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"The Aragua Train" — How Venezuelan Beauty Pageants Feed A Global Sex Trafficking Ring

Venezuela's Aragua Train, which began smuggling women into jails a decade ago, has become an international forced prostitution and people-smuggling operation. A special investigation by Colombia's El Espectador*.

Image of a woman wearing high heels and walking.

A candidate takes part in a rehearsal before the beauty pageant Miss Venezuela in Caracas, Venezuela.

Boris Vergara/Xinhua/ZUMA
Ronna Rísquez, Lorena Meléndez, Sheyla Urdaneta, Liz Gascón and Ahiana Figueroa

CARACAS — Venezuela is famous for its beauty pageants and boasts seven Miss Universe and six Miss World winners among a generous handful of other contest queens. People would quip here that after crude oil, pretty women were its No. 2 export. Today, beauty contests have become a tool to lure hundreds of Venezuelan girls and women into the continental sex trade.

A leading gang in this murky business is "El Tren de Aragua" or the Aragua Train, named after the Aragua prison in the district of Tocorón, in the north of the country, that has held several of its members. The Train, just like a regular train, travels the country looking for girls and is active in at least 10 of the country's 23 states.

In the district of Güiria in the eastern state of Sucre, it catches them online and in beauty contests, where the first three winners are given cell phones, money and gifts. Then they're invited to parties, including some held in jail for gangsters. Emerging as an organization in 2014, the Train soon became the purveyor of young women to gangsters jailed in Aragua including its own chief, Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero.

Now it has expanded across Latin America.

Activists have observed its activities in Güiria, which was used to be a prosperous fishing and port town of some 40,000 residents until 2000. The local economy began to tank after that, mirroring the nation's economy, reaching its nadir in 2017-18. That proved to be a boon for The Train, which flourished here precisely in those years, finding itself a rich harvest of youngsters desperate for money.

An international sex-trafficking racket

Local tradesman Juan Carlos** says it meddles in most local businesses now. He says, "You know them for their clothes, the way they talk and their weapons." As for beauty contests, they have them "here every month".

The Aragua Train's business was effectively built on an existing practice of smuggling girls into jail. In the decade after 2000, jail authorities let gang leaders receive visits from girlfriends, which came to last for weeks, if not months. It wasn't long before prostitutes also came, and that of course needed management.

The Tocorón prison became a busy little market, giving birth to a national, then international sex trafficking operation. The Train began to organize its racket from inside the jail, as girls, including younger teenagers, were bused into Tocorón, according to an unnamed security official.

A female member of the Judicial police has separately observed that the years 2017-18 were precisely when complaints and arrests relating to sex trafficking spiked. There was "desperation," she said, and "girls were easily taken in... especially by the Aragua Train."

Modeling ads and beauty contests

Its activities now span across Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, the Caribbean islands and Colombia, which has become an operational base.

Sex trafficking has become enmeshed with the vast problem of illegal migration.

Even before the Train, Venezuela was a haven of sex trading barely checked by the authorities. The U.S. State Department's 2004 Trafficking in Persons report put Venezuela in Tier 3 of its Watch List, for failing to enforce minimal international norms against trafficking. It hasn't budged since. Perhaps in a sign of the state's increasing concern, police have in recent years carried out several operations in the state of Sucre, and formed a special department dealing with sex trafficking in September 2022.

Magaly**, an activist in Güiria who helps trafficking victims, says it is usually a reputable local resident, with ties to the Train, who organizes the contests, though girls can also be caught through modelling adverts or social media. The latter is effective when the target is teenage girls. Others are lured by other girls doing the gang's bidding. All of them need money. Sometimes, says Magaly, "some of these youngsters end up falling in love with gang members, become their girlfriends and are manipulated into joining the 'business'."

Sex trafficking has become enmeshed with the vast problem of illegal migration, says Norma Ferrer of Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI), an Italian NGO. The gang offers to smuggle girls to nearby Trinidad and Tobago, forcing them into prostitution once they fail to pay its transportation fees, which can reach U.S. $,2,000. Even when the debt is paid many girls, being illegal migrants, keep working as prostitutes. Or the Train may sell them to other gangs on the two islands, and in the worst cases, some girls drown while crossing the Caribbean.

Ferrer says impoverished parents or relatives are also known to have sold their girls into prostitution. People living in the Paria peninsula, where Güiri is located, say the gang has tightened its grip over the area, though it is difficult to put a figure to the scale of its operations. Juan Carlos says "nothing leaves here without the Aragua Train's approval."

Image of men with guns outside.

The ‘Aragua Train’, a transnational mega gang in South America.


"The devil"

The Aragua Train is not always subtle when dragging girls into prostitution. Ana** fled her town, La Vela de Coro in western Venezuela at a date she would not reveal after receiving several calls. "We're the Aragua Train," the caller said once. The 21-year-old says she first thought it was a friend's practical joke: "They got confused. What would they want with me?"

The gang kept calling, she recalls, either promising good wages and savings for her family, or making threats: "You're the one who doesn't understand. Or do you want to die?" One day, she says, she received a Whatsapp message with a picture of her strolling with her sister at a mall: she was, in other words, under surveillance. She now feared giving out any personal data, lest they help the gang track her down.

And this is for good reason: the gang took notice of her from a phone picture. A friend who became a sex worker had shown "the people" her photo, she says, and "they'd liked me." The friend had already tried to persuade Ana to migrate to Trinidad. Before the calls, Ana was unsure what the Train did exactly, having merely seen images on Tik Tok that appeared to show its gunmen in Peru.

People speak fearfully of this gang in La Vela de Coro since 2019, which is when The Train took control of this area and its routes to Aruba and Curaçao. The business was previously in the hands of another gang, Los Lobos, which was eliminated.

Girls who have become sex workers often return to La Vela to show off their fine clothes and new looks, hoping to captivate other girls. But unlike certain friends, says Ana, she "didn't want to have anything to do with this. Why play with fire? Those people are the devil."

* Ronna Rísquez, Lorena Meléndez, Sheyla Urdaneta, Liz Gascón and Ahiana Figueroa contributed to this report.

** All names were changed to protect interviewees from reprisals.

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How Parenthood Reinvented My Sex Life — Confessions Of A Swinging Mom

Between breastfeeding, playdates, postpartum fatigue, birthday fatigues and the countless other aspects of mother- and fatherhood, a Cuban couple tries to find new ways to explore something that is often lost in the middle of the parenting storm: sex.

red tinted photo of feet on a bed

Parenting v. intimacy, a delicate balance

Silvana Heredia

HAVANA — It was Summer, 2015. Nine months later, our daughter would be born. It wasn't planned, but I was sure I wouldn't end my first pregnancy. I was 22 years old, had a degree, my dream job and my own house — something unthinkable at that age in Cuba — plus a three-year relationship, and the summer heat.

I remember those months as the most fun, crazy and experimental of my pre-motherhood life. It was the time of my first kiss with a girl, and our first threesome.

Every weekend, we went to the Cuban art factory and ended up at the CornerCafé until 7:00 a.m. That September morning, we were very drunk, and in that second-floor room of my house, it was unbearably hot. The sex was otherworldly. A few days later, the symptoms began.

She arrived when and how she wished. That's how rebellious she is.

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