How Prevalent are the Crime Rates in South America

How Prevalent are the Crime Rates in South America

Submitted by: Dr. Lincoln Sloas

Assessing the crime rate in two South American countries

In August, we celebrate South American month. In this issue, I take time to discuss the crime rate of two South American countries: Argentina and Chile. It is here we now turn.


Crime Threats

There is serious risk from crime in Buenos Aires. Officially reported, nationwide, full-range crime statistics first became available in 2016. However, the police face tremendous challenges after an approximate eight-year lapse in tracking and reporting statistics, and the accuracy/integrity of reported statistics is difficult to gauge. Media coverage of individual crimes often creates disproportionate emphasis, and public concerns follow suit.

Crimes self-reported to the U.S. Embassy reveal U.S. citizens are most often victims of theft or non-violent robbery, principally in tourist neighborhoods. Street crime in the larger cities (e.g. Downtown & Greater Buenos Aires, Rosario, Mendoza) is a constant problem for residents and visitors alike. Visitors to popular tourist destinations should be alert to muggers, pickpockets, scam artists, and purse-snatchers. Violent armed robberies have also taken place in the northern suburbs (e.g. Vicente Lopez, Olivos, Martinez, San Isidro) and Federal District neighborhoods (e.g. Palermo, Belgrano San Telmo, Recoleta, La Boca) of Buenos Aires. Tourists who travel to the La Boca area should limit their visit to the designated tourist street during daylight hours only.

Crime can occur anytime and anywhere. Criminals are often well dressed and hard to spot. Thieves target expensive-looking jewelry, watches, cell phones, and cameras, and specifically target unattended purses, backpacks, laptops, and luggage, often only needing a few seconds to steal valuables. There are numerous reports of robbery of bags off chairs and from in between feet at cafés and restaurants.

Thieves on foot and motorcycles (locally identified as motochorros) regularly nab purses, backpacks, laptops, and luggage, and often target vehicles in stopped traffic for smash and grabs.

2017-2018 crime statistics reflect a decrease in the overall murder rate for Argentina, but a marked increase of violent crimes; specifically, 300 more crimes by ‘motorchorros’ in Argentina in 2018 than in 2017. Another increasingly common crime scenario involves spraying an offensive-smelling substance on an individual from a distance. Then, an accomplice(s) posing as a concerned bystander will notify the individual of the substance and, while pretending to help clean the substance off, will try pickpocketing the victim. This common scam has been reported throughout the city of Buenos Aires.

While most U.S. crime victims are not physically injured when robbed, criminals may be armed and are known to use force when they encounter resistance. There have been violent and even fatal attacks of foreigners carrying valuables. Favorite targets for armed robberies are banks, restaurants, and businesses dealing in cash or high-value merchandise. Visitors should immediately hand over everything demanded if confronted.

Criminals target individuals withdrawing cash from ATMs by following customers exiting banks. Travelers should use caution entering and exiting financial institutions and when using ATMs. Use ATMs in public places (e.g. hotels, shopping malls, event venues). In an enclosed ATM booth, make sure the door closes securely.

Use credit cards only at hotels and major stores/restaurants. Verify that shops and restaurants accept credit cards prior to purchase, as many locations are cash only. Watch bills and statements for fraudulent charges, and have account information available if you need to contact your credit card company to report theft or fraud.The U.S. Embassy receives frequent reports of stolen passports. Lock passports and other valuables in a hotel safe, and carry only a photocopy of your passport’s information page for identification purposes.

Long-term residents have greater exposure to criminal activity than visitors do.

One trend is for criminals to go through local neighborhoods and apartment buildings waiting for food delivery services. A common tactic is attacking victims upon entry/exit of their residence, enabling criminals to force their way inside. Many home invasion gangs seek cash, which Argentines frequently store in their homes. The Regional Security Office (RSO) has also received reports from victims followed back to their accommodations, especially from financial institutions. When staying in a hotel or apartment, it is a good precaution to call the front desk or security office to identify uninvited individuals before giving them access.

