Running rings around the law, Chile's new generation of armed thieves stage daring heists
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Running rings around the law, Chile's new generation of armed thieves stage daring heists

The airport heist was like something out of an action movie: Eight armed men, dressed like airport officials, enter the runway easily, where cases of banknotes are being unloaded from an armored truck onto a plane bound for the north. They threaten the workers at gunpoint. Few words are exchanged.

Within four minutes they’ve disappeared in two high-speed cars, taking US$9.8 million — the biggest robbery in Chilean history.

The dawn theft at Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benítez (AMB) airport, Chile’s main international terminal, on August 12 wasn’t an isolated incident. So far, 2014 has seen at least 17 armed robberies of private security vans hired by the government to transport money to ATMs and other locations — adding up to a total haul of more than US$16 million. One such robbery, on October 27, happened at 1:30 A.M at a shopping mall; another followed just 12 hours later in broad daylight, right outside the Central Bank.

The  details may vary — a September 12 holdup saw robbers fake a collision between a car and a cyclist to draw guards out of their vehicle — but the fundamentals remain the same. Underpaid and undertrained contractors are no match for hardened, professional criminals. Of a wave of robberies in the first half of 2014 — some 166,000 cases in total — more than 90 percent did not result in any arrests. What’s going on with Chile’s armed thieves?

Meet the professionals

Chile’s rapid economic growth and modernization in recent decades hasn’t only benefited the formal economy. As journalist Ana María Sanhueza tells it, police are struggling to keep up with the growing sophistication of criminal methods. Authorities regularly impound devices capable of blocking GPS and cell phone signals, including police radio frequencies, at the scene of robberies. This technology is legal to own and readily available online.

Also easily accessible are the chemical compounds that thieves use to burn through armored trucks and ATMs. They use tear gas, expert escape drivers, and deploy “miguelitos” (stingers) to puncture the wheels of vehicles in pursuit. They buy cell phones for one-off use, and make use of apps like Telegram and WhatsApp to communicate without leaving any trace. In the case of a 17 July robbery of $42,000 from a money van parked outside a supermarket, as with the theft at AMB airport, many have suggested that the thieves must have had inside help.

Meanwhile, criminals pay close attention to the trials of colleagues that are caught, and trade stories in prison, to anticipate police methods. Many of their attacks bear similarities to the smash-and-grab bank assaults of now-jailed subversive groups from the Pinochet era — although any ideological motives seem to have been replaced with the simple love of money.

Who watches the Watchmen?

But crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. While Chile’s armed police force, the Carabineros, have a well-deserved reputation for professionalism and integrity, the law is playing catch-up with new criminal techniques. With the country only emerging from its 17-year dictatorship in 1990, extending police powers is still a highly sensitive topic.

Moreover, the widespread contracting out of security services to private companies means that police are far from the scene of many major heists — unless they’re guarding the guards already hired by the state. The Carabineros began temporarily escorting the cash-carrying private security vans, providing a peculiar modern-day answer to the Latin aphorism.

The massive privatization project begun in the Pinochet era has arguably failed to produce results in the field of security: the sector is dominated by several large firms, whose alleged lack of equipment and training is compounded by confused overlapping jurisdictions with the police, military and civil authorities.

See also: Have gun, will travel: The rise of Guatemala’s private security industry

The security situation at AMB airport in August — previously host to a nearly identical robbery in 2006 —  was a clear example. Airport security is officially under the control of the General Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGAC), which then contracts out responsibilities to private companies.

But a recent investigation by the Chilean Center for Investigative Journalism (CIPER) found that the DGAC management had been “captured” by retired Air Force officers, who enjoy overblown salaries and bizarre financial privileges (including control of Duty Free shopping in the terminal).

Untrained and outgunned

The generals of DGAC had further offered competing private firms “totally insufficient” funding to train and equip their personnel effectively, in cursory bidding processes that regularly failed to meet transparency standards. The security companies themselves, secure in their monopolies, cut corners on training but not their prices, defeating the goal of privatization.

The results have been clear, and five senior DGAC officials have been suspended in the wake of the robbery, with state-led security arrangements at the airport ramped up as an interim measure. But if Chile plans to continue hiring private guards to look after its cash, it should at least give them the resources, equipment and powers to do so properly.

Then again, maybe there are some things best left to the Carabineros after all. The idea of criminals and gun-toting private firms trading bullets on the streets of Santiago is hardly an appealing picture — even though it might make for a great film.