As drug cartels expand their reach across Latin America, Chile takes a hit


During the protest, violent clashes erupted between local gangs, protesters and police. A group of armed gang members fired shots, injuring three, including Sandoval. The 29-year-old journalist died 12 days later.

Sandoval’s death brought to light an astronomical increase in recorded deadly violence in the country. Similar incidents have long plagued countries like Colombia and Brazil, but in Chile it’s a fairly new phenomenon. The data varies according to the Chilean public entities, but all present alarming figures. Between 2016 and 2021, homicides increased by 40%, according to Chile’s Crime Prevention Department. Meanwhile, the National Prosecutor’s Office found that murders increased by 66% between 2016 and 2020.

However, the Insight Crime report also states that “while Chile has long avoided the type of criminal and gang activity that has plagued other countries, this no longer appears to be the case.”

The Chilean Department of Crime Prevention reported that homicides increased by almost 30% between 2019 and 2020, with police attributing the increase to the pandemic, the economic downturn and the resulting increase in illicit trade. While homicides fell by 21.8% between 2020 and 2021, cumulative figures since 2017 show an overall increase in the murder rate.

“The situation in Chile is worrying,” Juan Pablo Luna, a political scientist at the Institute of Political Science at the Catholic University of Chile, told CNN, adding that he is not the only one descending into violence.

“Countries with relatively strong states and strong democracies were supposed to be safe from this kind of scenario, but now we see it was an illusion,” Luna said.

He cited Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Ecuador, among others in the region, which have also faced increasing crime.

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Ecuador’s statistics are particularly striking, with homicides soaring 84.4% over the past year, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics and Census. In Uruguay, the Ministry of the Interior recently stated that there had been an increase of more than 33% in one year. In Peru, the government declared a state of emergency in Lima and the Callao region earlier this year to fight crime, mainly targeting contract killings. And in Paraguay, killings by hitmen also rose significantly last year, according to Insight Crime.

Experts attribute the rise in violence in the region to the growing reach of global criminal networks.

Alejandra Mohor, a sociologist at the Center for Public Security Studies at the University of Chile’s Institute of Public Affairs, told CNN that “we are seeing a greater infiltration of international organized crime in these countries.”

“Due to globalization, the type of crimes we see have changed. In extremely violent countries like Colombia or Venezuela, you might not notice it, but in Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and probably in Argentina the level of specialization of this criminal trade is having a huge impact because it’s new,” Mohor said.

However, this expansion in Chile did not happen overnight.

A policeman patrols the Yungay neighborhood of Santiago in April.

New criminal strategies have gradually developed over the past decade, but authorities failed to predict how much this would affect society, experts say.

In 2011, for example, the Santiago Metropolitan Coroner’s Services warned in a report that gun-related murders were trending up. “The increase in firearm deaths among young people in our country is a phenomenon that should attract our attention,” the report states.

But it didn’t generate much interest from law enforcement or city officials, Mohor said. As violence escalated, public policies implemented by successive governments failed to address the basic needs of many low-income neighborhoods, providing fertile ground for the establishment of criminal groups and the proliferation of trafficking. drug.

“We have people who live in segregated areas, far from where they work, with no good public transport, no schools or health services available. And when the state is absent, organized crime begins to fill that void” , she said.

In a 2021 paper from the Urban Violence Research Network, researchers said the inequality in Latin America felt by the poor and working class with “few other options to survive” made them “easy recruits into the drug traffic”.

“The cocaine trade integrates marginalized territories that have been abandoned by the state into global markets and acts as an engine for development,” the organization said.

Paradoxically, prosperity is also seen as a cause of rising violence. More money means more drugs, according to Luna, and the commodity boom that favored South America until 2014 helped illicit businesses thrive. The increase in drug consumption has also followed the increase in purchasing power, attracting new players to the illegal economy and consolidating the drug trafficking routes of the south.

All of these factors have sparked new territorial disputes between gangs and more violence in Chile, as well as in Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador.

“Surrounded by drug dealers”

NG, who CNN does not fully identify for security reasons, lives in the poor neighborhood of El Bosque in Santiago and has experienced this transformation firsthand. The 28-year-old has lived with her mother in the same house since birth, but now barely recognizes their block.

“When I was a child, my main worry was that my mother would find me playing in the street instead of doing my homework when she came home. Now I hardly go out,” she said. . “We live surrounded by drug traffickers.”

Most of the time, she says she’s scared.

“Every day we hear fireworks, because the dealers use them as a signal that loads of drugs have arrived, because there is a narco-burial, or just to drown out the sound of gunfire. rarely see the police – we cannot live in peace,” she said.

NG said this insecurity has worsened since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts say the economic crisis, increased migrant smuggling along the Bolivian-Chilean border and police corruption have only exacerbated the problem, allowing organized crime to take on a whole new dimension.

Chilean police oversee a large seizure of drugs, including cocaine and cannabis, in April.

Last September, the Chilean Drugs Observatory warned of the rise of two Mexican cartels (Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation) and a Colombian cartel (Cartel del Golfo) in Chile. Mexican cartels have also increased their operations in Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, according to Ernesto López Portillo, public security program coordinator at Universidad Iberoamericana de Mexico.

Another notorious cartel that has also made its mark in Chile is Venezuelan Tren de Aragua, one of the most dangerous criminal organizations on the continent, according to Insight Crime and Ximena Chong, chief prosecutor in Santiago. Its leaders have taken advantage of the migration crisis in the north to tighten their grip on new territories, according to Insight Crime.

To cement their grip, transnational criminal groups adapt to each new country by forging new alliances with local gangs, Mohor explained.

“We’re not talking about drug trafficking or micro-trafficking anymore,” Chong told CNN. “These are organizations that operate like holding companies, with a diversity of illicit activities: murder for remuneration, illicit firearms trafficking, extortion, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, etc.”

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Against this backdrop, many South American countries lack the means to properly deal with the problem, Chong said, because the tactics of criminal groups are changing faster than the ability of many countries to investigate them. Chile, for example, lacks specialized police forces, innovative policing technologies and adequate witness protection programs. All of this, coupled with corruption, poses huge obstacles to prosecuting and punishing criminal groups, Chong added.

“We need to develop new prosecution strategies that go beyond specific criminal events, especially considering that internationally we see criminal organizations permeating public services,” she said.

The day after Sandoval, the Chilean journalist, was shot dead, a man with a criminal record for drug trafficking was arrested and has since been charged with her murder, Chilean media reported. The weapon he allegedly used has yet to be found, but authorities have determined it was a 40-caliber bullet. The presidential delegate for the Santiago metropolitan area said the shooting was linked to organized crime and lax gun control, two problems that the government is preparing to solve. start working on.

“States are completely incapable of dismantling transnational organized crime,” said López Portillo.

“It affects the health of democracies and weakens the already fragile rule of law. And countries that have experienced less violence are not exempt from this reality because criminal markets have no borders and never will. ”


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