Peru’s recent clashes with a Venezuelan gang highlight regional fears of increased crime amid the ongoing illegal immigration crisis. At the same time, anti-Venezuelan sentiment is on the rise in the Americas.
Venezuelans are an easy group to hide criminals within since they’re the largest refugee wave ever to hit Latin America.
Within the millions pouring across multiple borders are crime syndicates with “constant opportunities” to expand their network, according to one analysis by Insight Crime.
This year, Venezuelans became the dominant nationality of illegal immigrants to enter the United States. U.S. border agents apprehended almost 335,000 Venezuelan illegal immigrants in fiscal year 2023—almost double from the previous year. By contrast, border agents apprehended 4,520 Venezuelans in fiscal year 2020.
In 2022, The Epoch Times reported on how leaders in Cuba and Venezuela were releasing criminals from prison and exiling them.
A purported Department of Homeland Security report surfaced in September 2022, stating that Venezuelan convicts—some of whom had committed violent crimes—were identified in migrant caravans heading toward the United States border from Tapachula, Mexico.
The concern is that what’s happening in Peru will soon be occurring in the United States.
Peru’s Gang Problem
On the outskirts of Peru’s capital, Lima, beginning on Oct. 31, residents poured into the streets to protest against Venezuelan criminals who reportedly have been demanding money from local merchants and families.
The mobilization of Peruvians was ignited after a taxi driver in El Agustino was reportedly attacked by Venezuelan immigrants associated with the crime gang Los Gallegos for refusing to pay a bribe.
Video footage of angry Peruvian residents in the suburbs of La Victoria, El Agustino, and Cercado de Lima spread like wildfire online, some of which showed Peruvians waving clubs, throwing projectiles, and burning the motorcycles of Venezuelans working for the gang Los Gallegos.
Los Gallegos is part of the larger Venezuelan terrorist group Tren de Aragua.
In La Victoria, angry Peruvians distributed flyers warning that all Venezuelan immigrants had three days to vacate the district or suffer violent consequences.
The escalation between Venezuelan criminals and Peruvians between Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 prompted the current administration under President Dina Boluarte to deploy the Peruvian National Police (PNP) and additional security forces to restore order and boost security.
In response to the Lima area locals’ pushback, Los Gallegos posted a video that showed 14 men wearing balaclavas and holding guns, threatening Peruvians. The gang members demanded that Peruvians stop attacking their gang members and other Venezuelan immigrants, or they'll respond with lethal force.
“If they [Peruvians] make another attempt on the life of any other Venezuelan worker, we will apply the same thing. We will kill Peruvian workers so that they realize that this is not the solution. There will be no bread for Peruvians who support xenophobia,” one of the hooded gang members in the video stated.
PNP Col. José Manuel Álvarez Rosario told reporters, “The necessary investigations are being carried out.” He added that the Peruvian police were attempting to “locate and capture” the criminals shown in the video.
The escalation in Peru is part of a repeating pattern happening in countries such as Colombia and Chile.
Venezuelan illegal immigrants arrive by the tens of thousands with little money and no access to housing, which forces many to live in squatter camps. Then, criminal groups such as Los Gallegos exploit the lack of work opportunities and recruit illegal immigrants into the drug or human smuggling trades, according to a report by RV4.
Eventually, locals in the host countries decide they’ve had enough.
This was the case in Iquique, Chile, in 2021, and a second time in 2022. On both occasions, residents burned and destroyed Venezuelan squatter camps as part of a protest against the soaring number of illegal immigrants.
A similar sentiment is currently circulating in Colombia, which has the largest number of Venezuelan refugees in Latin America at 2.9 million. A 2020 Gallup poll found that 69 percent of Colombians have a negative view of Venezuelans living in their country.
“No one wants to talk about the crime that comes with the migration crisis. Peruvians fighting back to protect their families are called ‘xenophobic.’ Their lives were threatened by a cartel using immigrants as a shield,” Luis Garcia told The Epoch Times.
A Lima resident, Mr. Garcia is familiar with the increasingly combative stance between Venezuelan immigrants and fed-up Peruvian locals.
“This is not an easy problem [to solve]. Venezuelans arrive with no jobs, no money. Most have families to feed. The cartels offer a solution when they can’t find work,” he said.
