After seven years in action, Chile's hardline strategy to rid the country of low-level drug peddling has been lauded as a success and even replicated abroad. But is the tough stance really working?
According to Chile's investigations police, the so-called Microtrafficking Zero program (MT-0) led to a 150 percent increase in narcotics seizures from 2020 to 2021. Chief among the confiscated drugs were cocaine, cocaine hydrochloride and cannabis, with the latter seeing a 207 percent increase in apprehensions.
The hardline program spearheads a nationwide crackdown aimed at bringing small-scale domestic drug sales to heel, reportedly delivering 2,681 arrests in 2020 and nearly the same number in 2021.
Launched by the Chilean government in 2014 amid concerns over rising drug consumption, the program seeks to cut off drug trafficking at its roots by targeting low quantity sales at the street level in communities most vulnerable to microtrafficking and related violence.
The MT-0 program has been widely praised by Chilean officials, who point to high arrest numbers and large quantities of drugs seized on the street. It has also garnered attention abroad, with PDI experts training police officials, prosecutors and judges in various Mexican states and in Argentina to better combat small-scale trafficking within their own jurisdictions.
Despite the MT-0 program's plaudits, questions remain as to whether the strategy is making a tangible difference on the ground.
Though seizures have increased, street-level drug sales rose sharply by 62 percent between 2015 and 2019, according to data from the Chile Attorney General's Office. And with drug-related violence still a major issue in the communities targeted by the program, the strategy may be akin to pressing a lid down on an overflowing pot.
The large quantities of drugs seized by Chilean police also point to an active domestic drug market, suggesting street-level drug trafficking is alive and well in the country.
For Cristian Sepúlveda, the PDI Commissioner spearheading the MT-0 program, the rising seizures were not a result of increased sales, but rather, because of hoarding during the coronavirus pandemic. "A lot of drugs have been found stored and stockpiled for distribution. It is not that there has been an increase in the amount of transactions that are carried out on a daily basis," he told local press.
Sepúlveda praised the program in an interview with Temuco Television, saying "Chile is a pioneer in the region in establishing a standardized and systematized strategy in the investigation of the criminal phenomenon of micro-trafficking."
Others point to benefits the program has brought to vulnerable communities. Pilar Lizana, a researcher at AthenaLab, a Chilean think tank specializing in narcotics, told InSight Crime that "MT-0's approach has been successful in bringing the State closer to the community and involving both in the fight against narcotics."
Part of this engagement comes in the form of an anonymous hotline which, according to the PDI, accounts for roughly a third of all MT-0 arrests. Overall, convictions for local drug peddling increased by 18 percent between 2015 and 2019, according to figures from the Attorney General's Office.
Despite these results, Lizana emphasized that MT-0 is not a standalone strategy. "The community efforts must be maintained, but they should not be the only ones," she told InSight Crime. "There must be an integral state-led strategy in which neighborhood policing is one element which, alongside others, generates a response system against drug trafficking with sufficient flexibility."
Drug policy in Chile has come under increased scrutiny in recent years due to the country's increasing importance as destination for drugs, both as a transit point for Europe and as a final market, with Chileans now viewing drug trafficking as the main threat to national security.