Pia Greene Meersohn: ‘The answer is neither jail for everyone nor jail for no one’

Chile's criminal landscape changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic. From a country where most crime was petty theft, it has shifted to one where homicides, kidnappings and shark loans, typical markets managed by organised crime groups are ever present. We explore some of the reasons behind the change in dynamics.

Text: Josefina Salomón  Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla 

The drastic increase in crime, illustrated by the rise in homicides, extortion and kidnappings, shows a side of Chile that, until now, had been almost unheard of. Faced with this new challenge, the government of President Gabriel Boric passed a series of security laws and rapidly increased the security budget. 

What’s behind the change in crime dynamics and can the official approach, different to that of some of Chile’s neighbours, be effective? We spoke to Pia Greene Meersohn, a researcher at the Centre for Studies on Security and Organised Crime at the San Sebastian University in Chile, who has been studying the issue for years. She says better prison management plays a key role in tackling organised crime and that greater coordination between government agencies is essential. 

Josefina Salomón (JS): Chile has experienced a rapid growth in violence that is linked to the expansion of criminal organisations. How did this happen?

Pia Greene Meersohn (PGM): Chile was always been seen as the “good pupil” of Latin America, but after the pandemic the criminal phenomenon changed. 

Transnational organised crime entered Chile for several reasons, but the main one is the permeability of its enormous border, particularly in the north, with Bolivia and Peru. Immigration has increased a lot and although I am not linking immigration to crime, when you have irregular and disorderly immigration, all kinds of people come in. 

This is also associated with the fact that we are next to the four biggest drug-producing countries in the world: Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru, and drug trafficking is the basis of all this, as well as corruption. 

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 that’s when there starts to be more drugs in the country and the consumer market grows. Organised crime starts to establish itself, it starts to build and develop its logistical network and the gangs start to fight and violence rises and crimes that we practically never heard of start to take place, such as kidnapping, contract killings and extortion.

This clearly speaks about organised crime groups being behind the violence because their modus operandi is to sow fear.

JS: How are crime groups expressing the violence? 

PGM: Violent crime has increased a lot, very quickly, and it has changed. In the past, homicides in Chile had three characteristics: they were between people who knew each other and they were generally committed with knives, which means there was little distance between the attacker and the victim. Nowadays, a very high percentage of homicides are committed with firearms and between strangers. 

This clearly speaks about organised crime groups being behind the violence because their modus operandi is to sow fear. 

JS: What role do prisons play in the expansion of organised crime, particularly in Chile?

PGM: Throughout Latin America today, prisons are not only universities of crime, but also the headquarters of organised crime groups. As long as you don’t have a prison that effectively helps to repair, rehabilitate and reintegrate people into society, you are not going to break the cycle of organised crime. 

In Chile this happens because, among other things, we do not have inmates divided according to the type of crime they committed. People who have not committed a violent crime, who do not have a criminal record, have to be in a different type of prison, because by placing all of them together, the only thing that happens is that a person who enters with a low criminal commitment ends up being involved with the groups, often out of necessity. As the state doesn’t have the capacity to handle all the people it puts in prison, a parallel State starts to form. And this parallel state is the famous criminal governance that everybody talks about. 

If you ask me what to do, where to invest, I would say in prisons, but not by building more prisons. Putting people in prison doesn’t do any good. In other words, you are harming people and you are not helping anyone. So either you improve the prison system or nothing is going to work. 

JS: How would you evaluate the Boric administration’s approach to crime in Chile?

PGM: I think that President Boric has understood the seriousness of the issue, especially in terms of organised crime and within the prisons where these dynamics reproduce. I think he has done some things, that progress has been made on passing important laws, but things cannot be changed with laws alone. 

They don't understand that the answer is neither one thing or the other, neither put everybody in jail nor decide not to put anyone in prison. What I’m saying is that if we keep doing the same thing, the same thing will keep happening.

The problem is that the current system we have is not working, among other things because we have no capacity for coordination, no good intelligence, we don’t share information. That needs to change, urgently. We need more and better coordination, to give the police greater capacity in terms of resources, in terms of all kinds of things, the political backing they need.

JS: What do you think should be done to tackle crime effectively? 

PGM: I think the president should bring together a wide group of experts to talk about security, people who know about the issues and can advise on these issues from a public policy perspective.

Many countries face a crucial dilemma when they are just starting to be affected by real organised crime. They don’t understand that the answer is neither one thing or the other, neither put everybody in jail nor decide not to put anyone in prison. What I’m saying is that if we keep doing the same thing, the same thing will keep happening. We have to look for alternatives.

I think we have to sit down and think. And that’s why I think the government is at a crossroads. They are trying to do things, but they will always come up against their more ideological allies who will not allow them to move forward on certain things that are absolutely relevant for the country.

Chile is at a turning point but I believe it can be reversed. In any case we have to be united. If we carry on with this two-sided bickering, we’re not going to get anywhere.

The interview has been summarised and edited for clarity.