Small Wars Journal

Organized Crime in Chile: The Challenge Ahead

Thu, 05/04/2023 - 8:43pm

Organized Crime in Chile: The Challenge Ahead

Diego Ramírez Sánchez

Abstract: Despite the fact that Chile is the most peaceful country in the region, and that the victimization rate has been steadily declining, certain data, if analyzed with a more complex theoretical framework, may point to the existence of a larger problem incubating outside the government's attention. This mismatch between reality and theory prevents the State from having a complete reading of the national scenario, thus affecting its policies and strategies. This situation can be remedied by complicating the theoretical framework used in order to stop seeing organized crime only as criminal organizations participating in illicit markets through the concepts of the feral city, criminal insurgency, criminal trinity, and the model of gang generations and the evolution of drug cartels.

This article originally appeared in Spanish as “El Crimen Organizado en Chile: El desafío que se avecina.”


Carabineros de Chile arresting organized crime members involved in illicit salmo fishing. Source: Gobierno de Chile,

Chile does not experience the situations of criminal insurgencies that exist in countries such as Mexico and Brazil, and maintains lower crime and homicide rates than other countries in the region,[1] there are signs that indicate that a problem of significant magnitude is incubating unnoticed. These signs can be seen in the publicly available data if they are analyzed critically and through conceptual frameworks that allow us to understand the current scenario, while projecting the evolution that organized crime may have. Conceptual frameworks that are not in use today, so that the analysis of organized crime is basically limited to its illicit market dimension and its consequences, without a territorial correlate or complete clarity about the actors present.

For this article, the definition of organized crime used by the Government of Chile will be adopted, complemented by a territorial perspective. The definition adopted in the government's sectoral policy states that “ is a set of activities carried out by organizational structures that act with the purpose of committing crimes and making profits. Criminal organizations may be local or transnational and may intermingle different levels of organization.”[2]  In this sense, within this broad definition, both drug trafficking organizations and gangs that are dedicated to criminal activity as their main focus will be considered.

In the Chilean context, it is no news that the country has been experiencing for several years a "migratory crisis" that has multiplied the number of immigrants living in the country, including a significant number of those in irregular conditions.[3] Hidden within this irregular flow, at least members of "El tren de Aragua" have entered the country, and it remains to be seen whether another third generation gang of Venezuelan origin has settled in the country.

In more general terms, we see how, according to an assessment by the Center for Investigative Journalism (Centro de Investigación Periodística − CIPER)[4], between 2009 and 2020, in the metropolitan region of Santiago, the number of territories designated as “high risk” by the providers of essential services due to crime, drug trafficking. The danger of violence in these areas increased from 80 to 174. The implications of being considered in this way are that these territories are, in practice, without access to these services, as well as physically separated from the rest of the city due to the fear of crime that prevails in them. For its part, the population affected by the existence of these territories presents a variation of almost 400,000 people, going from 660,000 in 2009 to 1,012,000 people in 2020. In other words, this means that 1 out of every 7 inhabitants of the region lives, in practice, under a state of siege by criminal violence and their quality of life is clearly affected. It remains to be seen whether these areas have state presence through municipal administrations, because if not, we would be facing a problem greater than the forced marginalization of access to services, since we would be facing the first indication of the loss of sovereignty by the state and the loss of the legitimate monopoly of force. But let us not forget that, in its actual practice, organized crime is not limited to the development of illicit markets and their natural consequences (such as violence and corruption), but increasingly involves the plundering of society when criminals gain territorial control of a place.[5]

At the same time, and according to data from various official surveys analyzed by the Center for Justice & Society Studies (Centro de Estudios Justicia & Sociedad) of the Catholic University,[6] it is possible to appreciate a not very optimistic panorama, since although the victimization rate of the country has presented a constant downward trend, from 38.3% in 2005 to 16.9% in 2021, the perception of insecurity has remained high, and, of all the incivilities that in general have been maintained or decreased, shootings and violent actions with firearms have increased.

