During my research trip to Chile this past June, an increase in drug trafficking and organized crime was notably a major concern among the people I interviewed about the country’s national security challenges.
Chile is one of South America’s most economically prosperous countries and has become a major migrant hotspot after the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. According to the Migration Policy Insitute, only 1% of Chile’s population were immigrants in 1992. However, more and more immigrants poured into Chile in the following decades, and in 2020, there were nearly 1.5 million immigrants in the country – 9% of the total population. With the COVID-19 pandemic, a mass influx of immigrants arrived through Chile’s porous northern border without authorization.
Chileans have become increasingly concerned with the number of immigrants flooding in – as well as the powerful influx of drug trade-related criminal activity. Chile shares a border with two of the world’s leading cocaine producers – Bolivia and Peru – along with a 6,435 kilometer coastline to the Pacific Ocean. Major Chilean ports – such as the Port of Iquique and Port of Arica – are being exploited by narcotics trafficking organizations for national and global distribution.
Public safety has become a top challenge for President Gabriel Boric as drug trafficking and violence is on the rise, as well as drug traffickers exploiting historic tensions between indigenous communities and the state in the southern regions of Chile.
According to a 2022 survey from Athena Lab – a Santiago-based think tank on foreign policy – 89% of the general population placed combating drug trafficking as the top foreign policy objective, with regulating migration close behind. As for the Experts segment, 90% believed protecting borders was the top priority and combating drug trafficking the second priority with 89%.
Compared to the rest of the region, Chile has long registered low crime rates, yet reported homicides and use of firearms have continued to multiply in the last few years. Insight Crime – a think tank and media organization that provides analysis and investigation on organized crime in the Americas – suggested, in a report, that Chile can no longer avoid the criminal activity and gangs that plagued other countries in Latin America.
Two notorious Mexican cartels Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation as well as Colombia’s Cartel del Golfo have gained footholds in Chile, according to the Chilean Observatory on Drugs. The Venezuelan cartel Tren de Aragua, one of the continent’s most dangerous cartels, has also established itself in Chile.
During an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, a DEA Agent shared that drug trafficking was prominent in key port cities in Chile. Drug traffickers would send narcotics to Europe, Asia, and the U.S. via these port cities. It is no doubt that Chile’s large port cities are a prime target for drug trafficking. However, internal consumption is also on the rise as police forces have seen an increase in drug seizures inside the country.
In the country’s northern Tarapacá region, which borders Bolivia, homicide rates have soared at an alarming rate, especially near the port city of Iquique. Homicides in Tarapacá have increased 183% through 2020, and they are currently at almost four times Chile’s national average, according to Insight Crime. Drug seizures also continue to rise as shipments come from the border of Bolivia and from overseas. In June, Tarapacá’s chief of police, Sergio Telchi, stated that drug seizures were on the way to beating the 7.5 tons of drugs seized in 2021. Insight Crime reported that cocaine, coca paste, and marijuana from Bolivia as well as 500,000 pills of ecstasy and 120 kilograms of MDMA were found in August at the ports.
Authorities blame the growing violence and drug seizures on the presence of gangs such as Venezuelan Tren de Aragua. This gang gained a strong presence in the region by smuggling Venezuelan migrants, drugs, weapons, and contraband into Chile. Increasingly prominent and violent drug trafficking in Chile has mirrored public opinion polling that suggests Chileans are very worried about organized crime.
During an interview with John Griffiths-Spielman, Head of Security and Defense Studies at Athena Lab, Chile is fighting an internal battle of organized crime versus an ineffective state. State institutions have not been organized and effective enough to combat soaring violence with organized crime and narcotics trafficking. Chile is in a position where the state can easily unravel due to the rise in narcotics trafficking if the government does not take effective measures to mitigate the crisis and combat these powerful cartels. Chilean citizens worry for their safety as violence and homicide rates continue to rise. In the 2022 Athena Lab survey, Ravinet de la Fuente explained that in order to defeat these problems “a government with authority and determination is required, as well as a strict judicial system, and police officers willing to go out of their way to control and eradicate these threats, for which they must have political and legal support protecting their actions.”
I am hopeful Chile will find a way to efficiently fight organized crime in their country and mitigate drug trafficking in their port cities.
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