Santiago, Chile (CNN)On May 1, Francisca Sandoval, a young Chilean reporter, traveled to a commercial district of the capital, Santiago, to cover a union rally commemorating International Workers' Day. It would be her final report.
As drug cartels expand their reach across Latin America, Chile takes a hit
During the demonstration, violent clashes broke out between local gangs, protesters, and the police. A group of armed gang members fired shots, leaving three people injured, including Sandoval. The 29-year-old journalist died 12 days later.
Sandoval's death has shed a spotlight on an astronomical rise in lethal violence recorded in the country. Similar incidents have long plagued countries such as Colombia and Brazil, but in Chile it's a fairly new phenomenon. Data ranges across Chile's public entities, however all present alarming figures. Between 2016 and 2021, homicides rose by 40%, according to Chile's Department of Crime Prevention. Meanwhile, the National Prosecutor's office found that murders rose by 66% from 2016-2020.
As homicides -- and the use of firearms -- continue to multiply, public safety has become one of newly elected President Gabriel Boric and his government's top challenges. He is battling both a powerful influx of drug trade-related criminal activity in cities as well as drug traffickers who are exploiting historic tensions between the state and indigenous communities in the south -- and who are now gaining control of territory amid an outbreak of violence.
Politically and economically stable, the country has long registered low crime rates compared to the rest of the region. Chile's homicide rate stands at 3.6 per 100,000 people as of 2021, according to Insight Crime, a think-tank that provides information about organized crime in the Americas. Compared with Venezuela, at 40.9 per 100,000 people; Colombia, at 26.8 per 100,000; and Brazil, at 18.5, Chile still ranks low in comparison regionally, according to the organization's annual "Homicide Round-Up" report. In the United States, the murder rate reached 7.8 per 100,000 in 2020, marking the highest annual increase in the rate of homicides in 100 years, according to CDC data.
However, the Insight Crime report also states that "while Chile long avoided the type of criminal activity and gangs that plagued other countries, that no longer appears to be the case."
Chile´s Department of Crime Prevention reported that homicides increased by nearly 30% between 2019 and 2020, with police attributing the rise to the pandemic, economic slowdown, and a resulting increase in illicit trade. While homicides dropped by 21.8% between 2020 and 2021, cumulative figures since 2017 show an overall uptick in the murder rate.
"Chile's situation is worrisome," Juan Pablo Luna, a political scientist at the Institute of Political Science of the Catholic University of Chile told CNN, adding that it is not alone as it descends into violence.
"Countries where the state is relatively strong and with solid democracies were supposed to be immune to this kind of scenario, but now we see that it was an illusion," Luna said.
He pointed to Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Ecuador, among others in the region, who have also been confronted with rising crime.
Ecuador's statistics are particularly striking, with homicides climbing by 84.4% in the past year, according to the country's National Institute of Statistics and Census. In Uruguay, the Ministry of Interior recently said there had been more than a 33% increase within a year. In Peru, the government declared a state of emergency in Lima and the region of Callao earlier this year to fight crime, targeting mostly contract killings. And in Paraguay, murders by hitmen also rose significantly last year, according to Insight Crime.
Experts attribute the rise in violence across the region to the expanding reach of global crime networks.
Alejandra Mohor, a sociologist at the Center for Public Safety Studies of the Public Affairs Institute at the Universidad de Chile told CNN that "we are witnessing a higher infiltration of international organized crime in these countries."
"Because of globalization, the type of crimes we see have changed. In extremely violent countries like Colombia or Venezuela, you may not notice it, but in Chile, Ecuador Peru, Bolivia and probably Argentina, the level of specialization of this criminal business is having a huge impact because it´s new," Mohor said.
However, this expansion in Chile hasn't happened overnight.