For its part, the homicide rate while low at the national level (3.3 per 100,000 on average between 2005 and 2021), has had a steady rise since 2016 and presents notorious differences between different regions of the country. On the other hand, although most homicides are concentrated in the metropolitan region, due to the concentration of population in the capital, the homicide rate in the northern regions (Arica, Parinacota, and Tarapacá) soared since 2018. Finally, in terms of homicides, it becomes important to note that there has also been a consistent increase in cases presenting an unknown defendant, from 17.9% in 2016 to 36.9% in 2020. Likewise, since 2015 there has been an increase in the illegal possession of firearms and explosives, the supply of all drugs reviewed since 2012, and the occurrence of kidnappings from 2020 onwards, which had been historically low in the country.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that there was already a case of apparent imitation by a local drug trafficking group of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco Cartel New Generation), called “Jalisco Melipilla New Generation,”[7] which recalls the case of the Primer Comando de Massachussets (First Command of Massachusetts),[8] in which, although there are no direct links, there seems to be an inspiration or imitation at least in cultural terms. On the other hand, there was also a recent controversy over the alleged presence of the maras in Chile, which caused a great stir in the media and politics.[9]

In the case of the country's institutions, Carabineros, the country's main law enforcement and security force, has been going through a crisis for several years without being able to bring it to an end. The Institution has been confronted with cases of corruption and set-ups,[10] as well as accusations of human rights (HR) violations in the context of the social mobilizations that have occurred since October 2019.

Regarding corruption, there was an important case of illegal financing of political campaigns that is still on trial,[11] a case of a relationship between a mayor and a network of drug traffickers,[12] and several cases of mismanagement of money in various municipalities,[13] as well as officials of regional government structures involved in migrant smuggling.[14] In addition, an alert was received from the former Colombian ambassador to the country, Guillermo Botero,[15] warning about the level of penetration of Colombian organized crime in Chile in our public institutions.

Critical Infrastructure Protection and National Policy against Organized Crime

Faced with this general panorama, the Government promoted a new Critical Infrastructure Protection Law (Law N°21.542) that allows the deployment of the Armed Forces (FF.AA.) for its protection, as well as in the border areas of the country, in view of the insufficient capacities that the Chilean Carabineros currently have to perform this task. The problem with this initiative is that it does not reinforce the police in order to eventually solve the insufficiency presented, but only replaces them permanently by the Armed Forces in situations of serious and imminent threats, distracting the latter from their National Defense tasks and not addressing the underlying problem regarding a complete reform of the police.

In the report of the Undersecretary of the Interior, the National Policy against Organized Crime 2022-2027 defines it in a generic way, as we saw above in line with the definitions emanating from the Palermo Convention (2000), and qualifies it as one of the "main threats facing our country.”[16]. This policy also recognizes several of the factors that we have mentioned as critical in assessing the risk posed by organized crime in Chile: the increase in homicides, the use of firearms and unknown defendants, placing an important alert on arms trafficking, as well as the country's status as a destination country for drug trafficking, and not only as a transit country, and the role of migrant smuggling. It also recognizes the presence of drug cartels of foreign origin, as well as the installation of "domination processes" in prisons by drug trafficking organizations, in addition to integrating cybercrime within the organized crime to be confronted and money laundering.

However, the National Policy does not mention the plundering of the population of a given territory by criminal groups, nor the existence of territories surrounded by crime, i.e., it does not address organized crime as a danger to the State and its sovereignty, nor how this confrontation is a matter of power and not only of illicit markets. Nor does it integrate the State's intelligence system into the regional structures it proposes, nor does it express in practice a multidimensional definition of crime prevention, leaving aside multiple elements that would help to prevent crime: from community strengthening and development, to urban, family, educational and labor issues. As for police reform, it does not provide clarity on whether or not there will be any structural transformation of the police to enhance the fight against organized crime in its concrete expressions and common crime, focusing on training issues. Nor has the country discussed the structuring of a national security architecture that would allow for inter-agency work in the process of achieving this security condition, which is not defined in our legislation.

