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Chile Profile

Despite its proximity to cocaine-producing Andean countries, Chile has not suffered the negative effects of organized crime to the same extent as other nations in the region. In fact, it is one of the safest nations in Latin America. Since emerging from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990, Chile has enacted a series of key reforms that have helped build efficient security forces and an independent judicial system. The Chilean prison system, on the other hand, is still subject to numerous issues, including overcrowding, poor conditions and violence.


Chile’s shared borders with drug-producing and transshipment countries make it vulnerable to the threat of drug trafficking. Indeed, the US State Department has identified Chile as a “significant” transit country for Andean cocaine trafficked to Europe, Africa and Australia. In 2011, a government minister identified 140 overland drug transit routes into Chile, more than two-thirds of which originated in its northeastern neighbor, Bolivia. Many illicit shipments destined for international markets are moved into Chile across the country’s porous borders before being shipped out through ports along its 6,500-kilometer Pacific coast.


Since emerging from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990, Chile has garnered a reputation as one of the most economically developed and stable countries in the region. It has comparatively strong and independent institutions, relatively low levels of corruption and consistently boasts the region’s lowest homicide rate. These conditions have impeded the rise of powerful homemade crime groups in Chile. However, transnational criminal organizations have been known to operate there, engaging in various activities linked to the drug trade, human smuggling and other criminal enterprises. Over the past decade, Chile has become a key transshipment country for drugs, particularly cocaine. And recent reports suggest drug trafficking in Chile is on the rise. Trafficking into the country is mostly handled by Bolivian and Peruvian organizations, at times in collaboration with local groups. Once in the country, drugs are typically sold by street gangs — many of which operate in Santiago, the capital and largest city — or they are shipped abroad to foreign markets. In addition to serving as a transshipment point for cocaine, the discovery of drug processing laboratories in Chile in recent years suggests the country’s role in producing the drug might be growing. Chile is a major regional supplier of precursor chemicals used in drug production. Due in part to its robust economy, Chile has developed a substantial domestic drug consumption market. A pair of anti-drug operations in 2014 uncovered huge loads of cocaine apparently destined for the domestic market, suggesting domestic demand for the drug could be growing. Recent research indicates that youth drug use may be on the rise. Chile also has a sizeable domestic market for marijuana, which has been targeted by crime groups from Paraguay — South America’s main producer of marijuana — as well as Colombia, the source of a potent and lucrative type of marijuana known as “cripy.” Chilean politicians introduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana cultivation for medicinal purposes in 2012. In 2014, Chile became the first country in Latin America to allow medical marijuana cultivation. The following year, the country began taking steps to decriminalize recreational marijuana use. Chile is also a hotbed for human smuggling and trafficking, although the problem is not as pronounced there as it is in other countries. Following the introduction of anti-human trafficking legislation in 2011, crime groups have proven resourceful in adapting to shifting circumstances. Chile’s relative safety and stability have made it an attractive destination for migrants from across the region, and multinational criminal networks have arisen to meet the demand for human smuggling services. Some of these networks victimize their clients, forcing them into situations of sexual slavery or forced labor. Chile’s strong and relatively stable economy has also made it an attractive money laundering locale. Other criminal activities that have been observed in Chile in recent years include large-scale armed robberies; certain forms of cyber crime, including information theft; and contraband cigarette trafficking, which has reportedly expanded massively since 2012.

Criminal Groups

Chile does not have any major homegrown crime groups with an international presence. However, criminal organizations based in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and other nearby countries have engaged in a variety of illicit activities in the country. International drug trafficking is mostly handled by Bolivian and Peruvian groups who sometimes collaborate with local organizations. European organized crime groups have also been linked to the country’s drug trade. The capital city Santiago is home to the majority of the country’s street gangs. These usually operate in poor and neglected neighborhoods, engaging in petty drug dealing and other small-time crimes. According to a 2012 investigation, gangs controlled dozens of neighborhoods in Santiago.

Security Forces

Chile’s two main public security bodies are the Carabineros, a national militarized police force formerly under the command of the Defense Ministry, but managed by the Interior Ministry since 2011, and the Chilean Investigative Police (Policia de Investigaciones de Chile – PDI), a civilian police force responsible for investigating crimes, including drug trafficking and organized crime. Both the Carabineros and the PDI have internal intelligence agencies, as do Chile’s army, navy and air force. Chile’s main intelligence body is the National Intelligence Agency (Agencia Nacional de Inteligencia – ANI). Chile’s police and military have long ranked among the most trusted security forces in Latin America. Nonetheless, Chile’s security forces have faced allegations of involvement in human rights abuses, such as excessive use of force and unlawful killings. Chile’s military courts handle all cases of alleged human rights violations committed by security forces, including the Carabineros police. According to human rights organizations, trials in these courts lack “independence and impartiality” and “many legitimate complaints” are dismissed. Corruption has also been a problem. For example, several Carabineros officers were arrested in 2013 for their alleged involvement in smuggling marijuana from Bolivia into Chile, leading to the firing of the anti-narcotics chief. In 2017, the Carabineros were implicated in a multimillion-dollar fraud scandal, which a Chilean prosecutor called “the biggest embezzlement in the history of Chile.” Chile’s security forces work with several international partners. The country cooperates with the United States on security issues predominantly related to drug trafficking, and with Bolivia on counternarcotics operations on the countries’ shared border. The Chilean military also works closely with Argentina and has a joint force trained in humanitarian work.

