Caracas, September 25, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – A large-scale military-police procedure took control of one of Venezuela’s most dangerous prisons, which allegedly served as the base of the transnational criminal organization “Tren de Aragua” (Aragua Train).
On September 20, around 11,000 officers from the Venezuelan Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) alongside the national police launched the “Cacique Guaicaipuro Liberation Operation” in the Aragua Penitentiary Center, known as the Tocorón prison, located in the northern Aragua state.
In a televised address following the operation, Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos informed that some 1,600 prisoners were in custody and would be transferred to 85 other detention centers across the country.
The Venezuelan minister stressed that “human rights were guaranteed” during the procedure while family members of the detainees, including women and children who reportedly lived inside the facilities, had been evacuated from the place and put into safety. According to reports, one army officer died during the operation in accidental circumstances.
The material seized inside the prison included a significant amount of firearms and ammunition, self-propelled rockets, anti-tank grenades, mortar shells and 80 motorcycles. The place also had infrastructure that functioned as houses as well as a zoo, a gambling den, a baseball field, restaurants, a pool, a children’s park and a nightclub called “Tokyo.”
At least four officers were arrested for allegedly collaborating with the criminal gang, whose activities have spread throughout Latin America, in the acquisition of heavy weaponry. Other officers are under investigation for their alleged involvement as well.
Despite the successful operation, many prisoners managed to escape through a 5-kilometer network of underground tunnels that led to the Lake of Valencia, where makeshift boats were found. In the following days, some 88 prisoners were recaptured and according to Minister Ceballos, the search would continue until all fugitives were under arrest.
The 2-meter wide and 10-meter deep tunnels, equipped with ventilation and lightning, were regularly used by members of the “Tren de Aragua” to get in and out of the Tocorón prison, including the gang’s leader Héctor “El Niño” Guerrero, who remains at large since the armed takeover.
Ceballos stated that Venezuelan authorities were in close contact with police forces from other countries in order to capture the remaining gang members in case they crossed the border to Colombia and other neighboring nations.
“We have dismantled a criminal organization that was dedicated to committing all kinds of crime such as kidnapping, drug trafficking, contract killings and extortion. Criminal activities that were affecting many rural producers from the area. We’ve recovered peace for the people of Aragua,” reassured the army officer.
The “Aragua Train” gang was reportedly formed in 2014 using the Tocorón prison as its operational base. When Venezuela’s economic crisis caused a large migration process, the criminal organization spread its tentacles to other countries such as Peru, Ecuador and Chile, engaging in human trafficking and prostitution networks involving vulnerable migrants.
The gang members have also been known to commit kidnappings and robberies across the region, harming the image of Venezuelan migrants who saw an increase in xenophobic attacks.
According to Venezuelan authorities, the prison operation had been planned for years but it got delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It has not been an operation carried out overnight, much less under any negotiation [with the criminal group]”, clarified the Interior Minister following rumors that gang leaders were aware of the army intervention.
For his part, President Nicolás Maduro congratulated the Venezuelan army and police forces for the successful intervention and urged them to capture all the fugitives. “Let’s move towards a Venezuela free of criminal gangs!” he wrote on X.
In 2021, Maduro ordered an overhaul of the country’s judicial and prison system in order to reduce overcrowding and the delayed administration of justice. According to human rights collective Surgentes, the government’s decision came in response to accusations of street police violence, worsening conditions inside prisons and the ongoing investigation at the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding alleged “crimes against humanity.”