Crime & Justice

Drug traffickers gaining clout in Chilean capital

By Sebastian Silva

Santiago, Feb 2 (efe-epa).- Even the youngest children have learned the street codes in some neighborhoods on the southern periphery of Santiago. Every time they hear fireworks or firecrackers, they know that they must return home: a new shipment of drugs has arrived and they need to take cover.

“We can’t normalize the fact that our kids have to hide because drugs are coming,” Cesar Alarcon, a resident of Maipu, one of the Chilean capital’s southwestern districts, told EFE.

Drugs, he added, “have always been here,” but the presence of drug traffickers has become greater in recent times and in many communities the maxim that “He who traffics rules” has become the way of the world.

There are zones where rival bands settle scores with each other on a regular basis, with shootouts in broad daylight and where it’s become almost a habit to hold “narco-funerals,” which are announced by bursts of automatic gunfire into the air.

“The scenario is of great concern,” the Public Ministry’s director of the Special Unit for Illicit Narcotics Trafficking, Luis Toledo, told EFE, adding that recently crimes that were more common in countries with significantly more narco-violence, such as contract killings, are on the rise.

Just in 2020, more than 700 murders were registered nationwide, a 33.6 percent increase over 2019, although in southern Santiago the homicide rate rose by 80 percent, a figure that the authorities put directly to local drug trafficking.

During the first 10 months of last year, in addition, the drug seizures on the national level increased by 15.9 percent over 2019, according to figures from the Investigative Police (PDI).

“The spread of organized crime in the territories is clear. The head-on war against drugs based on repression of the most vulnerable links has ended by giving more power and impunity to drug traffickers,” former presidential advisor on security and executive director of the Chile 21 Foundation Eduardo Vergara said.

Bloated with money, drug trafficking is expanding into areas where the state does not reach or has been slow in reaching, and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, with an unparalleled economic crisis in Chile and throughout the world, “buying loyalties” in these areas has become much more common.

“The phenomenon of poverty (in Chile) is much deeper than we think,” said Toledo, who added that it is known that criminal organizations have bought boxes of foods and other products for members of vulnerable groups in society during the most difficult times of the pandemic.

With more than 730,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 18,500 deaths since the start of the pandemic last March, Chile passed the first peak of the pandemic last July and currently is experiencing a second wave, especially in the southern part of the country.

Santiago, with its seven million people, for months was under strict quarantine and many neighborhoods are still enforcing home confinement on the weekends and keeping non-vital businesses shut down, a situation that has plunged many thousands of people into dire economic straits.

The Central Bank estimates that the Chilean economy contracted between 5.7 percent and 6.2 percent in 2020 and nationwide unemployment reached record figures last July at 13.1 percent.

“The narcos have had more freedom with people shut in their homes,” Alguina Sandoval, a neighborhood leader in Puente Alto, in southeastern Santiago, told EFE.

In her neighborhood, Sandoval knows how the organizations have snared the young brothers in a certain family, who – with the suspension of classes due to the health crisis – were at loose ends all day while their parents were working.

Toledo also said that in consumer societies like Chile’s the ostentatious wealth of the narcos has become an example to follow. “The young men … see how … they can make money much more quickly (from selling drugs) than via lawful means.”

Chile, in contrast to neighboring countries like Bolivia and Peru, is not a drug producer, but rather a destination country and a springboard for distribution to Asia, Europe and the US thanks to its numerous ports.

“Because we don’t have drug production in our country, the Chilean drug trade is distinguished by having a significant logistical ability,” the head of the PDI’s Anti-narcotics Brigade in the capital region, Harold Mackay, told EFE.

The big drug kingpins, he said, don’t live in the neighborhoods but rather delegate territorial power to smaller criminal bands.

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