Judicial System

Chile’s federal courts system is overseen by the Justice Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia) and headed by the Supreme Court. The Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Público) is responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes, as well as managing the country’s witness protection program. Regional courts hear criminal cases, and a Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría Penal Pública) provides free representation to the accused. Compared to others in the region, Chile’s judicial system is widely perceived to be efficient, independent and not corrupt. The World Economic Forum ranked Chile 37th out of 144 countries for judicial independence in 2017. However, a 2014 survey of Chilean citizens found that only 37 percent of respondents said they had confidence in the justice system, ranking it lower than most other institutions in the country including the security forces, the government and the press.


Chile’s prison system, administered by the Gendarmerie (Gendarmería de Chile – GENCHI), suffers from numerous issues. Between 2000 and 2010, the inmate population increased by over 50 percent. As of September 2013, the prisons stood at 110 percent of capacity, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. In addition to overcrowding, Chile’s prisons have been criticized by the US State Department for their poor conditions, antiquated infrastructure and widespread violence, both among inmates and by the authorities.

Insecurity in Haiti Laid Groundwork for Trafficking Ring in Chile

Authorities in Chile have dismantled a transnational network that used travel agencies to traffic Haitian migrants, highlighting how push factors from Haiti and the appeal of Chile’s relative stability are making migrants increasingly susceptible to illegal schemes. Chilean authorities arrested three Haitians, one Peruvian and one Chilean on April 17 for their alleged involvement in a migrant trafficking ring that used legal travel agencies to facilitate the illegal entry of thousands of Haitians, according to information from Chile’s Attorney General’s Office obtained by news outlet 24 Horas. Three travel agencies based in Chile’s capital Santiago, one of which had an additional location in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, are accused of charging Haitian migrants up to $2,000 for “travel packages” promising to help migrants enter Chile as tourists in order to acquire jobs and longer-term visas later, according to BioBioChile. Haitian migrants who paid into this scheme arrived in the Santiago airport carrying documents detailing their airline tickets and hotel reservations, as well as cash to prove they had sufficient funds to visit the country as tourists. But upon their arrival, the trafficking network stripped the migrants of the cash and left them without hotel accommodations, job prospects or visa help as initially promised. Chile’s Attorney General’s Office has identified 48 Haitian migrants who fell prey to the scheme, and estimate that between 2,000 to 4,000 more may have also been tricked by the trafficking network. Authorities estimate the traffickers brought in up to $160,000 per week. The investigation was spurred by controversy surrounding a video widely circulated on social media in February that alleged mass numbers of Haitian migrants were flying into Santiago with the intention of overstaying tourist visas. In March, Haitians who said they had fallen victim to the trafficking scheme organized a protest that drew more attention to the issue. On the same day as the arrests, Chile announced reforms to the country’s immigration law, which will affect the entry of Haitian citizens beginning in July. The changes will restrict Haitians’ tourist visits to 30 days rather than 90, and establish new legal routes for some Haitians to acquire one-year-long “humanitarian family reunification” visas. Human trafficking crimes have tripled in Chile over the last 5 years, from 56 cases in 2013 to 183 in 2017, according to a study by the country’s civil police cited by El Mercurio.

InSight Crime Analysis

The dismantling of a network that trafficked Haitians into Chile with the false promise of jobs and visas is a stark example of the kinds of schemes that are likely to ensnare migrants as conditions in Haiti degrade and immigration protections elsewhere in the region are revoked. Haitians are currently one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in Chile. More than 100,000 Haitians entered the country in 2017, twice the number that arrived in 2016, according to Chile’s immigration police force. Despite Chile’s recent attempts to crack down on unauthorized migration from Haiti, the wave of migrants fleeing the island is likely to continue growing amid mounting security concerns.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Trafficking

The United Nations Security Council recently voted to extend the mandate of a special mission aimed at helping Haiti professionalize its national police and strengthen its judicial system. The decision sowed disagreement over whether or not Haiti’s insecurity poses an international threat. The United States pushed to widen the scope for UN security forces to be deployed to Haiti. But in spite of the continuing concerns over conditions in Haiti, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently pulled temporary protected status designations from nearly 60,000 Haitian immigrants, citing improved country conditions (a claim that appears to be contradicted within the agency’s own internal documents). Further concerns over Haiti’s security situation have also recently been raised with the reinstatement of the country’s armed forces, which were disbanded in 1995 after a long history of involvement in coups, corruption and human rights violations. Several individuals appointed to high levels of command within the new force previously served during the brutal 1990s dictatorship. These conditions will likely continue to push swelling numbers of Haitians to seek out the so-called “Chilean Dream,” generating new opportunities for criminal groups looking to cash in on migrants’ desperation.

InSight Crime’s 2017 Homicide Round-Up

Record highs, all-time lows, and a few surprises: 2017 proved a remarkable year in terms of homicide rates for many countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. Once again, InSight Crime presents its annual homicide round-up to give a snapshot of murder rates around the region.

Venezuela: 89 per 100,000

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the spiraling crises it faces, Venezuela tops this year’s ranking as the most homicidal country in the region. The Venezuelan government has not released national murder statistics for more than a decade. But the Venezuelan Observatory for Violence (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia) provides unofficial estimates generally considered reliable. The observatory’s latest report states that a total of 26,616 murders occurred in Venezuela throughout the year, including 5,535 at the hands of security forces. In April 2017, a Mexican non-governmental organization that produces an annual ranking of the world’s most homicidal cities once again placed Venezuela’s capital Caracas at the top of the list, with an estimated homicide rate of 130 per 100,000 inhabitants.

