More than 11,000 Venezuelan soldiers and police officers took over the Tocorón prison early this Wednesday, the main operations center of the feared Aragua Train, a criminal gang that operates in several Latin American countries.
After the takeover through a huge security deployment that included the use of armored vehicles, the Tocorón penitentiary center (Aragua state, north) "will go into a restructuring process and will be completely vacated," the Venezuelan government reported in a statement. , in which he described the operation as “successful.”
"More than 11,000 qualified personnel have been deployed, ready to restore and dignify the national penitentiary system," the authorities reported earlier.
"A conspiracy and crime center was dismantled, used by an international criminal network against the Venezuelan population," they added.
A hundred relatives of inmates, many of whom lived in the prison and were evicted, remained at the doors of the place waiting for "news."
«I am waiting for them to inform me where they are taking my husband. I do not have any news (…). “I lived there, but they took us out,” Gladys Hernández told AFP. "I'm afraid that they won't come out alive," said Rubieles Mejías, who has a romantic relationship with another of the prisoners.
The inmates are being transferred to other of the 85 penitentiary centers that operate in the country, said the Minister of the Interior and Justice, General Remigio Ceballos, in statements to state television.
"This prison has been completely taken over and the infrastructure has been completely liberated," Ceballos stressed. "Crime reigned in these spaces."
"We have guaranteed the human rights of those deprived of liberty," the minister stressed while VTV television showed images of prisoners in rows, sitting on the floor, most with their hands handcuffed.
The Tren de Aragua gang operates from Tocorón, whose tentacles have expanded to several countries in the region.
The prison, where a kind of citadel with a swimming pool, a baseball field, a zoo and even a luxury nightclub was built, was controlled with total impunity by this criminal group dedicated to kidnapping, extortion and other crimes.
Videos posted on social networks show women and children inside the premises, from where columns of smoke were coming out.
After the takeover, the government announced a "second phase" of the operation for the "search and capture" of "fugitive criminals", without specifying the number of prisoners who escaped during the operation or giving a balance of injuries.
– «International pressure» –
"It was something that could happen at any moment," Ronna Rísquez, a journalist who has investigated the Aragua Train for years, told AFP.
According to their estimates, the band has about 5,000 members in South America.
Rísquez considers that this operation would have been activated by pressure from countries in the region such as Colombia, Chile and Peru, "which have denounced the presence of an armed group such as the Tren de Aragua operating in their territories with impunity."
From these countries they have identified that this criminal gang directs its operations from the Tocorón prison, which is why they "have urged the government of Venezuela to take measures."
The Aragua Train emerged in 2014, operating in "classic" mafia activities: kidnappings, robberies, drugs, prostitution and extortion, but later expanded to illegal gold exploitation.
The members of the gang receive orders from ringleaders held in Tocorón, known in prison jargon as "pranes."
– «Penitentiary chaos» –
During the search, the authorities detected a system of tunnels. "We have prevented a massive escape," said Ceballos.
Security personnel, an AFP team confirmed, took motorcycles, televisions, air conditioners, microwaves and bags out of the prison. "That's ours!" shouted the women waiting outside the prison.
For years, control of Tocorón had been held by the "pranes", led by Héctor Guerrero Flores, known as 'Niño Guerrero', sentenced to 17 years in prison for multiple homicides and drug trafficking, among other crimes, highlighted Carlos Nieto, coordinator of the NGO that defends the rights of prisoners A Window for Freedom.
"With this action the government is recognizing the prison chaos we are experiencing and how negligent it has been in solving it, especially in this facility," Nieto said in a communication sent to the press.
Venezuela's prisons have an overpopulation of over 50%, according to the private Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP).