New forms of violence are appearing in Chile. These incidents, and the struggles for control between warring gangs that they reflect, have their roots in Colombia. Shauna N. Gillooly says this is the result of new migration patterns and a reconfiguration in transnational drug trafficking
In May 2023, police discovered a dismembered body in Santiago city centre. The perpetrators of this grisly crime had distributed the body parts around the neighbourhood.
Such a gruesome and spectacular display of violence is uncommon in the South American country. Chileans were concerned, and mystified. The young victim, Jhon Sebastián Grueso Vásquez, had emigrated to Chile from Valle del Cauca, Colombia, in 2017.
Violence of this nature may be uncommon in Chile's capital city, but it has deep historical context in the western Colombian region of Valle del Cauca. It is tied to a particular form of torture rooted in so-called casas de pique, or slaughterhouses, in the Colombian city of Buenaventura.
Buenaventura is Columbia's largest port, responsible for approximately 70% of all of the country’s imports and exports. The city occupies a privileged geographic position on the Pacific coast, and has thus been a strategic location for the government and for various armed groups in the Colombian armed conflict.
The battle for strategic supremacy in Buenaventura means its citizens have been subject to violent attacks from numerous perpetrators
Buenaventura's strategic importance means that since the 1980s, its citizens have attracted violence from numerous sources. Perpetrators include paramilitary groups, leftist guerrillas, the Colombian armed forces, and narcotrafficking gangs. As a result of this battle for control of the city, very particular forms of torture and violence emerged. One such form was the casa de pique.
Use of these torture houses was first ascribed to the region's right-wing paramilitary groups. As my research discusses, these groups would subject people to torture, followed by dismemberment, then display the resulting body parts as a warning to the community.
Buenaventura's houses are of wooden construction, so whole neighbourhoods might be subjected to the sickening sounds of torture. Criminal gangs can thus use casas de pique to psychologically terrorise and exert control over an entire community. The practice has echoes of Jim Crow-era lynchings by white mobs in the southern United States, which also used torture to instil widespread terror.
Violence in Colombia's Pacific region has driven waves of immigrants southward to Chile. Urban conflict between drug trafficking gangs La Oficina and Los Urabeños drove the first wave in 2017. When the dominant La Oficina split into two warring factions in 2021, the violence increased. This drove another wave of Colombians from the region, and from Buenaventura in particular. Some who left in 2021 were former members of La Oficina who had fallen out of favour with new gang leaders in the port city.
Until recently, there was no significant level of organised crime in Chile
Until recently, there was no significant level of organised crime in Chile. The recent rise in criminal activity may indicate that new groups are taking advantage of the fact that there is no pre-established organisation in Chile against whom they would have to fight to establish dominance.
To outsiders, this disturbing display of violence is an anomaly, particularly in Chile, which has historically low rates of homicide. But to those involved in drug trafficking, the macabre exhibition of body parts across Santiago indicates that old problems have been transported to a new location. It also indicates that struggles for control are taking place between more than one gang.
Colombian gangs are exploiting the fact that they face little competition from existing organised crime factions in Chile
Such spectacles of criminal violence are not just for violence’s sake: they are a tool of communication. Displays like the one left in Central Santiago in May this year indicates new gangs are arriving. It also shows that in the struggle for control, old methods of torture and control are being implanted into new areas.