El Salvador: 60 per 100,000

El Salvador National Police Chief Howard Cotto announced that the country suffered a total of 3,947 homicides in 2017, yielding a rate of 60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. The figure is considerably high by global standards, but it constitutes a remarkable drop from the 2016 rate of 81.2 per 100,000 inhabitants that had placed El Salvador at the top of last year’s InSight Crime homicide round-up. While the country improved its security situation in 2017 in comparison to the two previous years, profound issues with law enforcement priorities and security force actions remain. Moreover, only 12 percent of Salvadorans believe crime decreased in 2017, according to a recent survey. Around two-thirds believed it increased.

Jamaica: 55.7 per 100,000*

Jamaica’s security situation continued to deteriorate in 2017, fueled partly by destabilizing government actions against gangs, including the loudly-trumpeted but deeply-flawed launch of a new urban security plan. A total of 1,616 murders were recorded throughout 2017, a nearly 20 percent increase in comparison to the previous year. The island had already seen an 11 percent increase in murders in 2016 compared to 2015, and a wave of violence early 2018 indicates that the trend toward higher homicide rates in Jamaica could continue.

(InSight Crime map of homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. Click the picture for a larger version.)

Honduras: 42.8 per 100,000

The end of the year proved rather tumultuous for Honduras, as the country sank deeper into another political crisis. And yet, Honduras’ annual murder tally dropped by 26 percent, from 5,150 in 2016 to 3,791 in 2017, yielding a homicide rate of 42.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Authorities said that the 2017 figures marked Honduras’ lowest homicide levels in a decade. The question now is whether the country will succeed in securing these gains, or whether the political crisis will push the contested administration of President Juan Orlando Hernández to revert back to counterproductive security policies, thereby abandoning or neglecting crucial long-term reforms.

Brazil: 29.7 per 100,000

A staggering 61,283 individuals — seven victims per hour — were murdered in Latin America’s most populous nation in 2016, the most recent year for which national homicide figures are available. According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, which compiles the data, the country had a murder rate of 29.7 per 100,000 in 2016, a 4 percent increase compared to 2015. One symptom of Brazil’s security crisis is the crumbling relationship between security forces and large swathes of the population, particularly the most disadvantaged. In 2016, 4,222 citizens were killed during security operations, while a total of 453 military and police officers were also murdered. While no nationwide homicide figures are yet available for 2017, InSight Crime research strongly suggests that Brazil’s security situation has continued — and likely will continue — to deteriorate in the near-term.

Guatemala: 26.1 per 100,000

Guatemala suffered a total of 4,409 homicides during 2017, according to an annual police report, yielding a murder rate of 26.1 per 100,000 inhabitants. This represents a slight decrease from 2016’s rate of 27.3 — a figure much lower than those of its two Northern Triangle neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador. However, as InSight Crime chronicled this year following an extensive investigation in Guatemala, room for improvement remains, as the country’s faulty collection and analysis of homicide data does not allow for an accurate assessment of the root causes of violence, which would enable authorities to fine-tune their security policies.

Colombia: 24 per 100,000

Colombia’s murder rate fell in 2017 to its lowest level in 42 years, President Juan Manuel Santos announced, as the Andean nation succeeded in preserving its fragile peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) through the peace accords’ first anniversary. Challenges such as the targeted killings of social activists remain, however, and authorities still registered a total of 10,617 murders from January to November 2017.

Mexico: 22.5 per 100,000*

By November, 2017 was already the most homicidal year ever registered in Mexico’s recent history, according to records stretching back two decades. Including December’s murder count, a total of 29,168 homicide victims were recorded throughout the year, with nearly 26,000 homicide investigations opened. The nearly 30,000 victims suggests a murder rate of 22.5 per 100,000 citizens, up significantly from 2016’s rate of 16.2.** Mexico’s homicide rate is relatively low in a regional context, but the country is seeing the deepening of a long-running security crisis as the fragmentation of crime groups throws the underworld into disarray. An annual report by Semáforo Delictivo and Lantia Consultores estimates that the percentage of organized crime-related homicides drastically increased in 2017 to represent 75 percent of all murders last year. Authorities have struggled to formulate a solid response to rising criminal violence. Indeed, as laid bare by the country’s new security law, Mexico remains very much on the path of further militarizing its security efforts, despite the fact that for years this policy has proven itself counterproductive and detrimental to human rights.

Puerto Rico: 19.7 per 100,000*

With 671 homicides recorded throughout the year, Puerto Rico witnessed a slight reduction in its annual murder count, bringing the island’s homicide rate just under 20 per 100,000 inhabitants. The island nation unfortunately started off the new year on the wrong foot, with a spate of murders and striking police officers pushing Puerto Rico’s police chief out the door. A devastating hurricane in September 2017 stretched security forces thin, with police sources warning the post-storm chaos could be contributing to a spike in violence.

Dominican Republic: 14.9 per 100,000*

Despite evidence of growing drug activities on the island nation, homicide levels seem to have remained stable this year, with 1,198 registered murders during the first nine months of 2017 — just shy of 2016’s figure of 1,201. Using a projection based on that number, these partial figures would yield an estimated rate of 14.9 homicides per 100,000 for 2017.

SEE ALSO: Caribbean Has ‘Violence Problem,’ Not ‘Crime Problem’: Report

Costa Rica: 12.1 per 100,000

Costa Rican authorities’ preliminary figures indicate that the country suffered 603 homicides during 2017, for a rate of 12.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants — the highest ever recorded in the Central American country traditionally considered one of the region’s most peaceful. Amid signs that Costa Rica’s role within the transnational drug trade has expanded, authorities have been quick to blame organized crime for the growing violence. An estimated 25 percent of murders in 2017 were linked to the drug trade, authorities said, and another half were described as “score settling.” But while drug activities could be responsible for increasing violence, the lack of hindsight and a vague methodology undermine the authorities’ efforts to blame organized crime. And while Costa Rica’s homicide trend over recent years is undeniably on the uptick, the country does maintain one of the region’s lower homicide rates.

Panama: 10.2 per 100,000*

The latest homicide report by Panama’s Attorney General’s Office indicates that a total of 383 murders were recorded between January and November 2017. Extrapolating from the monthly average indicated by these figures, Panama should have closed 2017 with a homicide rate of roughly 10.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, slightly above last year’s rate of 9.3. The government’s strategy for addressing crime-related violence remains somewhat murky. Although President Juan Carlos Varela previously indicated he could adopt more hard-line anti-gang policies, he has also spoken about the need to address socioeconomic drivers of crime.

Bolivia: 8.5 per 100,000

Bolivia’s Vice Minister for Citizen Security Carlos Aparicio asserted in July 2017 that the country had succeeded in decreasing its homicide rate from 10.8 to 8.5 per 100,000. Authorities have not since communicated further on 2017’s homicide figures. As in Paraguay, authorities in Bolivia have expressed concern about the expansion of Brazil’s PCC into the country. However, it is not clear how that development may affect homicide trends in Bolivia.

Uruguay: 8.1 per 100,000*

Despite an initial 7.1 percent decrease in homicide figures during the first half of 2017, Uruguay appears to have closed the year with an increase in its annual murder rate. According to figures released by the Interior Ministry, Uruguay saw 283 homicides in 2017, yielding a national murder rate of approximately 8.1 per 100,000 citizens — an increase of 5.6 percent from 2016.** As InSight Crime has reported, Uruguay faces security concerns linked to drug trafficking through Montevideo, its capital city and main urban center, as well as increasingly sophisticated criminal networks that have taken root around soccer fan clubs.

Paraguay: 7.8 per 100,000

The security observatory of Paraguay’s Interior Ministry registered a total of 541 murder victims in 2017, yielding a homicide rate of 7.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. This represents a near two-percent drop from 2016’s rate, which stood at 9.8, and signals the country’s lowest homicide levels in a decade. (InSight Crime sought comment from officials regarding the substantial decrease in the homicide figure, but did not receive a response.)** While Paraguay’s murder rate is low in the regional context, authorities have worried about the growing presence of Brazil’s most powerful crime group, the First Capital Command (Premeiro Comado da Capital – PCC), which has been blamed for incidents of extreme violence in Paraguay, including a historic and bloody bank heist in April 2017.

Peru: 7.7 per 100,000

Peru’s homicide rate appeared to increase slightly in 2016, the year for which the most recent data is available. In July 2017, authorities reported an annual murder rate of 7.7 per 100,000 in 2016, with 2,435 individuals killed. These figures indicate a slight increase from 2015’s homicide rate, which stood at 7.2 per 100,000. Despite the Andean nation’s relatively low homicide rate, it still faces security threats from drug trafficking groups and other criminal networks.

Nicaragua: 7 per 100,000*

Nicaraguan authorities once again took credit for Central America’s lowest homicide rate. The country witnessed only 431 murders in 2017, yielding an estimated rate of 7 per 100,000. Authorities have claimed that successful efforts to suppress organized crime have helped keep levels of violence low. However, there is evidence that some powerful crime groups operate in Nicaragua, though they generate less violence than in neighboring countries.

Argentina: 6 per 100,000

Since the election of President Mauricio Macri late 2015, Argentina has begun rebuilding its capacity to produce government data, following years of statistical blackout under the President Cristina Kirchner. As a result, the most recent homicide statistics are from 2016. The figures indicate a homicide rate of 6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, during which 2,605 murders were recorded. This is down slightly from 2015’s annual murder rate of 6.6 per 100,000. Argentina thus remains one of the least homicidal countries of the region, despite a heavy if not alarmist government discourse on security and drug trafficking issues.

Ecuador: 5.8 per 100,000

With 957 recorded murders, just three less than in 2016, Ecuador saw the region’s second lowest 2017 homicide rate, at 5.8 per 100,000 citizens. Despite having developed into a cocaine highway due to its geographic advantages — including its proximity to Colombia, the world’s top coca production hub — Ecuador appears on its way to reach authorities’ objective of lowering the homicide rate to 5.2 by 2021.

Chile: 3.3 per 100,000*

Chile stands once again as Latin America’s least homicidal state, with only 550 murders registered between January and November 2017, according to official police data obtained by InSight Crime. The monthly average murder count indicated by this figure would suggest that the Southern Cone country closed 2017 with some 600 homicides, and a rate per 100,000 of just under 3.3. This represents a slight increase from 2016 and 2015, with respective murder rates of 2.7 and 2.9, but allows Chile to enjoy security levels well above the vast majority of its regional counterparts. * Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime, based on the number of reported homicides and the country’s 2017 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau. **This article was updated from its original version following the release of new homicide figures by various governments.

Police Corruption Scandals Hit Well-Regarded Forces in Ecuador, Chile


In Ecuador and Chile, two of Latin America’s most trusted police institutions have been hit by recent corruption scandals, a reminder that even the most highly-regarded security forces in the region are far from perfect.

Ecuador’s national police is currently embroiled in one of the most serious cases of corruption in the institution’s recent history.

The commander-in-chief and other high-ranking police officers allegedly approved the transfer of other officers to different cities in exchange for bribes between $1,500 and $4,000, El Comercio reported in June. According to the Ecuadorean investigative news outlet Plan V, more than 47,000 transfers were processed between 2014 and 2015, netting the group some $16 million, according to El Comercio.

Moreover, between 2013 and 2017, nearly 1,000 Ecuadorean national police officers were dismissed, El Telegrafo reported. Slightly less than half of those were dismissed for allegedly criminal behavior. Most recently, two officers were dismissed after loading 85 kilograms of cocaine into a patrol car, while two more were dismissed for allegedly leading an extortion ring.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

Meanwhile, in Chile, arrests continue to pile up as a multimillion-dollar fraud scandal unfolds within the country’s national police force, known as the Carabineros.

Twenty-one individuals have been implicated in the latest round of arrests, bringing the total number of those allegedly involved in the scandal to 118, La Nación reported. The embezzlement scandal allegedly redirected as much as 25 billion Chilean pesos (around $40 million) from the institution’s coffers to the personal accounts of the officers under investigation. 

At a hearing earlier this year, Chilean prosecutor Eugenio Campos called the scandal “the biggest embezzlement in the history of Chile.” 

InSight Crime Analysis 

The police forces of Chile and Ecuador are widely viewed as two of the most professional and trusted law enforcement institutions in Latin America. In the past, Ecuador’s police force has even been described as a “model for the region to follow.” The two countries also boast some of the region’s lowest homicide rates, which are often used as an indicator of police efficacy.

However, recent surveys show that citizens feel corruption is worsening in Latin America, and police forces tend to be the first bodies targeted for corruption by organized crime. Although the recent scandals in the South American countries are examples of internal graft schemes as opposed to cooptation by outside groups, the apparent willingness to engage in graft on the part of large segments of both forces suggests that they could be susceptible to external influence.

SEE ALSO: From Chile to Mexico: Best and Worst of LatAm Police

Both Chile and Ecuador are key transshipment points for the global cocaine trade. It is possible that a boom in Andean cocaine production could provide crime groups in both countries with increased resources that they could use to target security institutions for cooptation.

Ecuador’s national police force is arguably at greater risk than Chile’s Carabineros. A number of recent multi-ton cocaine seizures suggests that the country is playing an increasingly important role in the global drug trade. Corrupting security forces, which criminal groups have done in the past in Ecuador, is often essential for these large shipments to be successfully trafficked.

Crime groups also appear to be ramping up activities in Chile. A recent report documented an explosive growth in the country’s contraband cigarette trade in recent years, which was linked to sophisticated criminal organizations that often rely on complicit security officials to operate. Some 20 cocaine labs have also been dismantled in Chile throughout the last year, suggesting that the country’s role as a drug consumption and transshipment point may be evolving to include production operations.

Report Documents Explosive Growth in Chile Contraband Cigarette Trade


A new report indicates that Chile’s contraband cigarette trade has increased exponentially during the past five years, a reminder of how profitable the illegal industry is for organized crime groups.

The amount of illegal cigarettes traded in Chile has increased by 386 percent since 2012, according to a report by the Observatory on Illicit Trade (Observatorio del Comercio Ilícito – OCI), which is part of Chile’s National Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism.

By the end of 2016, the study estimated that 15.4 percent of all cigarettes in Chile were illegal, and that the illicit trade resulted in over $290 million in lost tax revenue every year.

Santiago is home to an estimated 15 percent of all illegal cigarettes in the country, but cities in the north are also centers for contraband. For instance, in the port of Arica, the OCI report estimates that 84.1 percent of all traded cigarettes are of illicit origen.

Not only does the unlawful trade represent a threat to legal businesses, it also appears to be linked to sophisticated criminal networks.

“We are worried about the way in which these products enter our country, which is through contraband … a phenomenon directly linked with the financing of terrorism,” said OCI representative Jorge Lee in comments reported by BioBio.

Indeed, the illegal cigarettes trade “very often constitutes the last step in the chain of transnational criminal networks,” Lee added.

An estimated 78 percent of all illegal cigarettes in Chile come from three brands: Fox, based in Paraguay; Pine, based in South Korea; and Jaisalmer, based in India.  

InSight Crime Analysis

Cigarette contraband may not be as notorious as other criminal activities, but it does represent an enormous revenue source for organized crime in Latin America. According to estimates cited in 2014 by the US military publication Diálogo, the illicit cigarette trade combined with the trade in contraband alcohol could be worth billions of dollars per year for regional crime groups.

In addition, the fact that Paraguay accounts for so many of the illegal cigarettes traded in Chile is not surprising. As InSight Crime has previously noted, Paraguayan contraband cigarettes have been a key revenue source for organized crime groups across the region.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband

In Mexico, for instance, black market cigarettes from Paraguay have been financing criminal groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. In Colombia, the illicit tobacco trade has reportedly been used to launder drug money by the 59th and 19th Fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) as well as by a criminal group led by Marcos Figueroa, alias “Marquitos,” who is now believed to be part of the Urabeños criminal organization. 

Dismantled Chile Cocaine Lab With Bolivia Ties Hints at Evolving Crime Dynamics


Chilean authorities have dismantled yet another cocaine lab, used by a group of Bolivians and Chileans to process the drug into its liquid form, suggesting that Chile’s role in the drug trade may be evolving beyond that of a transshipment point.

Following a six-month investigation, Chilean police seized more than 530 kilograms of cocaine and dismantled a large cocaine processing laboratory in the town of Nancagua, roughly 200 kilometers south of the capital Santiago, reported Publimetro on March 28.

In addition to impounding 450 kilograms of liquid cocaine and 85 kilograms of cocaine base, authorities arrested four Chileans who allegedly smuggled the product into the country, and two Bolivians who would process the drug into its liquid form. Police also found precursor chemicals needed to process the drug into its liquid form, reported Cooperativa.

Carlos Yánez, the head of the Antinarcotics and Organized Crime Brigade (Brigada Antinarcóticos y Contra el Crimen Organizado), said that the criminal group was also involved in distributing some of the product in the Santiago metropolitan area, according to Publimetro.

The official also noted that this was the fourth cocaine lab dismantled in the country this year. A total of 16 were discovered last year.

InSight Crime Analysis

The size of the most recently dismantled lab, combined with the fact that nearly 20 other such facilities have been discovered in the past year, suggests that Chile’s role in the drug trade might be evolving beyond that of a transshipment country with a sizeable domestic consumption market. Rather than importing refined cocaine products for sale in Chile, crime groups there now appear to be refining the drug themselves.

The dismantled structure appears to have exploited Chile’s local consumption market, one of the largest in Latin America, to distribute part of the drugs smuggled in the country. This might have been done by selling directly the cocaine paste — a cheap form of the drug whose widespread consumption has become a serious challenge for many South American nations — or refining the product into cocaine powder, which can be sold at a higher price.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Chile

The impounded liquid cocaine, however, was almost certainly destined for exportation. This form — which was first discovered in 2011 in Bolivia according to BBC Mundo — is much harder for authorities to detect, and thus easier for traffickers to smuggle across borders. In addition, reports have signaled Chile’s role as a transshipment point to be growing.

But if both the cocaine base and the two chemists originated from Bolivia, it is surprising that the suspects chose to process the drug into its liquid form in Chile rather than in Bolivia, which would likely have rendered the smuggling of the product across the border less risky.

One of the reasons that may explain this decision is the accessibility in Chile of precursor chemicals needed for the process, partly due to the country’s vast chemical industry. But whereas Chile’s precursors were traditionally shipped north to coca-producing countries — in particular Bolivia and Peru — the total of 20 dismantled labs since 2016 suggest that this trend may be evolving, and that Chile may become an important processing country in the drug trade, in addition to being a consumption and transshipment point.

From Chile to Mexico: Best and Worst of LatAm Police

An embezzlement network uncovered within Chile’s prized police shows that corruption can corrode even the most trusted of Latin America’s security institutions. InSight Crime puts together a selection of some of the region’s best — and worst — police forces.  

The Best

Chile 17-03-16-policia-chile Chile’s Carabineros — the police force with possibly the highest confidence rating in the region — has had its reputation tarnished in a surprising case of high-reaching fraud. By March 10, at least 10 officers left the force — including a general and a captain — following revelations that a corrupt network syphoned around $12 million from the agency between 2010 and 2015. Investigations show that this group transferred funds from an institutional bank account into their personal accounts. More officials are expected to be fired as internal and judicial investigations continue. The scandal is not the only one to hit Chile’s most trusted institutions in recent months, and some observers believe it will not be the last. The military — which is considered to be less corrupt than the police, according to a public survey — was shaken last year by another case of internal fraud nicknamed “Milicogate,” in which officials allegedly misused over $8 million in funds. Nicaragua 17-03-16-policia-nicaragua Nicaraguans have high levels of trust in their police force. But this does not necessarily mean the public believes officials are not involved in criminal activities. Over half of the public think that the criminal interests have corrupted a police force that is nonetheless considered trustworthy. Indeed, Nicaraguan police are known to collaborate with drug traffickers and drug theft groups. A 2014 police reform that made President Daniel Ortega its “supreme commander” has sparked concerns that this apparent politicization may weaken the integrity of the force. But the high levels of public confidence in the Nicaraguan police are perhaps most surprising when considering the vast number of human rights denunciations the force receives compared to other state institutions. Ecuador 17-03-16-policia-EcuAlthough not as highly regarded as the police in Chile or Nicaragua, trust in Ecuador’s officers is around double the regional average, and the force has been described as a “model for the region” to follow by Latin American leaders. Ecuador’s homicide rate, which is among the lowest in the region, has been viewed as an indicator of police efficiency. A large-scale police reform effort in recent years has increased police training and salaries and, perhaps most importantly, strengthened police-community relations. Still, it is unclear exactly how much police tactics have contributed to reducing violent crimes in the country. But severe problems remain within the institution, and 866 police officers were expelled between 2013 and 2016, according to a recent US State Department report on human rights practices for 2016. Active and retired police officers have been arrested or sentenced in organized crime and corruption schemes in the past. Costa Rica 17-03-16-policia-CR1 Costa Rica has one of Latin America’s most trusted police forces. And compared to other Central American countries, Costa Ricans do not widely perceive their police as being involved in criminal activities. However, this may change as local groups gain more control and adopt the modus operandi of more powerful patrons, while the volume of drugs flowing through the nation appears to be on the rise. One indication of local police’s criminal ties was uncovered in late 2016, when at least ten Costa Rican police officers were arrested in an operation against a transnational drug network. Moreover, Costa Rica has seen its security forces challenged by the abrupt escalation in drug-related violence as native gangs evolve, and has responded with potentially worrying measures. By the end of 2017, the government aims to boost police ranks by cutting down on training time, a move that risks weakening the efficiency and trustworthiness of the force.

