Lawmakers Urge Biden to Label Venezuela Gang as Criminals

(Bloomberg) -- Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida are urging the Biden administration to designate Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua as a transnational criminal organization in a new effort to curb the gang’s alleged expansion into the US.

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The criminal group’s growth is closely tied to the exodus of more than seven million Venezuelans over the last decade. Originating in a prison 150 kilometers from Caracas around 2012, Venezuelan government security officials now consider the gang the most violent criminal organization in the country, regularly accused of orchestrating kidnappings, drug trafficking and controlling swaths of the capital’s slums.

“If left unchecked, they will unleash an unprecedented reign of terror, mirroring the devastation it has already inflicted in communities throughout Central and South America,” Rubio said in his request to the White House Thursday. “We cannot permit our cities to become battlegrounds for such organizations.”

Designating Tren de Aragua as a transnational criminal operation would increase awareness and deploy necessary resources to limit its expansion, the letter states. Joining Rubio and Scott are senators Bill Cassidy, Shelley Moore Capito, Tim Scott and others.

Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile have raised concerns over the group’s operations over the past six years. The recent murder of a former member of the Venezuelan armed forces in Chile allegedly tied to the gang led Chilean President Gabriel Boric to vow on Monday that he will pursue Tren de Aragua members “through sky, sea and land” until they dismantle their organization.

Chile’s government has rejected allegations that it gave Venezuelan authorities the green light to kidnap refugee Ronald Ojeda, who was found inside a suitcase buried under a cement structure at a campsite in Santiago’s Maipu district.

Read More: Chile Pledges to Investigate Death of Kidnapped Venezuelan

Still, the fluid nature of Tren de Aragua’s presence and operations are widely misunderstood, said Crisis Group analyst Bram Ebus. Some criminal groups that routinely recruit vulnerable Venezuelans along migration routes hide behind the Tren de Aragua name to mislead security officials, while others capitalize on the misrepresentation for political gain, Ebus said.

“There is a very big risk of catalyzing xenophobia toward Venezuelans and categorizing them as belonging to larger criminal structures that actually exist,” he said.

--With assistance from Fabiola Zerpa.

(Updates with background on Ojeda in the sixth paragraph.)

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