In Ecuador and Chile, two of Latin America's most trusted police institutions have been hit by recent corruption scandals, a reminder that even the most highly-regarded security forces in the region are far from perfect.
Ecuador's national police is currently embroiled in one of the most serious cases of corruption in the institution's recent history.
The commander-in-chief and other high-ranking police officers allegedly approved the transfer of other officers to different cities in exchange for bribes between $1,500 and $4,000, El Comercio reported in June. According to the Ecuadorean investigative news outlet Plan V, more than 47,000 transfers were processed between 2014 and 2015, netting the group some $16 million, according to El Comercio.
Moreover, between 2013 and 2017, nearly 1,000 Ecuadorean national police officers were dismissed, El Telegrafo reported. Slightly less than half of those were dismissed for allegedly criminal behavior. Most recently, two officers were dismissed after loading 85 kilograms of cocaine into a patrol car, while two more were dismissed for allegedly leading an extortion ring.
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Meanwhile, in Chile, arrests continue to pile up as a multimillion-dollar fraud scandal unfolds within the country's national police force, known as the Carabineros.
Twenty-one individuals have been implicated in the latest round of arrests, bringing the total number of those allegedly involved in the scandal to 118, La Nación reported. The embezzlement scandal allegedly redirected as much as 25 billion Chilean pesos (around $40 million) from the institution's coffers to the personal accounts of the officers under investigation.
At a hearing earlier this year, Chilean prosecutor Eugenio Campos called the scandal "the biggest embezzlement in the history of Chile."
InSight Crime Analysis
The police forces of Chile and Ecuador are widely viewed as two of the most professional and trusted law enforcement institutions in Latin America. In the past, Ecuador's police force has even been described as a "model for the region to follow." The two countries also boast some of the region's lowest homicide rates, which are often used as an indicator of police efficacy.
However, recent surveys show that citizens feel corruption is worsening in Latin America, and police forces tend to be the first bodies targeted for corruption by organized crime. Although the recent scandals in the South American countries are examples of internal graft schemes as opposed to cooptation by outside groups, the apparent willingness to engage in graft on the part of large segments of both forces suggests that they could be susceptible to external influence.
Both Chile and Ecuador are key transshipment points for the global cocaine trade. It is possible that a boom in Andean cocaine production could provide crime groups in both countries with increased resources that they could use to target security institutions for cooptation.
Ecuador's national police force is arguably at greater risk than Chile's Carabineros. A number of recent multi-ton cocaine seizures suggests that the country is playing an increasingly important role in the global drug trade. Corrupting security forces, which criminal groups have done in the past in Ecuador, is often essential for these large shipments to be successfully trafficked.
Crime groups also appear to be ramping up activities in Chile. A recent report documented an explosive growth in the country's contraband cigarette trade in recent years, which was linked to sophisticated criminal organizations that often rely on complicit security officials to operate. Some 20 cocaine labs have also been dismantled in Chile throughout the last year, suggesting that the country's role as a drug consumption and transshipment point may be evolving to include production operations.