Others say there’s no link between the surging numbers of illegal immigrants in host countries and an uptick in crime.
However, most agree that trafficking and gangs are exploiting and recruiting illegal immigrants—many of whom are Venezuelan—to work for them. This makes increased criminal activity a byproduct of the migration crisis in the Americas.
But this isn’t a recent phenomenon. One analysis shows that Latin American cartels have been fueling an immigration crisis for profit since 2014.
After Colombia, Peru harbors the highest number of Venezuelan refugees at 1.5 million. Roughly 35 percent of those live in Peru illegally.
“Immigrant communities are easily preyed upon by organized crime networks, particularly when they use illegal entry into the United States as bait,” author and analyst Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat told The Epoch Times.
Mr. Gutiérrez-Boronat said it’s important to note many criminal groups within the Americas have ties to regional dictator regimes.
“The fact is that in spite of attempts to separate the two, organized crime and politics are intertwined. Most large criminal organizations have state sponsors. Totalitarian regimes specialize in this. Criminal organizations can be weaponized against U.S. interests,” he said.
The cartel Tren de Aragua—a well-known exploiter of Venezuelan immigrants—has many accusations of direct ties to the contested regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
“Maduro’s inaction is due to the fact that the Tren de Aragua is a kind of armed wing of his regime,” Venezuelan researcher Ronna Rísquez said.
‘The regime, not only that of Maduro but also that of [Hugo] Chávez, quickly understood that it could have these types of organizations ... or mega-gangs at its service, and it uses them for whatever it needs.”
Evan Ellis, Latin America analyst and professor at the U.S. Army War College, said a spike in “Venezuelan gang-style violence” has been observed in Peru and is happening alongside the country’s migration crisis.
“They [Tren de Aragua] have played a role in selected Latin American countries in human trafficking and really targeting Venezuelans,” he told The Epoch Times.
He also believes that it’s just the beginning, due to Peru’s economic problems, largely related to ongoing political instability and inflation.
“It is largely, but not exclusively, Tren de Aragua ... and it’s only going to get worse with the economic crisis.”
In a 2022 report, the Center for a Secure Free Society noted that Mr. Maduro’s regime in Venezuela created a “super cartel,” with the specific intent of attacking the United States.
The analysis maintains that former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution” have been “dedicated to the development and deployment of illicit drugs for purposes of asymmetric warfare against the United States.”
As a disciple of Mr. Chávez, Venezuela’s current regime under Mr. Maduro has continued to align with these goals.
The think tank noted Venezuela’s “ judiciary, military, and intelligence institutions” have coordinated with anti-U.S. state actors, regional militia groups, and drug cartels to create a sort of “super cartel” with a specific focus: Infiltrate U.S. communities and create widespread destabilization.
Signs of this are visible within the illegal immigrant population in the United States.
On Oct. 31, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said a fast-growing network of “illegal activities” had taken root in the borough of Queens.
Much of this was attributed to an influx of female illegal immigrants working as prostitutes—many of whom are Venezuelan nationals. It’s unclear if they had been coerced into sex exploitation.
“Our intel is telling us there’s a level of accuracy to that,” Mr. Adams said about the Venezuelan nationals on Oct. 31.
“We are going to create generational problems based on the failure of the national government, and this is one example of that.”
Mr. Ellis says expanded criminal activities led by groups such as Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua contribute to the instability of the entire region.
He said Peru is another example of how crime gangs slip through borders as “refugees” and then set up shop.
Mr. Ellis said it wouldn’t surprise him to find out Tren de Aragua was already operating within the vast community of Venezuelans residing illegally in the United States.
However, he believes gangs such as Tren de Aragua are “small potatoes” compared to other cartels such as the Iran-backed Hezbollah and Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
Mr. Ellis says Peru’s battle with Venezuelan gangs is a story that “repeats itself a thousand times across Latin America.”
He said “increasingly violent groups” within local populations will continue to inspire the formation of vigilante groups.
“When they [Venezuelan gangs] demand bribes and kill us, what do they expect people to do?” Mr. Garcia said. “The police only responded when the Peruvian people decided to act.”