According to a recent assessment, drug trafficking in Chile has become increasingly prominent, diversified, and violent over the past year -- mirroring public opinion polling that suggests Chileans are increasingly more worried about the threat posed by organized crime.
A report from Chile’s Drug Trafficking Observatory shows that seizures of Colombian-sourced “creepy” marijuana in Chile have skyrocketed by 700 percent in the past three years. Over the same time period, seizures of Paraguayan-sourced marijuana in Chile have plummeted by 900 percent. Meanwhile, cocaine seizures in the country have been on a downward trajectory since 2019.
The study also notes a substantial increase in the use of Chilean ports and maritime routes for drug trafficking, as well as a shift away from the traditional Paraguay-Bolivia-Chile trafficking axis towards routes running through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
Drug trafficking methods have evolved, too. According to the report, Chilean authorities discovered 15 clandestine drug production laboratories in 2019, primarily concentrated in and around Santiago and Antofagasta. The labs were largely dedicated to the production of synthetic drugs, playing to the consumer demand for a market that grew 680 percent between 2017 and 2019, according to Cooperativa.
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Violence associated with drug trafficking has also increased, with groups tapping into a growing national arms market, according to the report. Police complaints involving drug-related homicides have risen from six in 2010 to 30 in 2019, though these incidents make up a small percentage of last year’s 28,000 drug-related complaints.
InSight Crime Analysis
The observatory’s results correlate with those of a June survey that found that 79 percent of Chileans and 69 percent of Chilean experts viewed drug trafficking and organized crime as a “crucial or significant threat to national security” -- ahead of climate change, pandemics and cyberattacks.
While drug trafficking trends in Chile are worsening, media and government fixation on the phenomenon has fostered disproportionate public anxiety when compared to the country’s actual levels of violence, Lucia Dammert, a public security expert at the University of Santiago, told InSight Crime.
What the report does highlight, she said, is that Chile’s drug consumption market is growing.
“When [a country] is considered a transit country, you can generate mechanisms solely focused on control to try to confront the problem,” Dammert said. “But we’re a consumer country, which requires more policies linked to health, as well as more policies related to police action and prevention at the local level.”
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Across Latin America, narcotrafficking groups have had to expand and diversify their operations in order to maintain profits during the coronavirus pandemic, which has complicated the movement of drugs. In Chile, the uncertainty generated by the pandemic follows months of instability generated by widespread protests against the political establishment.
According to the report, Chilean narcotrafficking groups have pivoted towards moving “cheaper and more addictive drugs” in order to maintain a consistent profit line during the upheaval, recalling similar trends observed during Chile’s political crisis in the 1980s.
This may explain why criminal groups have pivoted towards moving Colombian “creepy” marijuana, which is highly addictive, and increasingly involved themselves in the Chilean contraband cigarette market, which is a reliable earner.
The report also indicates that Chilean drug trafficking is heavily localized. Nearly 91 percent of all drugs seized in 2019 were in Chile’s four northern-most administrative regions, closest to the Peruvian and Bolivian borders.
Dammert stressed that this concentration of drug markets makes the drug trafficking scene more prone to violence and fragmentation.
“If you look at the territories where drug trafficking is today, they're the same as fifteen years ago,” Dammert said. “So you can’t say that the state doesn’t have the capacity [to fight it]. The state hasn’t had the vision to confront this in a more structural way.”