The Chilean democracy is going through a crisis that questions the political institutions established in the Constitution of 1980. This led to a social outbreak in 2019, triggering a search for a political regime that would earn the trust of the population. Trust in political institutions reached its lowest levels in 2019, close to or within the margin of error of the polls (4.8% in the government, 2.64% in the congress and 2% in political parties). Confidence in coercive institutions, which had historically been higher, also plummeted (to 24% in the armed forces, 17% in the Carabinero police force and 8% in the Judicial Branch and the Public Ministry). After the social outbreak, trust indicators gradually began to climb again, but did not reach the levels that preceded the crisis. The hope of the population seemed to shift over to a new generation of left-wing political leaders who proposed an agenda of post-neoliberal reforms and a new constitution.
The Chilean crisis carries an important element of human insecurity, caused by the precariousness of life in a highly privatized, unequal society that has, until now, been impervious to reform. In addition, a growing public security crisis is taking place. Health, poverty, employment and security consistently appear as the three main problems that people encounter, but since 2005, public security consistently emerges as the main problem. Despite the low homicide rate, in comparative terms (4.48 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020) and the fact that victimization rates have fallen from 28% to 16.9% between 2017 and 2021, after being exacerbated by the pandemic, the fear index has continued to rise, from 76.8% in 2018 to 86.9% in 2021.
More recently, the combination of several processes has caused a security crisis.
First, there has been an increase in violent crimes with a high public impact in the main cities (including new types of crimes, such as contract killings), in addition to the growing presence of Latin American organized crime. This has happened in the context of an emergency situation caused by the irregular, mass entry of migrants (30.7% of from Venezuela, out of a total of 1,400,000) in the northern part of the country, where rates of victimization have also risen significantly, reaching much higher levels than the rest of the country (30%). The result has been a xenophobic outburst and a demand for punitive responses and militarization. Governments have deployed the armed forces to control borders and have implemented, among other measures, processes to deport migrants, which were questioned in 2021 by the United Nations Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
Second, the conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people has intensified in the south of the country. This is a centuries-old conflict that has been exacerbated by the democratic system’s incapacity to implement a political solution. This context offered armed groups the ideal conditions to increase their activity and expand, while the response of government institutions (prosecutors, police and intelligence) has been insufficient and coercive.
These government shortcomings have become the third problem, contributing to the public security crisis. Due to the absence of reforms between 1990 to date (which led to high degrees of functional autonomy), the Chilean police is experiencing an institutional crisis, reflected in particularly serious cases of corruption and modus operandi that led to massive human rights violations during the social unrest and the repression of members of the Mapuche organizations, including falsification of evidence and murder. As a result, in 2020 the government initiated a reform process for the Carabineros and public security.
Political and institutional incapacity (both prosecutorial and police) in the context of an exacerbated conflict has incentivized the militarization of the conflict: a growing number of attacks committed by armed groups have resulted in a high number of casualties, property damage and increased lethality rates during military policing.
Opinion polls indicate that the security crisis was the factor that most negatively affected the government’s approval rate since it took office in March of 2022 (it fell to between 33% and 37%). Since then, it has been made clear that this was closely linked to the outcome of the constitutional referendum. The population’s rejection of the constitutional proposal on September 4 by 61.8% (as opposed to 38% approval) will have significant consequences for the political and security agenda.
Despite the fact that the constitutional proposal considered the creation of a plurinational state, rejection of the proposal was more common in the southern (69%) and northern (62%) part of the country. In communities with a high concentration of indigenous populations, participation was also high (77%), as were rejection votes (between 67% and 72%). In the border towns with Bolivia and Peru, where most of the irregular entry of migrants, mainly from Venezuela, takes place, rejection reached ranges up to 87% and 93%.
Opinion polls, such as the outcome of the referendum, indicate an increase in citizen and political demand for greater punitive populism, expressed in an increase in militarization and naturalization of the constitutional exception among other measures, especially in the sectors most affected by the public security crisis, in its urban (large cities in the central region) as well as in its migratory (north of the country) and intercultural (south) areas. This implies a deterioration of the conditions upon which a democratic response to the security crisis rests. Consequently, Chilean democracy finds itself before the challenge of rebuilding the lost legitimacy of political institutions and overcoming the public security crisis through public policies that strengthen human rights, the rule of law and, with them, democratic governance.
Advisor to the Latin American Network of Sustainable and Inclusive Security, professor at the University of Chile, former Undersecretary of Defense (2014-2018) and former International Advisor to President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010).