SANTIAGO – A new investigation by Ciper revealed that organized crime controls around 174 neighborhoods in the Metropolitan region. Areas dominated by drug trafficking increased by 117 percent between 2009 and 2020. Public security expert Lucía Dammert attributes the increase to demand and failed policies.
About 975,000 people in Santiago live in areas controlled by drug traffickers, according to a report by investigative group Ciper. Organized crime has a detrimental effect on the services available in areas that already suffer from the state’s neglect. Public security expert Lucía Dammert told Chile Today that drug gangs flourish when corruption is rife.
Gang shootouts are common in neighborhoods like La Pincoya in northern Santiago’s Huechuraba district. The situation is similar in the southern and western districts, and not unusual in the more affluent districts in the east. Children learn to live with violence, while grownups remain silent to avoid retaliation.
Ciper quoted victims as saying “[drug users] used to keep a low profile and would hide, but now they do it in broad daylight.” Dammert said the increase in narco-controlled areas comes on the back of a lack of drug policies. “This is a public health issue rather than a patrolling problem … when there’s demand [for drugs] there will be supply … and here is where we have done very little.”
Dammert said the state has failed not only in preventing drug abuse, but also in understanding that these marginalized areas will be controlled by someone, “and in this case it isn’t the state, it’s criminal organizations, smaller groups that have increased their presence.”
Police in Gang-Controlled Areas
Police rarely intervene in gang violence although several officers die every year during raids and shootouts with gangs. While police are ineffective, the root cause is neglect by the state, Dammer said. “Many of these neighborhoods suffer from the abandonment of the state; they lack several things, so the alternative for the youth is to join these groups.” Criminal justice is another issue, as usually the weakest players get punished while the cartel hierarchy remains intact, she added.
Also, “criminal groups flourish when there is corruption. If there is little corruption in the state and low levels of impunity, it is very difficult for these organizations to grow,” according to Dammert. Large-scale corruption in Chile’s Carabineros police force has been uncovered in recent years, including embezzlement, bribery, and money laundering. Dammert said the link between police corruption and rising organized crime is evident.
Social and Territorial Inequality
Santiago’s inequality gap is evident between eastern and western districts. The state’s failures to produce social policies to increase equal opportunities reflects in the lack of services in less affluent localities. In La Pintana district, only two bank branches serve a population of 190,000, whereas in Las Condes 144 branches exist for 294,000 residents.
Dammert said the marginalization of the poor also fuels drug gangs. “[The poor] who are pushed out of the city end up living in these neighborhoods where gang control is rife, and where they don’t have access to services like pharmacies or employment.”
Drug use is a more relevant element, and Dammert highlighted the importance of tackling use before fighting criminal gangs. She said social issues, including substance abuse, need to be addressed prior to confronting gangs, but Chile’s public service providers are too weak to cope, according to Dammert.
Ciper’s investigation also revealed that drug cartels buy social housing in these neighborhoods for illicit activities, reducing the offer for families in need, which exacerbates overcrowding.
Solutions for a Widespread Issue
“Nobody has the perfect recipe to deal with criminal organizations, but what we do know is that what is needed is a strategy to fight drug consumption,” said Dammert. Additionally, more intelligence is needed to tackle the problem. “If there’s more organized crime, it means that there is more money in the business, so the question is: where is this money?”
Urban inclusion and development policies are key to confront this problem. “It would be very difficult for the state to contain this problem with sporadic actions when criminal activity is ongoing 24/7,” Dammert said.