Santiago, Chile (CNN) – On May 1, Francesca Sandoval, a young Chilean reporter, traveled to a business district in the capital, Santiago, to cover a union rally to celebrate International Workers’ Day. It will be your final report.
During the demonstration, violent clashes broke out between local gangs, protesters and the police. A group of armed gang members opened fire, wounding three people, including Sandoval. The 29-year-old journalist died 12 days later.
Sandoval’s death highlighted an astronomical increase in the country’s deadly violence. Similar incidents have long affected countries such as Colombia and Brazil, but it is a fairly new phenomenon in Chile. The data varies between public entities in Chile, however, they are all alarming numbers. Between 2016 and 2021, murders increased by 40%, according to the Undersecretary for Crime Prevention at the Ministry of Interior and Public Security. Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office found that murders increased 66% between 2016 and 2020.
With the increase in murders and the use of firearms, public security has become one of the main challenges for the newly elected President Gabriel Borek and his government. Fighting the powerful influx of drug-related criminal activity into cities, as well as drug dealers who are exploiting historical tensions between the state and indigenous communities in the south, who now control land amid an outbreak of violence.
Politically and economically stable, the country has long experienced low crime rates compared to the rest of the region. Chile’s homicide rate is 3.6 per 100,000 residents for 2021, according to Insight Crime, a think tank that provides information on organized crime in the Americas.
Compared to Venezuela, 40.9 per 100 thousand inhabitants; Colombia 26.8 per 100 thousand; And Brazil, with 18.5, Chile still ranks low in the regional comparison, according to the organization’s annual homicide report. In the United States, the homicide rate was 7.8 per 100,000 in 2020, marking the largest annual increase in the homicide rate in 100 years, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA (CDC).
However, the Insight Crime report states that “while Chile has long avoided the kind of criminal and gang activity that plagues other countries, this is no longer the case.”
Chile’s Department of Crime Prevention reported that murders increased nearly 30% between 2019 and 2020, with police attributing the increase to the pandemic, economic slowdown and the resulting increase in illegal trade. Although homicides decreased by 21.8% between 2020 and 2021, cumulative numbers since 2017 show an overall increase in the homicide rate.
“The situation in Chile is worrying,” Juan Pablo Luna, a professor of political science at the Catholic University’s Institute of Political Science in Chile, told CNN, adding that he was not alone in descending into violence.
“Countries in which the country is relatively strong, with strong democracies, were supposed to be immune to this kind of scenario, but now we see that it was an illusion,” Luna said.
He cited Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Ecuador, among other countries in the region, which have also faced increased crime.
Ecuador’s statistics are particularly staggering, with an 84.4% increase in homicides last year, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics and Census. In Uruguay, the Ministry of the Interior recently said that there was 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 combat crime, targeting primarily contract murder. And in Paraguay, contract murders rose significantly last year, according to Insight Crime.
Experts attribute the upsurge in violence in the region to the growing proliferation of global criminal networks.
“We’re seeing a greater infiltration of international organized crime in these countries,” Alejandra Muhur, a sociologist at the Center for Public Security Studies at the University of Chile’s Institute of Public Affairs, told CNN.
“Because of globalization, the type of crime we see has changed. In countries that are very violent like Colombia or Venezuela, you might not notice it, but in Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and maybe Argentina, the level of specialization in this criminal act has a huge impact because it is new.”
However, this expansion in Chile did not happen overnight.
New criminal strategies have been developed gradually over the past decade, but authorities could not foresee how badly they would affect society, experts say.
In 2011, for example, Santiago Metropolitan District Forensic Services warned in a report of an increase in gun-related homicides.
“The increase in gun deaths among young people in our country is a phenomenon that should draw our attention,” the report said.
But Mohor said the matter hasn’t gained much traction with law enforcement or city officials. With the escalation of violence, public policies implemented by successive governments failed to meet the basic needs of many low-income neighborhoods, which in turn provided fertile ground for criminal groups to settle and drug trafficking spread.
“We have people living in isolated areas, far from their place of work, without good public transportation, without schools or health services available. And when the state is absent, organized crime begins to fill that void.
In a 2021 article published by the Urban Violence Research Network, researchers said that the inequality in Latin America felt by the poor and the working class with “few other options for survival” makes them “easy recruits for the drug trade.”
“Cocaine trafficking integrates marginalized areas abandoned by the state into global markets and acts as an engine for development,” the organization said.
Ironically, prosperity is also seen as a cause of increased violence. More money means more drugs, according to Luna, and the commodity boom that favored South America until 2014 helped the illicit business boom.
The increased consumption of narcotics also came in the wake of increased purchasing power, the attraction of new actors into the illegal economy and the strengthening of drug smuggling routes in the south.
All these factors 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 has not been fully identified by CNN for security reasons, lives in the slum of El Bosque in Santiago and felt the transformation firsthand. The 28-year-old has been living with her mother in the same house since her birth, but now she hardly recognizes their own home.
She said, “When I was a kid, my main concern was for my mom to find me playing in the street instead of doing my homework when I got home. Now I hardly go out.” “We live surrounded by drug dealers.”
Most of the time she says she is afraid.
“Every day we hear fireworks, because traffickers use them to signal the arrival of drug shipments, or because there is a drug funeral, or just to cover up the noise of gunfire. We rarely see the police and we cannot live in peace.”
NG said insecurity has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Experts explain that the economic crisis, an increase in the smuggling of migrants along the border between Bolivia and Chile, and police corruption have exacerbated the problem, allowing organized crime to take on a whole new dimension.
Last September, the Chilean Observatory of Drug Trafficking warned of the emergence of two Mexican cartels (Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation) and a Colombian cartel (the Gulf Cartel) in Chile. Mexican cartels have also increased their operations in Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, according to Ernesto Lopez Portillo, coordinator of the Public Security Program at the University of Iberomericana in Mexico City.
Another notorious cartel that has made its mark in Chile is Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua, one of the most dangerous criminal organizations on the continent, according to Insight Crime and Ximena Chong, a Santiago prosecutor. Its leaders have taken advantage of the migration crisis in the north to tighten their control over new territories, according to Insight Crime.
Mohur explained that, to consolidate their control, transnational criminal groups are adapting to each new country by forging new alliances with local gangs.
“We no longer talk about drug smuggling or petty drug smuggling,” Chung told CNN. “They are organizations that act as holding companies, with a variety of illicit activities: contract killers, illegal trafficking in firearms, extortion, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and more.”
In this context, Zhong said, many South American countries do not have the means to adequately address the problem, as the methods of criminal groups are developing faster than many countries are able to investigate. Chile, for example, lacks specialized police forces, innovative policing technologies, and adequate witness protection programmes. All this, in addition to corruption, Zhong added, presents enormous obstacles to the prosecution and punishment of criminal groups.
“We need to develop new persecution strategies that go beyond specific criminal acts, especially given that at the international level, we see criminal organizations infiltrating public services,” he said.
Chilean media reported that the day after the shooting of Chilean journalist Sandoval, a man with a criminal record in drug smuggling was arrested and charged with her murder since. The weapon he allegedly used has not yet been found, however, authorities have established that the bullet was a .40 caliber. The presidential delegate for the Santiago Metropolitan District said the shooting was linked to organized crime and poor gun control. Issues that the government is keen to address.
“States are completely incapable of dismantling transnational organized crime,” Lopez Portillo said.
This affects the health of democracies and weakens the already fragile rule of law. And countries that have experienced less violence are no exception to this reality because criminal markets have no borders and never will.”