Chile Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 17,77 million (World Bank, 2014)

Capital: Santiago

Languages: Spanish 99.5% (official), English 10.2%, indigenous 1% (includes Mapudungun, Aymara, Quechua, Rapa Nui), other 2.3%, unspecified 0.2%

Major Ethnic Groups: white and non-indigenous 88.9%, Mapuche 9.1%, Aymara 0.7%, other indigenous groups 1% (includes Rapa Nui, Likan Antai, Quechua, Colla, Diaguita, Kawesqar, Yagan or Yamana), unspecified 0.3% (2012)

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 15,653 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 24,170 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 61,400 (Military Balance, 2014)

Police Force: 65,000 (Republic de Chile Senado, 2015)

Small Arms: number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians is 1,750,000 to 2,760,000; the defence forces of Chile are reported to have 265,000; and the number of law enforcement firearms is 26,000 (Gun Policy, 2015)

Military Expenditure: 2.0% of GDP (World Bank, 2013)

Executive Summary

Since emerging from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990, Chile has garnered the reputation as one of the most developed and stable countries in the region. It has comparatively strong and independent institutions, low corruption and low indices of violent crime.  Its judicial system—the product of reforms ending in 2005—although not without problems, is not plagued by the sort of endemic corruption and inefficiency seen elsewhere in the region.

However, in recent years Chile has suffered a high degree of civil unrest as a result of a nationwide student protest movement calling for education reforms and an ongoing but low-intensity indigenous rebellion.

Chile does not suffer the corroding influence of major organised crime groups. However, it is a transit point for drugs trafficked from neighbouring countries Peru and especially Bolivia, much of which ends up in the domestic market, now a substantial one.

The security forces are well equipped, well-trusted and do not suffer from the high levels of corruption and criminal infiltration seen by other countries in the region. However, they have come in for heavy criticism over their handling of protest movements, and serious questions over accountability for abuses remain.

Opportunities exist to push for reforms that will see stricter vetting procedures for the police force as well as ensuring that it operates in a transparent and accountable manner. Furthermore, efforts could be made to help resolve debates between the government and civil society groups over a proposed reform of the country’s military justice system.

Security and Justice Context

Chile is one of the least violent countries in the region; from 2005-2011 the murder rate varied only slightly, fluctuating between 3.5 to 3.7 murders per 100,000 people. This represents a fall from the start of the century, when the rate was 5.7 per 100,000, but an increase on the lowest rate of the last decade in 2004, when it dropped to just 1.7 murders per 100,000 (See Figure 1.).


Fig. 1 Chile Homicide Rate 2000-2011

The government announced in early 2013 that the number of recorded homicides fell by 60 in 2012, marking an 11.8 percent drop. This percentage and figure, however, conflicts with 2011 data meaning no reliable count could be provided for 2012 murders at the time of writing.

Despite the low level of violence, the country faces security challenges relating to drug trafficking and consumption, local gangs and a small indigenous insurgency. 

Chile’s shared borders with cocaine producing countries Peru and Bolivia makes it vulnerable to the threat of drug trafficking. Indeed, the US State Department identifies Chile as a “significant” transit country for Andean cocaine trafficked primarily to Europe, although the country is far from the being one of the principal trafficking routes in comparison to its neighbour Argentina, for example.

In 2011, a government minister identified 140 overland drug transit routes into Chile, with more than two thirds of those originating in Bolivia. Many of these shipments destined for the international market are moved out of Chile by sea from the country’s ports.

Authorities seized 10.19 tonnes of cocaine in the first 11 months of 2012—a 19.2 percent rise on 2011—and 13.01 tonnes of cannabis, down 6.6 percent on the previous year. Approximately half of all drugs seized in Chile are found in the three northern regions of Arica, Tarapaca and Antofagasta.

International drug trafficking is mostly handled by Bolivian and Peruvian groups who sometimes collaborate with local organisations. There is little evidence to suggest large cartels or drug trafficking organizations have a significant presence in the country.

Despite its role as a transit nation, much of the drugs that cross the border into Chile are destined for the county’s internal market as Chile has the second highest cocaine consumption rate[1] in the region at 1.01 percent of the population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimate. Once in Chile, distribution is typically handled by relatively small, local criminal groups.

The capital city Santiago is home to the majority of street gangs which control usually poor and neglected neighbourhoods and are involved in street level drug dealing. According to a 2012 investigation, gangs control 83 city neighbourhoods, where an estimated 700,000 people live, or over 10 percent of the capital’s population.

Chile plays a significant role in the trade of precursor chemicals need for drug production--legal, though usually controlled substances. According to the US State Department, Chile is one of the region’s main exporters of precursor chemicals for use in cocaine production in Peru and Bolivia, and in methamphetamine production in Mexico and Central America.

Chile also faces a security challenge in the small but persistent insurgency waged by a radical faction of Chile's indigenous Mapuche people, the Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM). Since its formation in 1998, the CAM has demanded the return of ancestral territory they say was unlawfully taken.

In 2009, the CAM declared war on the Chilean state and renounced their Chilean citizenship in a written communiqué. The group have claimed responsibility for numerous land occupations, arson attacks and attacks on logging companies in the region. Both the Chilean and Colombian authorities have claimed the Mapuche insurgents have ties to Latin America’s largest insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Colombian government has proffered evidence suggesting a group of Mapuche trained with the FARC in Ecuador. However, there is little evidence to suggest a substantial and consistent working relationship between the groups.

Chile has come in for heavy criticism from human rights groups for using hardline anti-terrorist laws from the era of General Pinochet’s dictatorship against Mapuche protesters.

In recent years, Chile has experienced high levels of civil unrest—mostly related to the long running student protests calling for education reforms—which have seen violent clashes between police and protesters and accusations of police abuses and brutality.

At the last count there were between 1.5 and 2 million civilian firearms in Chile, over half of which were unregistered. This suggests Chile plays a role in the regional arms trade. Despite the high number of illegal firearms, the rate of gun use in homicides is comparatively low for the region at close to 40 percent. The global average is 42 percent.

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP)[2] , the perception of insecurity in Chile has fallen over the last 6 years. In 2006, it stood at 47.6. This had fallen to 40.8 in by 2010 and continued to fall in 2012, registering a score of 38.3. Somewhat surprisingly, this score still placed it above more violent countries such as Honduras, Colombia, Brazil and Guatemala.

Fig. 2 Perceptions of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

Historically, Chile had a written, secret, inquisitorial criminal justice system, though this was gradually changed to an oral, public, adversarial system through reforms carried out between 2000 and 2005. There are no jury trials, however, and instead first instance cases are heard by a panel of three judges.

The highest court of appeal in Chile is the Supreme Court which is made up of 21 judges, known as ministers, one of whom is elected by his/her peers for a two year term as president. The judges are appointed by the president, who chooses from a list of five names suggested by the court with the approval of the Senate. 

There is also a Constitutional Tribunal (Tribunal Constitucional), which reviews legislative acts and constitutional issues, an Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Calificador de Elecciones) and a Trade Tribunal (Tribunal de Defensa de la Libre Competencia) which mediates in commercial disputes.

Chile has 17 regional courts of appeal (Cortes de Apelaciones) which hear challenges against rulings in first instance criminal and civil courts and specialist tribunals in the areas of labour (Letras de Trabajo), labour and social security financial claims (Cobranza Laboral y Previsional) and family tribunals (Familia).

Cases are investigated and prosecuted by the Public Ministry/Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público/Fiscalía de Chile), which is also responsible for witness protection. There are both national and regional prosecutor’s offices, which coordinate through the General Council (Consejo General). There is also a Criminal Public Defender (Defensoría Penal Pública), which provides free representation to the accused. During the investigation stage, a Supervisory Judge (Juez de Garantia) from the Guarantee Courts (Juzgado de Garantia) oversees due process. The Guarantee Courts also hear cases under simplified, abbreviated, or monitoring procedures and oversee implementation of sentencing.

Chile has a State Defence Council (Consejo de Defensa del Estado) which performs a similar function to an attorney general in providing legal advice and representation to the state as well as mediating in conflicts between users and service providers in the healthcare system. There is also has a judicial police force (Gendarmeria), which oversees prisoners being processed and develops reinsertion programs aimed at avoiding recidivism for convicts finishing their sentences. The judicial system is overseen by the Justice Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia).

Chile has no Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office or equivalent despite several attempts to introduce one.

Chile has a distinct military penal code and a military justice system comprised of Institutional Courts (Juzgados Institucionales), Court-Martials (Cortes Marciales), military prosecutors (Fiscales Militares), auditors (Auditores) and a Supreme Court (Corte Suprema). There are also separate courts and prosecutors for the Navy and the Air Force. The military courts process military crimes and common crimes committed by members of the military while on active duty or, depending on the circumstances, when on military premises. They also try cases involving police, including accusations of police abuse, which has brought Chile in for criticism from civil society groups that claim the courts are opaque and not impartial.

Compared to other judicial systems in the region, Chile’s is widely perceived to be efficient, independent and not corrupt. In the World Economic Forum’s 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report, Chile ranked 24th out of 144 countries for judicial independence—one of the best scores in the region.

According to the LAPOP Survey[3] , in 2010, the mean level of confidence in justice system was 47.4 points, an improvement on the score of 40.8 in 2006. However, the system ranked below most other institutions in the country including the security forces, the government and the press.

Chile’s prison system—administered by the Gendarmeria[4] —suffers from numerous issues. Between 2000 and 2010, the inmate population increased by over 50 percent and in 2013 stood at 47,248, according to government figures, putting the penitentiary system around 40 percent over capacity. Of the 2013 population, 23.1 percent were prisoners on remand or pre-trial detainees.

In addition to overcrowding, Chile’s prisons have been criticised by the US State Department for their poor conditions, antiquated infrastructure and widespread violence, both between inmates and by the authorities.

Security Institutions

Maintenance of public security is the responsibility of the Carabineros de Chile, which are part of the armed forces, although since 2011 have answered to the Ministry of the Interior (Ministerio del Interior), not the Ministry of Defence (Ministerio de Defensa Nacional). Also under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior is the Investigations Police of Chile (Policia de Investigaciones de Chile-PDI), which is responsible for investigating crime under the direction of the Public Ministry, including drug trafficking and organised crime.

Chile’s military has 50,925 active members; 25,819 in the army (ejército), 7,321 in the air force (Fuerza Aerea), and 17,785 in the navy (Armada). Roughly 2.0% of GDP goes towards military spending, making Chile proportionally one of the biggest military spenders in the region, and its armed forces among the most well-equipped.

According to the US State Department, there is effective civilian control over both forces as well as effective procedures for investigating and punishing corruption and abuses. However, both groups have come in for criticism from civil society groups for issues such as the use of excessive force, abuse, and mistreatment. Law enforcement agencies have come in for particular criticism over the heavy-handed and at times illegal approach to dealing with protesters, specifically the Mapuche indigenous communities and students. The Carabineros have also been accused of unlawful killings.

According to the LAPOP survey, in 2010, there was a high level of confidence in the armed forces with the institution registering a score of 71.9 points. Similarly, confidence in the Carabineros is high; in 2012 the force had a confidence score of 65.7 points, the best such score out of all 26 nations surveyed by LAPOP (See Figure 3.).


Fig. 3 Confidence in Police 2012

The Chilean government’s intelligence agency is the National Intelligence Agency (Agencia Nacional de Inteligencia-ANI), which replaced the Public Security and Information Directorate (Dirección de Seguridad Pública e Informaciones-DISPI) in 2004. The Carabineros have their own intelligence agency, the Carabineros Police Intelligence Directorate (Dirección de Inteligencia Policial de Carabineros-DIPOLCAR) as do the PDI, which has the Police Intelligence Leadership (Jefatura de Inteligencia Policial-JIPOL). The army, navy and air force all also have intelligence agencies, which coordinate with the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Intelligence Directorate (Dirección de Inteligencia de la Defensa-DID). 

Chile’s security forces work with several international partners. The country cooperates with the United States on security issues predominantly related to drug trafficking and with Bolivia in counter-narcotics operations on their shared border, although a series of diplomatic incidents have at times strained relations. The Chilean military also works closely with Argentina and has a joint force trained in humanitarian work.

Chile’s 2010-2014 Public Security Plan (Plan de Seguridad Pública) identifies two main objectives: to reduce the number of households that report having a member fall victim to crime by 15 percent -- taking 2009’s 33.6 percent of households as a baseline -- and reduce crimes committed in public spaces by 25 percent, also from a 2009 baseline.  The plan focuses on five areas; prevention; protection; punishment; support and rehabilitation. It approaches objectives from both a social and a security perspective, including plans for new initiatives and programmes to tackle substance abuse, domestic violence, recidivism, sexual abuse and security in public places alongside policies to target the drug trade, increase police numbers and enact legal reforms. Plans include the creation of a Centre for Merging Criminal Investigations Information (Centro de Fusion de Información Investigativa Delictual) and Specialised Prosecutors for Complex Crimes (Fiscalías Especializadas para Delitos de Alta Complejidad) unit.

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

The most significant judicial reform seen in Chile in recent years was the 2000-2005 changes to an adversarial justice system. This process saw the creation of the Public Ministry, the Criminal Public Defender, and the Guarantees Judge as well as moving to public, oral, adversarial trials and establishing principals such as presumption of innocence, impartiality and the right to a defence.

At the time of writing President Sebastian Piñera had proposed new reforms for the judicial system which contain 36 modifications to the criminal process code. These are predominantly in the areas of protection of victims, the Public Ministry’s criminal prosecutions, police procedures and the judicial system. The main aim of the reforms, according to the president, is to close down procedural loopholes that were preventing effective prosecutions.

The Piñera government is also in the process of developing a new penal code to replace the current code, which is a 139 years old, and reforming the civil process code.

Reform of the military justice system has been an on-going issue. A reform passed by Congress in 2010 ended the controversial jurisdiction of military courts over civilians in some cases, bringing Chile into line with a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. At the time, the government promised more substantial changes to the code that have not yet materialised and Chile continues to face criticism for the system—in particular because the court still hears cases of security forces abuses.

In early 2013, opposition deputies proposed an initiative to repeal the military criminal code and establish a new one. The proposed code would reorganise the court’s structure and see military personnel who commit common crimes unrelated to the military tried in civilian courts.

According to the US State Department, the government embarked on a number of reforms for the prison system in 2011 to address conditions inside the facilities. Among the measures taken were providing inmates with more blankets and mattresses, improving food and sanitation, and increasing the time inmates spent outside of their cells.

There have been several attempts to create an ombudsmen’s office over the years, but these have all failed, largely due to political reasons.

Security Sector Reforms and Initiatives

Between 2008 and 2013, Chile received $39,727,010 in US military and police aid. The main focus of the assistance was in areas of law enforcement training and technical capacity-building, mostly in drug interdiction.

In 2011, the Chilean government launched its Northern Border Plan, a three-year strategy designed to tackle drug trafficking in the northern regions. The plan will see approximately $75 million invested in securing the border, predominantly through investments in new technologies.

In 2012, the government presented its 2012-2024 Chilean National Security and Defence Strategy (Estrategia Nacional de Seguridad y Defensa Chilena–ENSYD), which established the government’s targets for the capacity, objectives and functioning of the armed forces, and contained provisions for reforms in certain areas.

One of the main changes proposed is the repeal of the decade’s old military spending law that linked military funding to the profits of state copper company CODELCO. Instead, the military budget will be approved by Congress every four years. The ENSYD also included proposals for a new Inter-ministerial Security Committee (Comité Interministerial de Seguridad), which will coordinate security issues on a ministerial level, operating in parallel with the existing advisory body the National Security Council (Consejero Nacional de Seguridad).

The current proposed reforms to the justice system also included reforms to the police, mostly strengthening police powers in procedural areas such as evidence gathering, arrests, and entry and search warrants. The government is also proposing a controversial new law making it illegal to insult Carabineros.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

Chile is widely regarded as having one of the region’s stronger democratic systems, with independent institutions. The country has a bicameral National Congress (Congreso Nacional), which consists of a 38-seat senate whose members are elected for eight year terms, and a 120-seat Chamber of Deputies, which are elected for four year terms.  Congress is independent from the executive.

Among the Chamber’s duties are to initiate constitutional accusations against the president or branches of the executive, which are then adjudicated by the Senate. The Chamber of Deputies has numerous permanent oversight committees, and forms special committees to examine new legislation and investigative committees to investigate activities related to the responsibilities and functioning of the chamber. The Senate also has numerous commissions, some permanent, others specially created, and others specifically for budgeting matters.

In 2005, a reform was passed removing the last remaining aspects of military rule, including authoritarian curbs on the legislative branch.

Security and Justice Opportunities

In 2012, Chile ranked 20th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index with a score of 72. This gave the country the best score in Latin America.

The low incidence of corruption, combined with the fact that Chile has shown itself to be open to international cooperation, especially in security areas, suggests that successful engagement with the government on reform initiatives is possible.

Justice Sector Opportunities

Perhaps the most pressing area for reform in the judicial system is the issue of military justice. The government, the opposition and civil society groups are all in agreement over the need for reform but dispute the form it should take. Civil society groups in particular are pushing for reforms on accountability for security forces abuses—specifically ending the jurisdiction of military over security force abuses against civilians—and reforming the anti-terrorism law, which they say is used indiscriminately. Efforts could be made to mediate this debate and ensure that an effective resolution is reached.

The measures introduced in 2011 by the government to address poor conditions in the prison system are welcome. Ensuring that the government continues to address the problem is advised, particularly considering the fact that Chile is one of the most affluent nations in the region and appears to still be operating an out-of-date penitentiary system.

Security Sector Opportunities

The incidence of misconduct in both the police force and military is a concern and should be broached with the government, particularly in light of civil unrest in for the form of student protests. Efforts could be made to ensure that members of the security forces are vetted properly and investigated thoroughly if accused of abuse.

Chile recently announced its intention to increase international security cooperation, although this was mostly in reference to neighbouring countries. The interdiction of trafficked substances represents perhaps one of the stronger opportunities for international engagement on security issues. Chile’s security forces have demonstrated a desire to focus on technology-based solutions in this area and would likely welcome training, technical assistance and technology transfers.

Civil Society Actors for Engagement

Chile has a thriving civil society sector, although most organisations focus on issues such as poverty, social exclusion, development and the environment. The Chilean Association of non-government organisations (NGOs) (Asociación Chilena de Organismos No Gubernmentales) brings many of these groups together.

Activa is an NGO dedicated to promoting social development, citizen rights and participation, and access to information, which often works on issues related to security such as drug trafficking, femicides, domestic abuse and common crime. The Corporation for the Promotion and Defence of the Rights of the People[5] (Corporación de Promoción y Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo–CODEPU) is a notable human rights NGO that frequently works in areas such as monitoring security forces abuses.

International NGOs, especially Human Rights Watch, have been the most active in calling for judicial reforms, predominantly in the areas of reforming the military justice system and the controversial anti-terrorism law.


Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2012 – Chile,” June 2012

Gobierno de Chile, “Plan de Seguridad Pública 2010-2014,” August 2010

Human Rights Watch, "World Report 2013," January 2013

Organisation of American States, "Report on Citizen Security in the Americas 2012," May 2012

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012

Small Arms Survey, “Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving Targets,” August 2012

Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, “Chile – Gun Facts, Figures and Law,”Data retrieved from

The Americas Barometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The Americas Barometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in Chile, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” May 2011

The Americas Barometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” January 2013

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2012,” June 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

U.S. Department of State, “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2013

U.S. State Department, “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 2: Money Laundering and Financial Crimes,” March 2013

World Bank, “Military Expenditure Statistics”, 2012, Dataset retrieved from

World Economic Forum, “The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013,” September 2012


[1] Though Chile has a high consumption rate, its domestic market is smaller than Brazil’s and Argentina’s in actual terms.

[2] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity.

[3] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher degree of confidence.

[4] The Gendarmeria is housed under the Justice Ministry.

[5] More information on their website:

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.