How to move towards a solution? A more complex framework

The central problem in Chile is that the problem of organized crime is not being analyzed under a conceptual framework that allows us to appreciate the overall picture in a complex way, and to make sense of the various initiatives being carried out. This could be solved by adopting the framework proposed by Sullivan[17] on the development of gangs and cartels and their competition with the State, as well as the theory of competitive control developed by Kilcullen,[18] the concept of the "feral city" proposed by Richard Norton[19] and that of the trinity of crime (Motivations, opportunity and lack of control with impunity) by Teun Voeten.[20] The use of these theories and concepts in an integrated manner could provide a way out of the conceptual vacuum with which the country's security is analyzed.  

Regarding gangs and criminal gangs, John P. Sullivan tells us[21] that the former can undergo a three-generation transformation process, from a 1st generation centered on territory to a 3rd generation that is politicized, sophisticated and internationalized.  For the author, 1st generation gangs are characterized by a territorial orientation, flexible leadership and a focus on territorial loyalty and protection. If any crime is committed, it is merely opportunistic, and if there is drug dealing, it is at the individual, not group, level. In the case of 2nd generation gangs, these would already have a market orientation, centered on drugs, the objective would be the protection of the market, its focus, the sale of drugs as a business, and this is done as a group and not individually. Their leadership is more centralized, they are not defined by territory and have political projections derived from their actions. Finally, the 3rd generation is the most sophisticated of the gang/criminal gang generations. At the time this theory began to be developed, this level was still considered emergent, and was defined as a mercenary-type gang, with clear objectives around the acquisition of power and/or money, as well as fully developed political objectives. This type of organization operates globally, and is much more sophisticated than the previous two generations, and can be considered "net warriors" and a direct threat to states. To achieve the desired influence, they have no problem in using quasi-terrorist or outright terrorist measures. With regard to gangs/criminal gangs, it should be understood that their territorial origin is not necessarily limited to a neighborhood or marginal area, as it can also be a prison.

As for the theory of competitive control, Kilcullen defines it as that in which “In irregular conflicts (...), the local armed actor that a given population perceives as more capable of establishing a predictable, consistent and broad-spectrum normative control system is more likely to dominate it and its territory.”[22] Thus, the population would respond to that actor that has the capacity of force to install a normative framework in a territory, generating a predictable environment, in which it is clear what to do and what not to do in order to be safe. This situation would generate support for the dominant group, be it insurgent, terrorist, criminal, or a mixture of all of them.

For its part, the concept of the feral city is defined by Norton as 

“A metropolis with a population of more than one million people in a state whose government has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city limits, but remains a functional actor in the broader international system.”[23]

But the author clarifies that a city is not a monocolored reality, but rather a mosaic of different colors, and that it can continue to function even with various categories in red, with existing patterns and their behavior over time being important.[24] This is why, as Bunker and Sullivan tell us, the analysis of the state of health of a specific city must ground the 5 criteria developed in this framework of analysis (governance, economy, services, security and civil society) to the concrete reality to be examined, and be able to delve into the existing differences between the various territories that shape it.[25]

Finally, in the case of the trinity of crime, the author complicates the relationship between poverty and crime, as well as the influence of inequality in this. For Voeten, in addition to the presence of a motivated agent, the existence of opportunities is required, as well as a failure in the control systems that implies a low risk of sanctions.[26] It is interesting to note that the author tells us, in this same work, that these sanctions can come from judicial institutions, as well as from the community and peers.  This trinity makes it possible to consider various dimensions of crime prevention, including, but not limited to, police action.

