Venezuelan authorities have successfully taken control of a notorious gang-run prison and claimed the dismantling of the Tren de Aragua criminal organization in the northern state of Aragua. Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos announced this major development on Saturday, following a multi-day operation involving 11,000 soldiers and police personnel.
The Tocoron prison, which had gained notoriety for its luxurious amenities, including restaurants, bars, and outdoor swimming pools, had been functioning as the nerve center of the Tren de Aragua gang.
“We have achieved full control of this prison and effectively dismantled the self-proclaimed former Tren de Aragua,” Minister Ceballos stated in a press briefing, though he refrained from providing specific operational details.
The Tren de Aragua gang, reportedly comprising around 5,000 criminals, had emerged in 2014, specializing in various illicit activities such as kidnapping, robberies, drug trade, prostitution, and extortion. It had also expanded its influence into both legal and illegal sectors, including illegal gold mining.
Authorities assert that the operation to retake the Tocoron prison has dealt a severe blow to the gang. However, civil society groups have raised concerns regarding its success, as the gang’s leader, Hector Guerrero, managed to escape prior to the operation, along with other key leaders.
The Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVV), an organization monitoring conditions in the country’s perilous detention facilities, reported that these individuals were tipped off about the impending raid and had fled the prison and the country approximately a week before the operation. OVV did not specify the countries to which they had escaped, accusing authorities of a lack of transparency.
Government officials have vehemently denied these allegations. Minister Ceballos revealed that approximately 88 escapees have been recaptured, and most of the prison’s 1,600 inmates have been relocated to other correctional facilities across the nation.
“This operation is part of a long-term strategy,” Minister Ceballos emphasized, indicating the government’s commitment to pursuing individuals suspected of affiliation with the Tren de Aragua gang.
Over the weekend, the government permitted around 30 journalists to tour the prison, where excavators were seen dismantling some of the infrastructure constructed by the inmates. Journalists reported a scene of disarray, with discarded beer bottles, clothing, televisions, appliances, and stuffed animals strewn throughout the limited areas accessible to them. Abandoned food stands near the pool, a basketball court, and remnants of a zoo with pink flamingos were also noted.
Previously, authorities had announced the arrest and charging of four prison officials on allegations of complicity with the criminals.
This operation marks a significant milestone in the government’s efforts to combat organized crime within its prison system and beyond, but questions linger regarding the ultimate fate of the Tren de Aragua leadership and their global reach.