Venezuela takes control of gang-run jail, ‘dismantles’ Tren de Aragua

Interior minister claims authorities have dismantled the feared criminal group that controlled the Tocoron prison, which had a pool, a zoo and restaurants.

Venezuelan security forces stand guard in the Tocoron prison in Tocoron, Aragua State, Venezuela, on September 23, 2023
Venezuelan security forces stand guard in the Tocoron prison in Aragua state, Venezuela, September 23, 2023 [Yuri Cortez/AFP]

Venezuela says it has dismantled the Tren de Aragua gang after retaking control of a prison controlled by the feared criminal group in the northern state of Aragua.

Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos made the claim on Saturday, days after the Venezuelan government sent in 11,000 soldiers and police into the Tocoron prison, which had restaurants, bars and even outdoor swimming pools, and functioned as the operating centre for Tren de Aragua.

“We have total control of this prison and we have completely dismantled the self-proclaimed former Tren de Aragua,” Ceballos told reporters.

He did not offer additional details, however.

The Tren de Aragua gang, which reportedly numbers some 5,000 criminals, emerged in 2014, specialising in kidnapping, robberies, drugs, prostitution and extortion, according to officials. It has extended its influence to other activities, some legal, but also to illegal gold mining.

Authorities claim the raid to retake the Tocoron prison on Wednesday has dealt a “devastating blow” to the gang, but civil society groups have questioned its success, noting that the leader of Tren de Aragua had escaped before the operation.

The Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVV), a group that follows developments in the country’s notoriously dangerous detention centres, said the head of the gang, Hector Guerrero, and other leaders were tipped off before the raid and managed to flee the prison and the country a week beforehand.

The OVV did not specify which countries they went to, accusing authorities of “opacity”.

The authorities have denied those allegations.

Ceballos said on Saturday that some 88 members who escaped during the raid by security forces have been recaptured and that most of the prison’s 1,600 inmates have already been relocated to other jails across the country.

“This is a long-term operation,” he told journalists.

The minister added that authorities would continue to look for people suspected of belonging to the gang.

The government on Saturday took some 30 journalists on a limited tour of the prison, where excavators were seen taking down some of the infrastructure built by the prisoners.

The AFP news agency said the few streets that reporters were allowed to see were littered with beer bottles, clothing, TVs, appliances and stuffed animals.

It said there were abandoned food stands near the pool and a basketball court and that reporters did not get to see what was left of the zoo with its pink flamingos.

The government has previously said four prison officials had been arrested and charged with complicity with the criminals.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies