4 Facts About Chile's Criminal Transformation

In just over a decade, #Chile transformed from a bystander to a key player in Latin America's criminal landscape. Although the authorities have responded with a raft of new laws and increases in the security budget, experts say more long-term measures are needed. Here’s all you need to know.

Text: Josefina Salomón  Illustracion: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla 

When Chilean authorities found the lifeless bodies of three police officers in Cañete, in the south of the country, in April, experts spoke of a turning point in the country’s long-standing security crisis. Although a state of emergency has been in force in the area since 2022, the violence used to kill the officers was almost unprecedented, as is the expansion of the violence across the country.

We spoke to local experts about the main reasons behind the new dynamics, and what the future could hold. Here’s what you need to know to understand what is happening. 

1. More violence and new dynamics

The homicide rate has risen dramatically in Chile, from 4.5 to 6.7 per 100,000 inhabitants between 2018 and 2022, according to official figures. Although a small drop was recorded in 2023, Chile’s Attorney General’s Office has documented a new spike this year. Many of the homicides took place between people who did not know each other. That and the rise in kidnappings and extortion points to a change in crime dynamics. 

“The way crime is carried out speaks of organised crime because its modus operandi is to sow fear,” says Pia Greene Meersohn, a researcher at the Centre for Studies on Security and Organised Crime at the University of San Sebastian in Chile.

2. Strategic Location and Porous Border

Three factors contribute to the expansion of organised crime in Chile: the enormous and highly permeable border separating it from the world’s main illicit drug-producing countries, its relatively stable economic situation, and the large number of irregular migrants travelling across borders who are vulnerable to exploitation by crime groups. 

At least ten international organisations currently operate in Chile, according to data from the country’s police. Among them, the most powerful is the Tren de Aragua, a mega-gang that originated in Venezuelan prisons in 2014, and from there amassed a fortune by extorting and recruiting people deprived of their liberty and developed a broad criminal portfolio that it has exported throughout Latin America. 

Some of these crime groups are establishing themselves in communities on the outskirts of large cities, taking advantage of the limited police presence

“Narco funerals and monoliths respond to the complex phenomenon of criminal display, of feeling proud, feeling connected to something, part of something. Gangs of an identitarian nature, are the strongest and most difficult to tackle,” Pablo Zeballos, analyst and field researcher.

3. Territorial Control

One of the ways in which the presence of criminal organisations in Chile is evident is through the so-called “narco funerals”, large events that were almost unheard of until recently and which are on the rise. In fact, between 2019 and 2023, at least 1,733 were reported across the country.

“Narco funerals and monoliths respond to the complex phenomenon of criminal display, of feeling proud, feeling connected to something, a part of something. And that generates a very complex phenomenon, which is the development of gangs of an identitarian nature, which are the strongest and most difficult to tackle,” Pablo Zeballos, analyst and field researcher, explained to In.Visibles.

4. New Approach: More Laws and More Investment

In response to the new wave of crime and the expansion of transnational gangs, Gabriel Boric’s government passed more than 40 security-related laws that established, among other things, the extension of police powers, the criminalisation of offences such as extortion and limits on narco-funerals. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, for its part, created a specialised Prosecutor’s Office for organised crime and homicides, with representatives working in various parts of the country. In this year’s budget, the government has increased spending on public security, including on salaries for the national police. 

Zeballos says the laws alone are not. 

“I feel that we are experiencing a complex criminal transformation in the region and a complex criminal transformation requires complex and different measures. In order to know what measures to use, however, you first have to understand much better what you are dealing with,” he told In.Visibles.