A new study has shed light on the security crisis unfolding in northern Chile, a border region pivotal to transnational crime but where state authorities maintain only a minor presence.
A report published by research center AthenaLab in September analyzed security dynamics in Chile’s northern regions of Arica y Parinacota and Tarapacá, both hotspots for drug trafficking and migrant smuggling.
Despite these areas bordering Bolivia and Peru, lackluster customs controls on the Chilean side have facilitated the spread of cross-border crime and allowed foreign criminal organizations like Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua to gain a foothold.
Both regions registered homicide rates well above the national average in 2022, and the Chilean government is now taking steps to address the spiraling violence.
Below, InSight Crime analyzes three key takeaways from the report.
According to AthenaLab, escalating violence in Chile’s northern provinces is being driven, in part, by the presence of powerful foreign groups such as the Tren de Aragua.
“In northern Chile, Tren de Aragua developed its criminal business linked to the smuggling and trafficking of migrants, and there is even talk that they have managed to control some unauthorized border crossings,” Pilar Lizana, investigator and security analyst at AthenaLab, told InSight Crime.
“The dispute for territorial control caused by the arrival of the Tren de Aragua generated an increase in violence that was expressed in an increase in the homicide rate in 2022,” she added.
The stakes are high. Both Arica y Parinacota and Tarapacá house highly-lucrative drug routes used to smuggle cocaine and marijuana from Bolivia into Chile, driving competition between foreign and domestic criminal groups.
The Arica y Parinacota region had the highest homicide rate in the country in 2022, with 17.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants and 56.8% of killings linked to organized crime, according to official data cited in the AthenaLab report. The national average in 2022 was 4.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The proportion of murders committed with a firearm also increased in Arica y Parinacota, jumping from 21.4% in 2019 to 63.6% in 2022.
In Tarapacá, meanwhile, the homicide rate for 2022 was 13.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, a marginal decline from the previous year. The region still sits at almost four times the national homicide rate. Almost half of reported homicides were linked to organized crime and the use of firearms.
Foreign criminal actors are also increasingly numerous in northern prisons. A third of prisoners in Arica y Parinacota are foreign nationals, according to official statistics cited in the AthenaLab report. That figure reaches over 50% for Tarapacá’s penitentiary system, far higher than the national average of 13.6%.
Authorities have identified the Tren de Aragua’s commanding presence as one of the main security threats in the area.
In March 2023, Chilean authorities broke up a Tren de Aragua cell operating in several towns in the Tarapacá region. Prosecutors alleged the group had taken control by imposing extortion payments on legal and illegal activities in the area.
The AthenaLab report also highlights the lengthy border connecting Chile’s northern regions with Peru and Bolivia, making the area particularly vulnerable to drug, migrant and firearms flows. The study emphasizes how border authorities have limited resources, especially in terms of vehicles and technology, which prevents effective control of such a large frontier.
“One element to consider when analyzing the criminal panorama that has developed in northern Chile has to do with an uncontrolled migratory crisis. This is because groups such as Tren de Aragua have exploited the vulnerability of migrants to carry out their human smuggling and trafficking business. In addition, they have taken advantage of the lack of migratory control to enter the country,” Lizana said.
The port of Iquique, Tarapacá, is also a hub for weapons and drug trafficking, providing direct access to overland smuggling routes that crisscross the rest of the country.
“The border condition, the proximity to global drug producers and its location in corridors used by organized crime leave Iquique in a vulnerable position.The situation is impacted in particular by the actions of groups such as Tren de Aragua,” added Lizana.
Tren de Aragua has been confirmed as controlling territory around Iquique, including the municipality of Alto Hospicio, one of the largest illegal settlements in the country.
The Chilean government plans to invest $26 billion pesos ($28 million) in the construction of a new customs checkpoint in Quillagua, between Tarapacá and Antofagasta, as part of a national strategy to combat organized crime. According to Lizana, such actions risk being a largely reactionary response to the crisis and need to be part of a wider regulated migration policy.
A lack of government resources has also allowed criminal groups to gain a stronger foothold in northern Chile, according to the AthenaLab study.
Limited public services and infrastructure, among other issues, have driven many inhabitants out of the Chilean plateau, resulting in a smaller presence of state authorities in the area. Criminal groups have taken advantage of the exodus to consolidate their illicit activities, for example by smuggling drugs from Bolivia through non-authorized border crossings.
The municipalities of Arica, in Arica y Parinacota, and Alto Hospicio, in Tarapacá, have seen the construction of large-scale illegal settlements where the majority of the inhabitants are non-registered migrants. It is in these zones that Tren de Aragua has established its strongest presence, taking advantage of the weak control exerted by state authorities, according to the report’s analysis.
Personnel is also a key issue. In January 2023, a regional prosecutor said the Tarapacá region needs at least 13 more prosecutors to deal with escalating crime and violence.
In late September 2023, the Chilean government presented a constitutional reform project to create a Supraterritorial Prosecutor’s Office specialized in organized crime and highly complex crimes. The new body will have jurisdiction throughout the national territory and will be responsible for investigating events that require a supranational or transnational direction.
“Currently, regional prosecutors are exposed to threats and extortion that have a direct impact on the investigation and its outcome, so this type of initiative is a step in the right direction. However, no measure will be truly effective if the country does not design an updated security architecture with clear policies and guidelines,” Lizana told InSight Crime.
November 2, 2023