The Worst

Honduras 17-03-16-policia-honduras Honduras may have the most criminally corroded and least trusted police force in the region, according to public perception surveys. In 2016, however, the country took some steps towards cleaning house. The nation launched an extensive police reform effort following allegations that top-ranking officers had plotted the assassination of the country’s drug czar under orders from drug traffickers. The reform commission made impressive advances, and by early 2017 had reportedly forced over 2,500 officers to lose their position, or almost 20 percent of the force. However, this probing process has already met with resistance, with the reform commission starting to receive death threats almost immediately. Similarly to Costa Rica, however, Honduras’s reform commission seeks to boost police numbers to double the current amount by 2022, which may be counterproductive if standards are lowered. Much rides on this reform bringing about long-term changes. In the past, failed purges have been followed by the creation of new elite forces such as the Military Police (PMOP), which is currently more trusted by Hondurans than any other security force. But this militarization of public security has seen fatal abuses and cases of apparent impunity, according to the US Human Rights Report. Mexico 17-03-16-policia-mexico In Mexico, organized crime has deeply permeated police institutions. The municipal forces are probably the most corroded and in the past have acted as private hit squads for mayors with drug ties. This was allegedly the case in the well-known disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero state. The US Human Rights Report says that state and local police “were involved in kidnapping, extortion, and providing protection for, or acting directly on behalf of, organized crime and drug traffickers.” Furthermore, police officers who failed vetting procedures were kept on duty, the report adds. This corrosion has had repercussions in Mexico’s war on drugs, which has become increasingly militarized. Despite being responsible for a host of human rights abuses, the army remains the most trusted institution for tackling organized crime, and will probably remain so as long as the police do not become a more reliable and efficient force. Dominican Republic 17-03-16-policia-DR One of Latin America’s most notoriously corrupt forces, Dominican police have been accused of everything from petty corruption to running their own drug trafficking networks. The US State Department report also points out that in 2016 “police officers particularly targeted undocumented immigrants of Haitian descent to extort money by threatening deportation.” According to the report, however, judicial efforts are hampered by widespread tolerance for “petty corruption.” The report also states that police in the Dominican Republic — as in many other countries — operate in a “dangerous environment” where many civilians own guns and urban homicides are frequent. This reality may push officers to adopt excess force at times on criminals and civilians alike. El Salvador and Brazil 17-03-16-policia-choque-brasil In El Salvador the police are routinely accused of infiltration by gangs, extrajudicial killings and of forming death squads. Brazil also has a huge problem with excessive use of violence by its heavy-handed military police. But many such cases are investigated in special military police courts, which has cause a large number to expire under the statute of limitations, according to the US State Department report. Nevertheless, public trust in Brazilian and Salvadoran police is relatively high compared to the rest of the region. This may be at least partly due to the great public security threats faced by the public, who then rely more on state authorities. The dangers of a weakened police force was illustrated only last February, when a police strike in the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo saw murder rates increase sixfold, with over 130 killings in one week.

Colombian Marijuana Seizure in Chile Could Signal Market Shifts


More than 400 kilograms of high-quality marijuana from Colombia were seized in Santiago, Chile, a sign that Colombian traffickers may be increasing exports of a drug typically produced for domestic consumption.  

A joint operation by authorities from Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru led to the seizure of 426 kilograms of a Colombian strain of marijuana known as “cripy,” as well as the dismantling of a Colombian gang that was hoping to sell the drug in Santiago, reported Cooperativa.

Police found the load in a truck that came from Colombia and reached Chile through the northern city of Arica. The seizure, valued at an estimated $9 million, is the largest ever recorded for this strain of marijuana in Chile.

Three Colombians were captured during the operation, including the alleged leader of the trafficking organization, EFE reported.

International seizures of marijuana from Colombia have grown almost tenfold in the past few years, according to official statistics, climbing from around 520 kilograms in 2012 to more than 5,100 kilograms in 2016.

InSight Crime Analysis

The record-breaking seizure of “cripy” marijuana in Santiago, combined with the overall rise in international seizures, may signal that Colombian marijuana traffickers are trying to expand into new markets across Latin America.

Known for having up to 20 percent higher THC levels than other types of marijuana, Colombian “cripy” is also significantly more expensive than lower-quality product. In Colombia, the heart of the “cripy” trade is located in the southwestern departments of Cauca and Valle, and has turned into a key revenue source for local organized crime groups.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Chile

“Cripy” has traditionally been produced laregly for domestic Colombian consumption. But the growing demand from neighboring countries and the profits that the strain can offer may have persuaded Colombian traffickers to look at other markets from across the region.

