Posted on June 13, 2024

How Venezuelan Gang Members Are Slipping Into the U.S.

Laura Strickler et al., NBC, June 12, 2024

U.S. law enforcement and immigration officials have launched more than 100 investigations of crimes tied to suspected members of a violent Venezuelan gang, including sex trafficking in Louisiana and the point-blank shooting of two New York City police officers, according to two Department of Homeland Security officials.

The cases involving the Tren de Aragua gang show how hard it is for U.S. border agents to vet the criminal backgrounds of migrants from countries like Venezuela that won’t give the U.S. any help.

More than 330,000 Venezuelans crossed the U.S. border last year, according to Customs and Border Protection data, and Venezuela, like Cuba, China and a handful of other countries, doesn’t provide any criminal history information to U.S. officials.

In the June 3 New York shooting, which both police officers survived, the alleged shooter had been encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol after having crossed into Texas illegally, according to New York police. He was then released into the U.S. to await an asylum hearing. It’s unclear whether his alleged affiliation with Tren de Aragua was known to Venezuelan authorities. Even if it was, that information wouldn’t have been available to the Border Patrol.

As former Border Patrol agent Ammon Blair told NBC News, unless agents get a Venezuelan migrant’s criminal history from Interpol or “they already have a criminal record inside the United States, we won’t know who they are.”

The NYPD calls them “ghost criminals,” with little to identify them except gang tattoos.

“Their identity may be misrepresented; their date of birth may be misrepresented,” said Jason Savino, assistant chief of detectives for the NYPD. “Everything about that individual could potentially be misrepresented.”


About 800,000 Venezuelans have tried to cross since 2021, with the number surging from about 50,500 in fiscal year 2021 to 334,900 in fiscal year 2023. The influx posed a unique challenge for the Biden administration.

Not only does Venezuela not share law enforcement data, but it has also largely refused to take its nationals back on deportation flights. Some Venezuelans can be removed from the U.S. by land — under a 2023 deal, Mexico agreed to take back up to 30,000 migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba monthly. But in some months, the number of migrants crossing from those countries has exceeded 30,000.


Some of the migrants who entered were affiliated with Tren de Aragua, and the gang has started to surface in criminal investigations in at least five states, according to local law enforcement officials. Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, a law enforcement division of DHS, told NBC News it now has more than 100 ongoing investigations involving alleged members of Tren de Aragua.

Last month, HSI busted an alleged sex trafficking scheme in Louisiana, where members of the gang allegedly forced Venezuelan migrant women into sex work to repay the smugglers who brought them to the U.S.


One of the victims alleged the ringleader of the operation was running similar operations involving 30 women in homes across five states, according to the criminal complaint.


In a report made public Friday, DHS’ Office of the Inspector General wrote that the department’s “technology, procedures and coordination” at the border were “not fully effective” to screen and vet noncitizens and asylum seekers.