This bloodthirsty Venezuelan gang has caused havoc in Latin America. Now it’s in Miami

Antonio Maria Delgado
Sat, January 20, 2024 at 5:30 AM EST·5 min read


A Venezuelan criminal gang that for the past few years has been extending its operations and causing havoc throughout Latin America has made an appearance in South Florida, police say, claiming that at least one of its members was involved in a recent Miami murder.

José Luis Sánchez Valera, a 43-year-old retired Venezuelan police officer who lived in Doral, was lured by women into a hotel room in Miami in late November and killed after he was abducted in the parking lot. Yurwin Salazar, 23, a Venezuelan immigrant who lives in South Florida, has been charged with the murder.

According to police reports, Salazar is a member of the Tren de Aragua, the infamous gang that has been terrorizing citizens of the South American country for more than a decade.

Valera’s abduction, carjacking, home invasion and murder is the first documented instance of a crime committed in South Florida by a member of the gang known for its size and wanton use of violence.

Yurwin Salazar. Credit: Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation

“As of last year, we had been hearing reports that members of the gang had left Colombia, moving through the Darien Gap and walking all the way to the United States,” said Venezuelan security expert Javier Ignacio Mayorca. “There wasn’t much factual evidence accompanying the claim that they were already inside the United States. This case, unless proven otherwise, would be the first confirmation that this is true.”

A night out gone wrong

According to a Miami-Dade Police report, Sánchez left his home around 10 p.m. on Nov. 27 and went to La Quinta Inn Hotel and Suites, 3501 NW 42 Ave., to meet with a woman inside room 310.

Four hours later, he left the room and took the elevator to the lobby accompanied by two women. He left the hotel through a side exit to the parking lot, while the women continued to the lobby, said Miami-Dade Police Det. Humberto García in an affidavit filed in support of the arrest warrant.

“Upon entering his vehicle, three unknown subjects dressed in dark colored clothing exited a silver sedan, which was parked near the victim’s’ vehicle, and began physically removing the victim from the front seat of his vehicle and forcibly placed him in the back seat,” the affidavit said.

After a short time, surveillance cameras caught Sánchez’s vehicle, a 2018 Toyota 4Runner, driving away from the parking lot with the three unknown subjects inside and Sánchez in the back seat. The Toyota returned to the parking lot soon after and one of the assailants stepped out and got into the silver sedan the kidnappers had parked near the victim’s car, García’s affidavit said.

Hours later, around 3:40 a.m. on Nov. 28, police responded to reports of an armed home invasion taking place at a Doral apartment, which turned out to be Sánchez’s home. “Two male subjects had entered the victims’ apartment, armed with a firearm, and demanded jewelry from the victim’s’ roommate.... The subjects successfully obtained a safe from the victim’s’ bedroom closet and fled the scene in a silver sedan, which matched the physical description of the silver sedan from La Quinta Inn Hotel,” a police report said.
Before leaving, one of the subjects told Sanchez’s roommate that they belonged to Tren de Aragua, the affidavit says.

Sánchez’s body, hands and feet bound with tape, was found hours later inside his vehicle. The autopsy showed that the cause of death was mechanical asphyxia and the death was ruled a homicide.

Evidence gathered inside the vehicle showed that Salazar was one of three men who abducted Sánchez, according to the report, which said his fingerprints were found inside the victim’s car.

Salazar was arrested on Tuesday in Broward County and appeared in Miami-Dade court to face charges of first-degree murder, armed home invasion, carjacking, and kidnapping. He is currently being held without bond.

Hiding among the diaspora

Cases like the Sanchez murder are common in Venezuela, where gang members often abduct victims suspected of having secret fortunes and torture them in order to gain access to the hidden wealth.

Sometimes the victims are allowed to go free after the gangs take their money, given the low probability of their going for help to a local police force often seen as corrupt and in alliance with the gangs. But sometimes the gangs kill the victims to eliminate witnesses.

Many of the members of the 2,500-strong Tren de Aragua have joined the massive immigration wave fleeing Venezuela and have set up shop in neighboring countries.

Authorities in the region say the gang is behind a spike in criminal activities in Colombia, Perú, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Costa Rica.

The gang, which was founded in the overcrowded Tocoron prison in the Venezuelan state of Aragua, operates as a loosely organized criminal syndicate, serving as an umbrella organization for smaller gangs specialized in all types of crimes, from kidnapping, extortion and drug-trafficking to prostitution, robbery and murders for hire.

“They use excessive violence to demonstrate their power. The murder of whoever betrays or does not obey orders sets an example to others,” according to a police report detailing the gang’s history. The report was part of a trove of documents from the Colombian prosecutor’s office obtained by the NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order, a transnational investigation into modern organized crime led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its partners, including the Miami Herald.

Tren de Aragua;s presence abroad has added to the woes of Venezuelans who fled their country by the millions over the past decade to escape political turmoil, corruption and an economic meltdown that has tipped into a humanitarian crisis.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol told OCCRP’s media partner CNN en Español that it detained 38 suspected Tren de Aragua members between October 2022 and 2023. At least two are being prosecuted for illegal entry into the United States.

Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed with this story.