Chileans buy more guns, private guards as security tops concerns

Violence driven by post-pandemic return to public life, influx of guns, and organized crime

After their pick-up truck was stolen at gunpoint outside their home in Santiago last June, Javiera Castillo and her partner began learning how to shoot a pistol to prevent future encounters.

Castillo, 23, a student and small-business owner who lives in the middle-class neighborhood of Maipu in Santiago, is one of a record number of Chileans worried about growing violence in the country.

“There are lots of robberies where we live and with crime the way it is today, it’s almost a necessity to have a gun in the house,” Castillo said at a shooting range in the Chilean capital, adding the attack last year had left her terrified of leaving the house at night.

“As we’ve been taking classes and training, improving our aim, we’re losing some of that fear.”

Chile remains one of the safest countries in Latin America. While violent crime reports have increased in recent years, officials caution that this sharp uptick is likely due to a resumption of public life after the pandemic lockdowns.

According to government data, homicides rose nearly a third in 2022, one of the highest yearly increases in the region, while violent robberies increased 63%. Kidnappings rose to 46, the highest number on record, according to the police, who detained 76 people in connection with the cases, most of whom were identified as foreigners.

Authorities say an influx of guns and organized crime have contributed to the numbers. That has hurt progressive President Gabriel Boric, with many voters disapproving of his handling of crime.

A March IPSOS poll of 29 countries shows Chileans tied with South Africans as the most worried about crime, beating respondents in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia.

This has led to more demand for armored cars and security guards among businesses and wealthy individuals, while the number of new gun registrations has trended upward since 2009, according to the most recent report by the ministry of defense.

The ministry said new gun registrations specifically for personal defense have risen 6% in the last six months.

“It’s their lives or ours,” Hernando Guerrero, Castillo’s partner, said.

Growing demand

Rodrigo Rivera, manager of Blindatek, a vehicle bulletproofing service, says he started armoring cars three years ago in response to requests from clients of his car accessories company.

Rivera says the company has armored 200 vehicles since. His initial clients included companies and executives, but the cars are also now hired by workers who travel at night or families who have been carjacked at gunpoint.

“In the region, Chile was probably the only country that did not have armored vehicles established,” Rivera said.

“This is a business that will continue to grow, it’s hard for violence to go down. Like in other countries, this industry comes and stays.”

Shopping centers in Chile increased security spending by 30% in 2022, according to the Chilean Chamber of Shopping Centers, while police data show that the number of new or renewed security guard registrations is set to hit 200,000 this year from around 145,000 in 2022.

“The industry is growing, molding and adjusting,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Miguel Calderon, subprefect of the police division in charge of licensing private security. 

Calderon added that population growth and increased economic activity also contributed to growth in private security. The data showed that new companies in charge of training security guards or for security monitoring services in 2023 have already surpassed totals for the previous five years.

More violence, less resolution

Manuel Guerra, a former prosecutor who previously headed public ministry offices in northern Chile and Santiago, said the amount of solved homicides has dropped compared to previous years.

 “This shows that people are more afraid of collaborating,” Guerra said, adding the state has been slow to respond and that many of the homicides are between organized crime groups.

In the last few years, data from the ministry of the interior shows a jump in the use of firearms in homicides.

Alvaro Hofflinger, an assistant professor at the Universidad de la Frontera who studies public policy and inequality, said that research shows an increasing number of people arming themselves will not reduce violence.

“In this scenario, where there is more tolerance for the use of weapons and legitimacy of self-defense, my concern is the formation of self-defense groups that use violence against certain groups like migrants or Indigenous people.”

He added political parties could use the rise in violence as a strategy to employ an “iron fist” instead of reducing income inequality.

The government did not respond to several inquiries, though Deputy Interior Minister Manuel Monsalve said the government needed “strong institutions” to fight organized crime.

After a third police officer was killed on duty in less than a month, President Boric signed new laws and allotted an extra US$1.5 billion to fight crime.



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