Together with Trinidad and Tobago, authorities believe Chile has turned into one of the favored destinations for Colombians hoping to export and sell the high-quality marijuana. The drug is typically smuggled from Colombia and sold in Santiago and the city port of Antofagasta, where it is traded at much higher prices than in Colombia. While a kilogram of “cripy” costs an estimated $54 in Colombia, the price in Chile can go up to $5,000

Chile’s lucrative drug market has long been fed by Paraguay, South America’s largest marijuana producer. In 2014, authorities in Argentina seized a record-breaking 8.5 tons of Paraguayan marijuana that was destined to Chile. This week’s historic seizure of the Colombian “cripy” strain could be a sign that supply and demand patterns are changing across the region.

As Youth Drug Use Rises, Chile Tries Treatment Rather Than Punishment


Substance abuse by at-risk children and adolescents in Chile is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge that can have a negative effect on the country’s development.

Normally Chile is marked as an example of successful human development in Latin America. More than its immediate neighbors, the country is known for its strong economy and is characterized by its progressive attitude on social issues. Despite (or perhaps because of) these impressive achievements, the country is also fighting certain problems that sometimes come with purchasing power, including the increased consumption of illicit substances.

Chile typically ranks among the highest in consumption levels among secondary education students in the region. The rates show an upward spiral due to an increase in the popularity of inhalants and cocaine derivatives. In 2009, for example, the country registered the highest prevalence of cocaine among secondary students of any country in the Americas. A rate of 6.7 percent was trailed by the United States at 4.6 percent.

*This article was translated, edited for length and clarity and published with the permission of the Inter-American Development Bank’s blog Sin Miedos. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

As part of an effort to mitigate the damage, Chile has been working with children charged with drug crimes to offer them an assortment of assistance options, in order to encourage healthier habits, lower violence rates and improve the opportunity for reintegration into family and social life.

The drug and alcohol treatement program for adolescent offenders, known by its Spanish acronym PAMOH, is a rehabilitation and social adjustment initiative for juvenile delinquents and young adults involved in drugs in the city of Valparaíso. Launched in 2010, this program applies the therapeutic focus of the Model for Human Occupation (MOHO). The program is designed to offer substance abuse treatment for juvenile delinquents between the ages of 14 and 18, but help is offered until the program participants turn 20. The focus of the program is based on the identification of key beneficiaries, applied in ways that encourage the formation of positive habits and an improvement of physical and mental capacities.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Chile

PAMOH was established as a result of Law 20.084, which stipulates ample resources for the treatment of adolescents with drug charges and promotes the coordination of the Health, Justice and Interior Ministries. The program supports a holistic approach centered on health (as opposed to those that favor the law and emphasize punishment) to treat young drug users. Before the program was launched, a link was discovered between the consumption of drugs and juvenile delinquency; approximately 80 percent of young people with a criminal charge were also marijuana consumers, while 50 percent declared that they consumed derivatives of cocaine. However, the juvenile delinquents that consumed marijuana only received treatment in 27 percent of the cases, while those who indicated that they used cocaine received treatment in just 46 percent of the cases.

The program created an extensive diagnostic to identify the risk factors for the program participants. As part of the process, they constructed profiles that included their family histories, health, patterns of daily activities, interests, values and needs. The treatment-related part of the program was centered on the development of healthy routines through sessions of individual and group therapy. Free time activities included trips to public places, sports, team-building projects and other activities designed to improve the social abilities of the participants. All of these activities were adapted depending on the customs and habits of people from Valparaíso in order for the program to be more accessible to the participants.

Although the program still lacks a complete evaluation, it seems to offer a positive focus for substance abuse in a social and health context rather than in a criminal context.

One critical component of the program was related to the reinsertion of the participants into the job market. They established a key alliance with Colegio Técnico Industrial de Valparaíso. The program could give recently enrolled participants information on possible work outings through distinctive courses offered by the institution. Through this alliance emerged a number of candidates working to become mechanics, electricians and welders. The hope was that the effort to offer career options would make sense to the participants — offering long-term horizons would reduce relapses and the possibility of worsening the situation.

The program also placed special emphasis on systems of control and evaluation, including a daily journal under the responsibility of the program coordinators where they recorded the performance of each participant day to day in addition to the evaluation sheets. They also performed an evaluation of the program as part of the “Good Practices in Prevention of Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean,” a program co-founded in 2012 by the Universidad de Chile, the BID Inter-American Development Bank and the Open Society Foundations.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

The observed results included improvements in physical, mental and sexual health of the participants. They also observed improvements related to the participants’ ability to relate to others and adapt to challenging circumstances, all contributing to the participants’ eventual reintegration into the workforce and society more broadly. At the time of the evaluation, however, no students had left the program, so it was impossible to measure the success of a program graduate.

Although the program still lacks a complete evaluation, it seems to offer a positive focus for substance abuse in a social and health context rather than in a criminal context. It is still difficult to evaluate the efficacy of the program without knowing the social and occupational effects it has on students after their time as participants. While program expansion is feasible, it is important to first investigate the results that the program has had on previous participants, considering as well the challenges of relapses, work situations and family and social relations. However, the program is a good example of how governments can approach juvenile delinquency and substance abuse in a productive manner, transforming its effects on vulnerable segments of the population. 

*This article was translated, edited for length and clarity and published with the permission of the Inter-American Development Bank’s blog Sin Miedos. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.