While organized crime groups are terrorizing many Latin American countries, Chile remains an island of relative tranquility. Victimization surveys show crime rates rising throughout the region in the last decade, but in Chile they have not grown markedly. For example, 37.8 percent of 12,000 Chileans surveyed recently had been the victims of a robbery or attempted robbery in the last six months, according to the Citizen Peace Foundation's most recent annual survey, released last October. The figure was slightly lower than the 2008 rate, though 7 percent higher than the 2000 rate. By comparison, Argentina in 2005 had a victimization rate of 47 percent, while Mexico had a rate of 63 percent, according to the Latinobarómetro poll.
What's Chile's secret? Some say it's the Carabineros — Chile's national police force, an arm of the Ministry of National Defense. Widely considered to be the most professional police force in Latin America, the Carabineros spend more time on crime prevention and civic education than their counterparts in other countries. They are also considered to be among the least corrupt, especially when compared to the scandal-prone forces in Central America and Brazil.
Some also argue that Chile's swift economic growth in recent years, thanks in part to a strong export sector for products such as fruit and salmon, has created a larger, better-educated middle class than its neighbors, making crime a less appealing, and less necessary, path to riches. The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report for 2009–2010 ranked Chile as the 30th most competitive country in the world and the most competitive in Latin America, with crime scarcely a problem for doing business there.
Chile's geography and ecology may also have insulated it from the reach of the drug cartels. It has no Andean soil suitable for growing coca, nor is it along any trafficking routes. Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, also cites several cultural factors that may keep crime at bay in Chile.
“Chile is a very institutional, structured society, much more so than its neighbors,” Shifter says. “A sense of control has been historically important, and governments of the last 20 years have made a number of reforms to the police that have yielded positive results.”
Reforms include the expansion of the forces, the development of community policing and a Block Watch Plan, similar to Neighborhood Watch in the United States.
Drugs are also shunned in Chile, more so than its economic counterparts in South America — Brazil and Argentina — which have both seen escalating ecstasy and cocaine use among the middle and upper classes in recent years.
“Chile is a little like the U.S. about the drug issue; drugs are somehow seen as a moral failing,” Shifter says. “A social conservatism makes them very cautious about the spreading of drugs because it could upset the order. Chileans are very concerned about what would upset order.”
Indeed, even if crime rates remain relatively low, there is a perception among Chileans that it is a serious problem, perhaps in part because the media tend to sensationalize crime cases and frighten the public.
“Victimization surveys suggest crime has been steady for the last five years or so,” said Andres Baytelman, executive director of the Citizen Peace Foundation. “But at the same time, it is certainly true that fear of crime has consistently grown.”
Yet experts say they're not particularly concerned about crime in Chile spiraling out of control. If anything, continued economic growth and social vigilance may help push rates even further down over time.
— Eliza Barclay