While Chile has one of the lowest homicide rates in Latin America and has managed to avoid major criminal groups developing there, a new survey has shown that Chileans view drug trafficking and organized crime as the most significant threat to national security.
In the report entitled "Perceptions on Foreign Policy and National Security," prepared by Chilean policy think tank AthenaLab and market research group Ipsos, 79 percent of Chileans said that drug trafficking and organized crime represented a "crucial or significant threat to national security."
A separate survey of experts found a similar result, with 69 percent of them placing this as the country's top threat, ahead of climate change, pandemics and cyber-attacks.
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InSight Crime spoke with Juan Pablo Toro, executive director of AthenaLab, to discuss the evolution of organized crime in Chile.
InSight Crime (IC): Chile has historically seen less prevalence of organized crime than its neighbors in the region. Yet AthenaLab's new survey shows how concerns about crime are growing. What are the principal criminal threats to Chile today?
Juan Pablo Toro (JPT): Drug trafficking without a doubt. Chile's neighbors are the second and third-largest cocaine producers in the world, Peru and Bolivia, which has always been a challenge. Furthermore, it has a sophisticated banking system and competitive ports, which make it a very attractive place for money laundering and as a drug corridor. To mitigate this, security and financial measures have been taken, but these were made in a more stable environment.
The political instability seen in most South American countries, Chile included, as well as the worsening economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, will likely see transnational criminal organizations expand and diversify their activities.
And many police units in Chile have had to dedicate themselves to controlling protests and enforcing quarantine, leaving other operations aside.
IC: The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) stated in its 2019 report that Chile was one of the main exit points for drugs heading to Europe. What has led to Chile becoming an increasingly popular transit destination for drugs?
JPT: It is essentially due to the dynamism of Chilean ports, which is the result of an export-based economy. 95 percent of Chile's foreign trade is done by sea, which is an unprecedented situation for a non-island nation. There is a constant movement of cargo, which is monitored by the army, the police and customs, but the volumes are huge. Last year [in July 2019], the MSC Gayane was seized in the port of Philadelphia with almost 20 tons of cocaine on board. It had departed Chile, made stops in Peru and the Bahamas, and was set to continue on to the Netherlands. But there is no evidence the drugs were brought onto the ship in Chile.
IC: Is there a concern that increased drug trafficking in Chile could also lead to an increase in violent crime, as has been seen in Uruguay?
JPT: Yes. In recent years, we have seen spikes in violent crime that were previously unknown: hitmen entering a building and unloading a high number of rounds at one target to settle a score, stray bullets killing people, attacks against police stations in neighborhoods with a lot of microtrafficking and hitmen riding motorcycles. These actions are possible due to the access to weaponry which accompanies drug trafficking.
The levels of violence in Chile are far below those seen in Brazil, Mexico and Central America, but in a country with one of the lowest homicide rates in the region, it makes sense to be concerned as these events grow more frequent.
IC: However, local criminal gangs in Chile have largely remained dedicated to microtrafficking and have rarely resorted to the broader types of violence seen in other Latin American countries. Why is this?
JPT: The fact that groups dedicated to microtrafficking have not grown significantly nor made greater use of violence is due to the strength of the Chilean institutions, especially the police, which are well-trained. But the situation could change.
IC: Are there any key local domestic groups in Chile that are known to maintain transnational criminal connections?
JPT: There are no groups that are known to the population at large or the press. In general, family clans maintain connections with regional criminal organizations but within the context of very specific operations, such as smuggling drugs aboard a vessel or bringing a shipment into the country. These connections are not permanent.
IC: What are the main criminal economies seen along Chile's borders with Bolivia and Peru?
JPT: Drug trafficking, human smuggling, car theft (especially in Bolivia) and contraband of various types of merchandise.
IC: What cooperation has Chile had with Bolivia, both with the former government of Evo Morales and the current interim government, to rein in organized crime between the two countries?
JPT: For practical reasons, there has always been joint anti-narcotics cooperation transcending the historical tensions between Bolivia and Chile.
In the case of Bolivia, the capture of their former police chief René Sanabria for drug trafficking, in which Chile participated, was a major success.
Since then, there have been differences. For example, Chile collaborates with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Bolivia does not.
IC: The use of synthetic drugs has drastically augmented in Chile over the last decade, with seizures going from 2,304 doses in 2010 to more than 1.5 million in 2019. To what do you attribute this rise?
JPT: Drug traffickers in Chile have diversified their business here, enjoying the fact that consumers with higher purchasing power can afford synthetic drugs imported from abroad.
Most synthetic drugs in Chile still come from abroad. There have been some laboratories found here but they remain very rare.
IC: Attacks on shipments of copper in Chile have been becoming more frequent, with reports emerging of gangs dedicated to this criminal economy. How concerning is copper theft in the country?
JPT: Chile is the largest global producer of copper so due to the volumes we export, these robberies have not made a dent in the industry but they remain concerning. Traditionally, copper theft targeted cables that were then resold locally. But the seizure in January 2020 of 83 tons of copper in Lampa, set to be sent to China, shows that this has become a target for transnational organized crime.
Contraband of raw materials is a criminal economy into which drug traffickers could expand at the moment, due to the difficulty of reaching drug consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.
IC: Chile is an important connection point between China and Latin America, and there have been instances of human trafficking, drug trafficking and contraband between the two countries. What can you tell us about the scale of criminal activity between Chile and China?
JPT: Last year, a human trafficking ring bringing immigrants from China to Chile was dismantled. Some of them were staying in Chile and others were continuing on to Argentina. Similarly, cases of illicit merchandise or other contraband have come from China and are often seized in Chilean ports.