There have been robberies in isolated areas and occasional burglaries of hotel rooms and rental cars in resort areas, including while stopped temporarily at convenience stations. Highway robbery largely affects commercial vehicles. The robbery of trucks has mainly occurred on the highways of northern Buenos Aires province, outside the city; and on the southern roads of Santa Fe province. Highway robbers are often referred to as piratas del asfalto (asphalt pirates).


Crime Threats

There is considerable risk from crime in Santiago. The security environment in Chile is moderately safe, with comparatively less violent crime than in other Latin American countries. Pickpocketing, telephone scams, vehicle theft, and residential break-in are the most common crimes against tourists and resident foreigners. Violent crime also occurs, most often in the form of carjacking, home invasion, and mugging; express and traditional kidnapping and random shootings are almost non-existent.

The Public Safety Report 2018, published by the Ministry of the Interior and Public Safety, specifically focused on crimes related to home invasion: nationally, there were 44,565 reported cases of inhabited homes broken into in 2018, a reduction of 5.2% from 2017. This index analyzes statistics from Chile’s two police agencies, Carabineros de Chile and the Policía de Investigaciones de Chile (PDI), in 52 Chilean cities. Vehicle theft, theft of vehicle accessories, burglaries of inhabited houses and uninhabited houses, and other robberies involving assaults also decreased, by 8.35%.

The National Prosecutors Office published the Criminal Analysis Units report in December 2018, showing that the crime rates between January and November 2018 in the Eastern Metropolitan boroughs of La Florida, La Reina, Las Condes, Lo Barnechea, Macul, Ñuñoa, Peñalolén, Providencia, and Vitacura saw an overall reduction of almost 20% in robberies using intimidation with a weapon compared to last year; robberies with violence decreased by 8%, and home invasions decreased by 11.5%.

The report cites an increase in cooperation between the municipal governments, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and Chilean police agencies as the main reason for the decrease.

Taken as a whole, the Eastern Metropolitan area has had a decrease in crime. However, in the boroughs of Lo Barnechea, Vitacura, and Las Condes, where many expatriates live, there was a slight increase in the number of home invasions, from 912 to 945 cases, between January and August according to Carabineros’ statistics, indicating a 3.6 % rise.

The number of crimes reporting violence during residential break-ins remained the same in 2018. When residents are home, burglars use bats, knives, and firearms as intimidation. One tactic involves binding the feet and hands of residents and placing them in a closet while burglars take valuables. Apartments with 24-hour concierges are less likely targets. It is common for Chileans to return home from work after 2000 and to leave Santiago on the weekends; most break-ins occur when residences are empty. Summer vacation for students and many Chilean employees start around December 18 and last through early March; this is the peak residential break-in season.

According to the Metropolitan Statistics Report, violent crimes, including robbery with violence, robbery with intimidation, robbery with surprise or assault, homicide, and rape reached 62,806 cases in 2018, compared with 59,002 in 2017, indicating a 6.5% increase. Between January 2017 to March 2018, the report noted 8,188 crimes using weapons. The Investigative Police also seized 600 weapons, including submachine guns and rifles.

Non-violent pickpocketing is more common in Santiago than in other areas of the country, although it may happen anywhere. In downtown Santiago, the risk of being a victim of pickpocketing increases on weekends and after dark. Purse snatching and pickpocketing are more prevalent in crowded, tourist locations, pedestrian shopping areas, subway stations, and bus terminals, and on crowded buses and the metro. Criminals often work in pairs, with one distracting the victim with a motion or sound while the other steals the victim’s property. Restaurants, pubs, food courts, and major hotel chains are also popular locations for theft of purses, backpacks, briefcases, and laptops. Be aware of groups of youths, who frequently work together to distract people and then rob them. It is common for thieves to dress in a suit and tie to blend in.

