Chilean authorities have said they have no reason to believe Guerrero was in their country, but they still planned to reinforce security at the border.
Chilean lawmaker Álvaro Carter, who sits on the national defense commission, said the Tren de Aragua has been linked to crimes in the past year or so that had never been seen before in the relatively peaceful country.
Carter said he worried about Chile’s long borders and the lack of biometric data provided by the Venezuelan government to help track a person’s criminal record.
“We feel that Chile is facing a big problem,” he said. “The fear is not only that this criminal will enter, but others in the future.”