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Members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) stand guard as inmates aboard a bus are transferred outside the Tocoron prison in Tocoron, Aragua State, Venezuela, on September 20, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

CARACAS: Venezuela said on Wednesday it had seized control of a prison from the hands of a powerful gang with international reach, in a major operation involving 11,000 members of its security forces.

The Tocoron prison in the northern state of Aragua has served as the Tren de Aragua gang’s headquarters, where it had installed amenities such as a zoo, a pool and gambling rooms, according to an investigative journalist recently interviewed by AFP.

In a statement, the government congratulated law enforcement officers for regaining “total control” of the prison.

“This prison will undergo a process of restructuring and will be completely evacuated,” read the statement, adding the operation had “dismantled a center of conspiracy and crime.”

Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos told state broadcaster VTV the inmates were being transferred to another facility, as images were shown of handcuffed prisoners sitting in rows on the ground.

It appeared some may have escaped during the operation, as a later government statement announced a “second phase” of the operation for the “search and capture” of “fugitive criminals.”

‘Hotel’ for gang leaders

Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s most powerful local gang, is involved in crime countrywide and has spread its tentacles to neighboring nations.

According to an investigation by Venezuelan journalist Ronna Risquez, the gang has some 5,000 members.

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Relatives of inmates wait for news after authorities seized control of the Tocoron prison. Image Credit: AFP

It emerged a decade ago, and is involved in kidnappings, robberies, drug trafficking, prostitution and extortion. Tren de Aragua is also involved in illegal gold mining.

The InSight Crime think tank says the gang is also a major player in migrant smuggling.

Risquez told AFP the gang “took advantage” of Venezuela’s economic and political crises over the past decade to expand operations, and is now present in at least eight other Latin American countries.

She said Tocoron had been entirely in the hands of the gang.

“Inside, the men I have seen with guns are prisoners belonging to the organization. They guard the prison but not for the state.”

She described the prison as a “hotel” for the gang leaders, with a bank, baseball field, a restaurant and even a disco.

According to local media, the gang’s leader is Hector Guerrero Flores, who was serving a 17-year sentence in the prison for murder and drug trafficking.

Nevertheless, prior to the operation he appeared to come and go from Tocoron at will, said Risquez.

According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP), the country’s prisons as a whole are more than 50 percent overcrowded, with poor detention conditions.