The following are some common criminal trends in Chile:

The “Mustard Trick” scam happens in airports, public buildings, and on the streets. Someone “accidentally” spills a substance or notices a foreign substance on your clothes. While you are occupied dealing with the problem, an accomplice steals your valuables."Motoclock" is a new type of crime mainly characterized by subjects assaulting their victims, specifically snatching watches of great value and fleeing on a motorcycle. In practice, criminals enter as customers to various places, such as bars and restaurants in the eastern sector of the Metropolitan Region; they observe their potential victims, identifying people who wear expensive watches. Once they identify a victim, the criminals wait for them in the vicinity, usually in places with few people. In some cases, they move on motorcycles without a license plate, wearing helmets and carrying firearms, proceeding to intimidate the victim and snatch only the watch that they carry.“Maletazos” (name also labeled by the media) is a new criminal trend.

Criminals, usually armed, stand outside of hotel entrances. Once taxis or vans pull up to drop off tourists, criminals wait for luggage to be unloaded and grab the bags, throwing them into a get-away car.

In 2018, reports continued of ATMs blown up by so-called “gas-saturation” in order to steal money. This method entails filling the ATM vestibule with gas fumes and exploding the machine. Often, the money is destroyed during these attempts, but sometimes it is not. Usually, these attempts occur in the very late evening hours; on some occasions, criminals have warned people away from the ATMs before exploding them.

A “portonazo” refers to a carjacking or robbery attempt while a car is pulling into or out of a ‘porton’ (car gate). There were so many high-profile stories of portonazos in 2017, the government created a task force within the Carabineros to address the problem. The Eastern Prosecutors report for 2018 shows that between January and May 2018, the eastern zone of Santiago registered 727 cases, which is more than the 491 cases in 2017. The first five months of the year in the eastern metropolitan zone registered the highest record of portonazos since the phenomenon began in 2016 – however, portonazos have now become more common in boroughs that were originally isolated from these types of crimes. In comparison to the average number of portonazos reported in 2016 and 2017, there has been a 48% overall reduction in in Lo Barnechea, Las Condes and Vitacura. However, due to enforcement efforts in these areas, the crimes have now shifted to the boroughs of Nuñoa (+55%), Macul (+47%), and Peñalolen (+42%).

Two-thirds of carjacking occurs between 2100 and 0200 in the morning. Attackers are armed with either guns or knives, in groups of three with at least one minor involved. In 2018, the age group continued to be predominantly between 14 and 29. One quarter of reported carjackings occurred when the owners were entering their homes through the porton. In other cases, criminals stop vehicles driving on public roads or at exits from highways in Santiago. Other vehicle-related crimes include thieves reaching through open windows to steal valuables and incidents of smash-and-grabs. Cars parked unattended on the street have been broken into, even in affluent areas.

There has been a rise in gang thefts in malls, especially Parque Arauco in Las Condes, Casa Costanera in Vitacura, and Costanera Centre in Providencia, Criminals specifically target jewelry and high-end stores. Gangs of 4 to 6 individuals arrive in expensive vehicles, usually well dressed and in groups accompanied by at least one minor. These groups usually carry firearms, and will strike during the day regardless of number of clients in the mall.

There has also been an increase in bank robberies in the eastern sector of the city, particularly Las Condes, Vitacura, and Providencia. Armed gangs have injured guards and use getaway vehicles for easy access to highways.

Phone scams are common. In most cases, someone will telephone and state that you have won a prize, a family member has been in an accident or kidnapped, or that the caller is working in your bank and needs your banking/credit card information. Do not give financial information to anyone you do not know over the phone. For more information, review OSAC’s Report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Credit card fraud remains a concern. Police have uncovered various networks engaged in cloning credit cards and producing fraudulent blank credit cards. Some restaurants have been caught scanning clients credit cards through skimmers. For more information, review OSAC’s Report, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud.

Lincoln B. Sloas, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University. His research interests include community corrections with an emphasis on how individuals navigate substance use treatment services and problem-solving courts.

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