Why Chile Militarized Its Northern Border

Amid Security Crisis, Gabriel Boric Fights Illegal Immigration

Public opinion on whether the border militarization will work remains divided. (Sebastián Díaz)

Lee en español.

Key Findings:

  • On February 27, 2023, President Gabriel Boric, through Decree 78, deployed the Armed Forces to Chile’s provinces of Arica y Parinacota, Antofagasta, and Tarapacá—which border Peru and Bolivia.
  • By militarizing the borders, the Boric administration seeks to tackle increasing insecurity across the nation and the presence of foreign and domestic organized criminals.
  • Public opinion on whether the border militarization will work remains divided. Local politicians from the three affected regions are skeptical regarding the possibility of achieving a real change in the migration and insecurity crisis.


Although Chile remains one of the safest countries in the region, its homicide rate in 2022 grew to 4.6 per 100,000 habitants, up from 3.6 in 2021. With these figures and a notorious violence wave, Chile is facing the worst security crisis in three decades.

According to the Center for Political Studies’s national survey—one of the country’s most influential public-opinion polls—60 percent of Chileans rank crime as their top concern. Other concerns include medical care, pensions, and education.

Insecurity has increased the most in Chile’s northern regions: Arica y Parinacota, Antofagasta, and Tarapacá. In 2022, the homicide rates in Tarapacá y Arica and Parinacota were 10.3 and 8.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively.

Moreover, a March 2022 statement from the Chilean Prosecutor’s Office revealed a cell of Venezuelan gang Aragua’s Train (Tren de Aragua) was operating in Colchane—a small city next to the border with Bolivia in Tarapacá. The statement said the gang was engaged in human smuggling, narcotrafficking, homicide, extortion, and kidnapping.

The Boric administration has increased control over Chile’s northern borders as a first step toward addressing the security crisis. The policy focuses on confronting illegal immigration as one of the root causes.

According to Chile’s National Statistics Institute, 1.5 million legal immigrants—accounting for over 7 percent of the population—live in Chile. Álvaro Bellolio, former director of the National Migration Service, estimates the annual number of illegal immigrants entering at 50,000, mainly from Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, and Venezuela.

The Strategy to Confront Illegal Immigration, Irregular Groups

On February 27, President Boric signed Decree 78 to deploy 600 military officers in Antofagasta, Arica y Parinacota, and Tarapacá—located on the border with Bolivia and Peru. The decree lasts 90 days, but Boric can extend the measure for another 90 days.

The stated objective of Decree 78 is “for the Armed Forces to protect and guard Chilean frontier zones.” The decree grants the military forces permission to conduct identification, registration, and detention of people entering Chile through illegal passages. The same goes for migrants caught red-handed committing crimes.

With this approach, the government seeks to reduce the presence and influence of irregular groups, such as Aragua’s Train. It controls multiple illegal passages across South America, where its members extort and kidnap migrants in vulnerable situations. This has become a common problem for migrants crossing Chile’s northern borders.

To make sure military officers comply with international standards of human-rights protections when approaching migrants, the government ordered the Carabineros (National Police) to train them on “adequate techniques.” Without further detail, Security Minister Carolina Tohá contended that the Armed Forces would still be able to use their force.

The Boric administration has repeatedly blamed previous administrations for the current crisis. In November 2022, Boric contended that he was “trying to fix the big migration mess that the previous administration left.” In 2018, former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera explicitly welcomed migrants escaping Venezuela. Three years later, however, the Piñera administration expelled illegal immigrants coming from Colombia, Haiti, and Venezuela.

Rather than from larger migration flows, evidence suggests criminal groups expand due to the lack of rule of law and weak institutions. Aragua’s Train, for example, grew its operations when Tareck El Aissami, governor of Aragua, Venezuela, created “zones of peace” where entry by the local police was prohibited. Aragua’s Train later took control of these “zones of peace” by threatening to kill families if they did not leave their homes.

Public Debate: Insufficient or Excessive?

The deployment of the Armed Forces to the northern regions has provoked a heated debate on whether it is an appropriate decision. Independent Congressman Jaime Araya, for example, favors more restrictive migration policies to tackle the increasing presence of irregular groups and rising crime rates.

Chilean policy analyst Juan Carvajal describes militarization as “necessary” due to the soaring presence of irregular groups in Chile’s northern borders, which he believes is the main issue the government should address. He predicts that “the presence of military officials will dissuade illegal migration and increase the number of migrants attempting to enter Chile through regular means.”

In contrast, Arica’s Mayor Gerardo Espíndola remains doubtful. He believes that this military operation should go hand in hand with cooperation with neighboring countries and better diplomacy. For him, the problem involves other countries in the region, as well.

Byron Duhalde, a researcher at the University of Santiago, Chile, says the military’s duty is “to protect the country from threats and armed conflict. However, a family crossing the Andes mountain range—barefoot on many occasions—does not represent a threat to national security.”

On the campaign trail, Boric showed resistance to militarization to address security issues. However, dwindling approval rates in 2022 obliged his administration to change course. In Chile, the Police and Armed Forces enjoy approval rates of 73 and 67 percent, respectively, according to a survey conducted by the renowned pollster CADEM in November 2022. After adopting a more moderate and management-oriented stance, the Boric administration’s approval in February 2023 rose month over month from 24 percent to 36 percent.

NGOs Oppose Militarization

NGOs devoted to migration and human rights, in general, have had skeptical reactions regarding the Boric administration’s approach to address illegal immigration and raising insecurity. The taxpayer-funded National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), for example, expressed its concern because the decree grants military officials police powers which, according to the institute, could lead to abuse.

In reaction to Decree 78, Constanza Valdez of the NIHR said the organization sent a request to the defense minister to make public the protocols and arms that military officials will use when performing these additional tasks.

In a similar vein, the National Network of Migrants’ Organizations stated that it is “necessary to promote public policies that guarantee respect for migrants’ human rights.” The organization argues officials should not criminalize migrants for trying to enter the country, although how they reconcile that with lawful immigration and national borders is unclear.

The Luis Arce administration in Bolivia, on the other hand, has expressed concern over whether the legal border crossings will be ready to handle the redirected and larger migrant flows. In addition, he expects control from military officers to generate longer wait times at the border for legal Bolivian workers such as truckers.

As Chile’s land entry points have become busier, criminal groups have found new victims for extortion and human smuggling. The Boric administration is attempting to reduce crime by focusing on greater control of illegal migration and frontier zones. However, the outcome of Boric’s approach remains uncertain and public opinion is sharply divided between supporters and critics of the militarization at Chile’s northern border.

Mauro Echeverría

Mauro Echeverría is Econ Americas’ deputy editor. He holds a BA in international relations with minors in political science and anthropology from the San Francisco University of Quito. Mauro leads the research on local economic development at the Ecuadorian think tank Libre Razón.

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