In this way, it is believed that an integration such as the one proposed could allow for a practical analysis not only of the economic expression of organized crime, centered on the illicit markets carried out by organized crime. It would also allow us to visualize the social damage that is being caused, as well as the challenge to the State, at its different levels, existing in our different cities and regions. Perhaps there are already partial defeats of the State in the struggle for the legitimacy of the normative frameworks in specific territories, perhaps we have increasingly feral neighborhoods and populations, and places where the criminal trinity is present in all its variables, and we are facing an imminent criminal explosion. Finally, Sullivan and Bunker's contributions on gangs/gangs and criminal insurgencies would shed light on how to understand, analyze, differentiate and combat the material expressions of organized crime, and avoid generalist responses. The lack of conceptual and theoretical development around the problem of organized crime, and the gangs, gangs and cartels involved, prevents the initiatives proposed and carried out from covering all the dimensions that organized crime has as a threat to the country's security.

Today there is no clarity on whether there are public security problems or risk of loss of sovereignty by the State (national security problems), and as mentioned, there are no definitions of the concepts of national security or internal public security, nor is there any record or analysis of how many 1st generation territorial gangs or 2nd generation indigenous gangs exist in the country or where they are, or clarity on how many 3rd generation foreign gangs have actually penetrated our country. However, despite the theoretical vacuum, the data presented are worrying: the increase in homicides, the use of firearms, the number of unknown defendants and the territories isolated by the effect of crime are indicators of the penetration of an organized crime that today has no face.

Finally, it is necessary to further develop this conceptual framework in a practical and theoretical way for the Chilean context. In the case of gangs and criminal gangs, it is important to be able to identify and locate them territorially, as well as to analyze their networks and processes by which they can advance in their generational development. It is important to generate clear indicators for the analysis of the state of "feralization" of the territories, in order to be able to objectively use the model proposed by Norton and complemented by Bunker and Sullivan, as well as in the case of the trinity of crime and the theory of competitive control. Operationalizing this theoretical framework will provide a much clearer picture of the threat facing the country.


[1] Peter Appleby, Chris Dalby, Sean Doherty, Scott Mistler-Ferguson, Henry Shuldiner, “InSight Crime Balance Sheet of Homicides in 2022.” Insight Crime. 8 February 2023,,de%207%2C4%20by%20100.000.

[2] Undersecretary of the Interior, “Política Nacional contra el Crimen Organizado.” Ministry of the Interior and Public Security. December 2022,, p. 8.

[3] Rodolfo Carrasco, “Extranjeros en Chile suman 1,4 millones y venezolanos concentran el 30% del total,” Diario Financiero. 12 October 2022,; Ex Ante, “Crisis migratoria: El explosivo ingreso de extranjeros irregulares a Chile en trimestre marzo-mayo.” Ex Ante. 1 July 2022,

[4] Gabriela Pizarro, Pablo Arriagada, “‘Zonas ocupadas’ se duplicaron en una década: territorios dominados por el narco en la Región Metropolitana pasaron de 80 a 174.” Ciper. 20 April 2021,

[5] Guillermo Valdés Castellanos, Historia del narcotráfico en México. Mexico: Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial México, 2013,  p. 277.

[6] Pablo Carvacho, Catalina Rufs, “Series on Criminality in Chile.” Centro de Estudios Justicia & Sociedad. January 2023,

[7] Felipe Delgado, Rodrigo Pino, “‘Jalisco Melipilla Nueva Generación:’ PDI desbarata a poderoso grupo narco de la capital.” Radio Biobio. 1 December 2021,

[8] John P. Sullivan, José de Arimatéia da Cruz and Robert J. Bunker, "Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 15: Primeiro Comando da Massachusetts (PCM) emerges a Massachusetts." Small Wars Journal. 30 April 2019,

[9] T13, “Qué caracteriza a ‘Las Maras,’ una de las bandas criminales más peligrosas que podría estar en Chile.” Canal 13. 20 January 2023,

[10] Daniel Lillo, “Corrupción en Carabineros: Condenan a 13 exfuncionarios por desvío de fondos en Dipreca.” El Desconcierto. 3 August 2022,; Montages: CNN, “Especial Operación Huracán.” CNN Chile,, DD.HH: Radio U. de Chile; “Amnistía denuncia "impunidad generalizada" en violaciones a los DDHH durante el Estallido Social.” Radio Universidad de Chile. 17 October 2022,

