Boric's dilemma in the fight against organised crime in Chile

Murders in broad daylight, mafia-like dynamics, narco funerals. In little more than a decade, Chile has gone from witness to protagonist on Latin America’s criminal map. But while other governments in the region tackle crime with punitive policies, Gabriel Boric's administration is testing alternative strategies. Can they work?

Text: Josefina Salomón 

When 22-year-old Camilo Parra Zurita was shot dead in his car on the outskirts of Santiago de Chile in late november, his family and friends did one thing: they had a tent erected along the main street of the San Ramón district, where Camilo was born and lived. 

Soon after, a stage arrived and what followed were five days, and nights, of musical shows, strippers, fireworks, people crying and shots in the air. A few curious neighbours and television cameras tried to record what was happening with curiosity, and horror, while local police, many with their faces covered as a security measure, watched and tried to contain it all.  

Although the reasons behind Camilo’s murder are still unclear, there are theories about it being the result of a possible settling of scores. The young man was the nephew of a local drug dealer.

These types of events, imported from other corners of Latin America and inspired by the “narco culture” expanding across the region, are becoming increasingly common in Chile, a country that for years was considered one of the most peaceful in Latin America.

“With this they are showing their power while we are losing the battle against organised crime,” Gustavo Toro, mayor of San Ramon, told Chile’s public television station. 

Toro is referring to the drastic uptick in crime, illustrated by the rise in homicides and kidnappings across Chile. The homicide rate rose from 4.5 to 6.7 per 100,000 inhabitants between 2018 and 2022, according to the first official report that includes data from various public bodies. Although a small drop was recorded in 2023, Chile’s Public Prosecutor’s Office has documented a rise so far this year. 

Pia Greene Meersohn, a researcher at the Centre for Studies on Security and Organised Crime at Chile’s San Sebastian University, says the increase in cases of homicides of people who did not know each other and extortion shows a profound change in criminal dynamics.

“The way crime is carried out is typical of crime organisations because their modus operandi is to sow fear,” she explained. 

Pablo Zeballos, an analyst and field researcher, says that the type of violence recently observed in Chile, almost unheard of until now, responds to new dynamics present throughout the region, related to the exhibition of power. 

“In the past, a criminal would try to prevent anyone from knowing that he was a criminal. What we are observing now with the narco funerals and the monoliths, which are complex phenomenons of criminal exhibition, is the feeling of pride, of having a connection, of being part of something. And that generates a very complex phenomenon, which is the development of identity-based gangs that are the strongest and most difficult to tackle,” he says.

"The way crime is carried out is typical of crime organisations because their modus operandi is to sow fear," Pia Greene Meersohn.

Transnational organisations

Chile, strategically located in the transit zone between the main cocaine (Bolivia, Peru and Colombia) and cannabis (Paraguay) producing countries and international trafficking routes, had, until now, managed to remain outside the centres of operation of international organisations.

But in the last decade, all that has changed. Among the reasons, experts highlight, are three key factors: the huge and highly permeable border separating Chile from the main drug-producing countries, the country’s relatively stable economic situation, and the waves of vulnerable migrants travelling to the country. 

“Drug trafficking is the basis of everything,” Greene Meersohn says. “For drugs to enter Chile, at least one person has to look the other way. And that person is paid in money or drugs. And then there starts to be more drugs available and we become a consumer country. Organised crime starts to establish itself, starts to form its logistical network and the gangs start to fight and the violence increases and crimes that were practically unheard of, such as kidnapping, contract killings, drop by drop, extortion, start to happen.”

Chile’s investigative police has identified at least ten criminal gangs currently operating in the country, most of them coming from other Latin American countries where organised crime is already well established. 

 Among them, the most powerful is the Tren de Aragua, a mega-gang born in Venezuelan prisons in 2014, which amassed a fortune by extorting and recruiting among those deprived of their liberty. From there, the group developed a broad criminal portfolio that today includes some 20 activities, including drug and human trafficking, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, contract killings and illegal mining, among others. 

Ronna Rísquez, an investigative journalist who has been following the group’s trail for years, says that the group also manages to exert enormous territorial control. 

“In the territories where they establish themselves, they exercise a criminal governance that forces locals to submit to strict rules, ranging from charging a fee for having a business, modifying your house or obtaining approval to work in a place or send your child to school. Those who don’t comply are subjected to violence,” she says.

Rísquez explains that one of the group’s skills is finding criminal opportunities in adverse contexts. This is exactly what they saw in the huge migratory waves of people who fled Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, many on foot. This helped them expand to at least six Latin American countries and reach as far as the United States. Members of the Tren de Aragua often charge migrants for transport, extort and abuse them, and use them as part of their strategies to establish a presence in other countries.

"We are experiencing a complex criminal transformation in the region, which requires complex and creative measures. But in order to know what measures to take, you first have to understand what you are dealing with." Pablo Zeballos.

Boric’s policy

The expansion of criminal organisations and the spike in violence across the region has generated diverse responses. While Nayib Bukele in El Salvador has established a state of exception and focused his policy on mass incarceration and Daniel Noboa in Ecuador brought the military onto the streets, other governments, including in Chile, appear to be trying alternative approaches.

At a press conference at the start of the security crisis on 10 January, Chile’s interior minister, Carolina Rohá, said that “the reality of Chile is not the reality of Ecuador. We are not in the same situation. We are confronting organised crime and drug trafficking with exceptional legislation, institutions and budgets.”

Just over a year earlier, President Gabriel Boric had presented the first National Policy against Organised Crime. Since then, more than 40 security-related laws have been passed, establishing, among other things, the extension of powers to police forces, the criminalisation of offences such as extortion, and limits on narco-funerals. The Public Prosecutor’s Office 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, who worked in Chile’s police force for 20 years before moving into investigation, says the measures are positive, but that legislation and money are not enough. He says that even if homicides decrease, the risk is that organised crime will take root in the country and in many cases, take over the role of the state. 

“When criminal organisations have achieved their goal of taking control of a territory and no longer need to fight either the state or other criminal organisations, they tend to quickly lower their level of violence and normally governments feel that they have won, but in reality what has happened is that the criminal organisation has established itself that it has control of the territory,” he explains. 

“I feel that we are experiencing a complex criminal transformation in the region, which requires complex and creative measures. But in order to know what measures to take, you first have to understand what you are dealing with.”

For Greene Meersohn part of the answer lies in improving coordination between government agencies, the ability to obtain intelligence on criminal organisations to disrupt them and address the complex dynamics that occur within prisons which, as in Venezuela, are used by criminal organisations to expand and develop power.

“Today, prisons are not only universities of crime, but also the headquarters of organised crime. Prisons have great operational power, great firepower, great financial power and form a vicious circle. So, as long as you don’t have a prison that effectively helps you to repair, rehabilitate and reintegrate people into society, you are not going to break the circle of organised crime,” she reflects. 

“If you ask me today what needs to be done, where to invest, I would say in prisons, but not by building more prisons. Putting people in prison is useless. And since the state doesn’t have the capacity to handle all the people it puts in prison, a parallel state develops. And this parallel state is the famous criminal governance. The answer is neither jail for everyone nor jail for no one. If we keep doing the same thing, the same thing is going to happen, so let’s look for alternatives that work,” she says.

This article was produced with the support of InnContext News Agency.