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Drug Gangs Run 80 Neighborhoods in Santiago, Chile

A policeman in Santiago shows a gun seized from gangs A policeman in Santiago shows a gun seized from gangs

An investigation by journalism institute CIPER has found that despite Chile's reputation as one of the safest countries in Latin America, 83 neighborhoods in the capital city of Santiago are effectively run by gangs.

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According to an investigation by Tabatha Guerra and Juan Pablo Figueroa of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIPER), entire sections of the city lack police presence, a gap which is filled by street gangs with names like "Los Vatos Locos" and "Los Guarenes." Most of these areas have no or very little access to basic services like public transportation, and schools are few and far between. 

Guerra and Figueroa report that an estimated 700,000 of Santiago's nearly 5 million residents live in areas controlled by drug gangs, and the problem is getting worse. Demand for cocaine paste -- a cheaper form of the drug -- smuggled in from Bolivia is on the rise, which has sparked violent disputes over control of street-level dealing in these neighborhoods. These gangs' level of control is so powerful that locals often do not dare report crimes to the authorities for fear of repercussions. 

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The CIPER journalists' snapshot of urban life in Santiago shows a lesser-known side of Chile, which has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most secure countries in Latin America, with a relatively effective court system and professional law enforcement. The fact that these drug gangs control entire neighborhoods in much the same style as Central American gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) demonstrates that there are still pockets where the rule of law does not apply in the country.

It also suggests that Chile may need to focus on securing urban areas in the country's interior, as well as securing its northern borders with Peru and Bolivia, the main sources of drug shipments.

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