[11] Antonia Laborde, “Caso SQM: arranca el juicio por financiación ilegal en la política chilena.” El País. 14 February 2023,  

[12] Centro de Investigación Periodística (CIPER), “San Ramón: corrupción y vínculos narco, destacados del especial.” Ciper,

[13] 24 hrs TVN, “Exalcalde de Vitacura, Raúl Torrealba: investigan depósitos y $2.300 millones en su cuenta,” Televisión Nacional de Chile TVN. 19 December 2022,; El Desconcierto, "Corrupción en Viña: Virginia Reginato podría ser formalizada después de Fiestas Patrias.” El Desconcierto. 16 September 2021,

[14] B. Olivares Nieto, “Funcionario de la delegación presidencial del Tamarugal fue formalizado por tráfico de migrantes en Colchane.” Emol. 6 February 2023,

[15] Iván Weissman S., "Crimen organizado en Chile: el informe reservado que Colombia compartió con Piñera y Boric.” El Mostrador. 30 January 2023,

[16] Op. cit., Subsecretaría del Interior in note 2, p. 9.

[17] John P. Sullivan, "From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security." Working Paper No9. Paris: Fondation Maison des sciences de l'homme. April 2012,; John P. Sullivan, "Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America," Air & Space Power Journal-Spanish. Second Quarter 2008. Available at:ón_en_América_Central; John P. Sullivan, “Terrorism, Crime and Private Armies.” Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement. Vol. 11, no. 2/3, Winter 2002, pp. 239-254. Available at:

[18] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 126.

[19] Richard Norton, "Feral Cities," Naval War College Review. Vol. 65, no. 4, 2003,, p. 98; Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, "Integrating feral cities and third phase cartels/third generation gangs research: the rise of criminal (narco) city networks and BlackFor." Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 22, no. 5, 2011,, pp. 764-786.

[20] Teun Voeten, Mexican Drug Violence: Hybrid Warfare, Predatory Capitalism and the Logic of Cruelty. (A SWJ-El Centro Book.) Bloomington: Xlibris, 2020, pp. 31-32.

[21] John P. Sullivan, “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels and Net Warriors.” Transnational Organized Crime. Vol. 3, no. 3, Fall 1997, pp. 95-108; John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds., Strategic Notes on Third Generation Gangs (A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology), Bloomington: Xlibris, 2020.

[22] Op. cit., David Kilcullen at note 8.

[23] Op. cit., Richard Norton at note 19.

[24] Ibid., p. 103.

[25] Op. Cit., Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan in note 19, p. 766.

[26] Op. cit., Teun Voeten at note 20.


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Diego Ramírez Sánchez es Licenciado en Historia por la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile y en Seguridad y Defensa por la Academia Nacional de Estudios Políticos y Estratégicos (ANEPE). Diplomado en Estudios Estratégicos de la Academia de Guerra del Ejército de Chile y el Instituto de Estudios Internacionales de la Universidad de Chile (IEI-U. Chile); y en Métodos y Técnicas de Análisis en Seguridad Internacional del IEI – U. Chile. Actualmente cursa el programa de Magíster en Seguridad, Defensa y Relaciones Internacionales de la ANEPE y un diploma de Experto Universitario en Crimen Organizado Transnacional y Seguridad en la Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia y el Instituto Universitario General Gutiérrez Mellado de España (UNED-IUGM).

Diego Ramírez Sánchez holds a degree in History from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and in Security and Defense from the National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies (ANEPE). He holds a Diploma in Strategic Studies from the Chilean Army War Academy and the Institute of International Studies of the University of Chile (IEI-U. Chile); and in Methods and Techniques of Analysis in International Security from the IEI - U. Chile. He is currently studying the Master's program in Security, Defense and International Relations of the ANEPE and a Diploma of University Expert in Transnational Organized Crime and Security at the National University of Distance Education and the University Institute General Gutiérrez Mellado of Spain (UNED-IUGM).


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