Foreign Relations & International Law

Chile’s Security Agenda: A Policy Challenge for Incoming President Boric

Carlos Fernandez Villablanca , Matteo Pugliese
Friday, February 25, 2022, 8:01 AM

Incoming Chilean President Boric faces numerous social and institutional challenges.

La Moneda palace in Santiago, Chile (Wikimedia,, CCC BY-SA 4.0,

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Gabriel Boric will be inaugurated as the president of Chile on March 11 in La Moneda palace. His new cabinet will take office to pursue a political agenda that claims to be radically different from the one of former President Sebastián Piñera’s government. Yet the transition team has not disclosed much about the incoming president’s intentions and strategy. The upcoming constitutional reform will certainly represent a cornerstone for Chilean democracy, but it should be followed by further reforms on social and economic issues, as well as on security.

The main policy challenges in this regard will be the extent of Carabineros reform, a comprehensive restructuring of the intelligence and security apparatus able to address evolving threats, and a political solution to the Mapuche conflict. This will likely prove to be the hardest challenge for Boric, given the strong opposition of the farming sectors and the political fragmentation in the parliament. Political parties and national media identified these issues as the key elements to address given the outgoing administration’s controversial security management and the escalation of violence in southern Chile.

The Buildup to the 2019 Political Crisis and the 2022 Election 

Former student leader and leftist activist Gabriel Boric won the second round of the presidential election on Dec. 20, 2021, with 56 percent of the vote, becoming the youngest president of Chile. President-elect Boric will assume office on March 11 in a handover ceremony with conservative President Sebastián Piñera. On Jan. 21, Boric announced his cabinet and appointed medical doctor Izkia Siches as the new interior minister, the first woman to hold that position in Chile. Maya Fernández Allende, a granddaughter of former socialist president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by the 1973 military coup, was chosen as defense minister. 

The significance of these appointments and, more importantly, the election of a left-leaning president is tremendous given the history of democracy in Chile. Moreover, the public protests from 2019 continue to have lasting effects, and a constitutional convention is set for later this year to draft a new constitution, which will include provisions related to human rights and the protection of indigenous peoples. However, beyond the symbolic choice, these cabinet appointees seem to lack the experience and background needed to address the urgent issues in Chile’s security agenda. Some observers thought that Boric was going to compensate for Siches’s lack of experience with an expert interior under secretary, but then he appointed another medical doctor with scarce experience in security, Manuel Monsalve, for that strategic position. Boric also chose as crime prevention under secretary the skilled official Eduardo Vergara, who previously served on his campaign staff as security adviser.

To understand the root causes of the 2019 crisis and the importance of this political shift, it is helpful to keep in mind the legacy of the dictatorship that ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990. In 1980, Gen. Augusto Pinochet enacted a new constitution, led by the military government that introduced a liberal market economy in a strong alignment with the United States during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Chile experienced significant changes in its domestic and foreign security agenda during Pinochet’s dictatorship, including the merging of military leadership with the executive power and tasking the political persecution of dissidents and censorship to Chilean secret police DINA-CNI. Chile’s foreign intelligence played a major role in preventing military escalations with Argentina and Peru over territorial disputes. Following the 1990 transition, relations between the new democratic government and the military caused political friction. In 2005, President Ricardo Lagos, from the socialist party, supported constitutional amendments that put the domestic armed forces fully under the control of the civilian government. Lagos also encouraged privatization of the health care, energy and infrastructure sectors. In 2006, another socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, promoted welfare and equality measures to support the working class, but the social gaps between the poor, the middle class and the elite were still growing. Between 2007 and 2011, mass student rallies took place across the country to protest inequality in the education system. Despite these problems, economic growth improved the quality of life for the people of Chile and attracted foreign investors to the nation, but also attracted migration flows from Peru and Colombia.

In 2019, Chile had a relatively solid socioeconomic situation compared with other Latin American countries and enjoyed the same level of development as many Western countries. It achieved the presidency of the U.N. Conference of the Parties-25 on climate and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. However, both initiatives were suspended abruptly due to unexpected social unrest in Chile. 

In October 2019, students began protesting after authorities announced a 4 percent increase in the cost of public transportation in the city of Santiago. President Piñera declared a 15-day state of emergency after the demonstrations turned violent with instances of looting and arson. But the protests continued and spread throughout the country, becoming known as Estallido social. In response to the growing protests and riots, the president extended the state of the emergency nationwide with the support of the armed forces. Human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations reported several cases of police abuse, sexual harassment of protesters and disproportionate use of force. The unrest resulted in the deaths of more than 30 people, with thousands more injured and detained. The political establishment realized that the crisis was so deep that it required systemic change involving a new constitution and a lengthy political process.

Policing: Reform and Reshaping the Carabineros

The two police forces in charge of maintaining public order and security in Chile are the Carabineros and Policía de Investigaciones (PDI). Both are part of the interior ministry, but they have different tasks and prerogatives. While the Carabineros is the law enforcement body with military status, PDI is a civilian police force highly specialized in criminal investigations. The Carabineros exceeds 50,000 employees and has an annual budget of $1.6 billion. PDI is instead a much smaller force with specialized units in forensics. After the 1973 coup, the Carabineros was placed under the defense ministry along with the armed forces, but a 2011 constitutional reform assigned it to the interior ministry. The Carabineros has become a gendarmerie force with a (long-debated) military status and is no longer part of the armed forces, except for during wartime or a state of emergency.

The Carabineros, however, has faced intense scrutiny and calls for reform regarding its behavior during the 2019 social unrest. Claims of serious human rights violations have been raised by various organizations, including Amnesty International and the current United Nations High Commissioner and former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet. And Gabriel Boric has become a key figure in shaping the future of the Carabineros. 

Interestingly, Boric’s rhetoric toward the Carabineros has changed since March 2020, when his tweets urged for a “deep reform of Carabineros” who “cannot keep killing people.” One year later, Chile’s president-elect has significantly moderated his tone and no longer talks about a comprehensive institutional restructuring of the Carabineros but, rather, of “improvements” that should be achieved through dialogue. Boric identified three main priorities: enhancing responsiveness to crime and a more widespread presence throughout the country, including an increased number of police stations; ending human rights abuses and improving professional standards of uniformed personnel; and cracking down on corruption cases that involved several generals and senior officials from the corps. So far, Boric has not publicly elaborated on how his government plans to pursue these policy goals.

One possible area of reform could be led by the Chilean courts. The office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC)—at the request of a group of Chilean deputies—was tasked with looking into allegations of possible crimes against humanity regarding serious cases of police and military violence committed against the civilian population during the social crisis unleashed in Chile in 2019. But the ICC ruled there were insufficient records and proof to initiate proceedings against specific Chilean agencies or authorities. The court stated that although the reported episodes involved attacks against protesters, it did not constitute systematic behavior of the state or its agents. This ruling shifted the remaining issues to be resolved by the Chilean courts, which have already begun proceedings against police personnel for the excessive use of force.

Security and Intelligence Reform: The Future of the ANI

Amid the 2021 presidential campaign, most candidates agreed on the need for overall reform of Chile’s security and intelligence, although with different nuances and priorities. Some of the issues in need of reform were best illustrated by the Piñera government’s unpreparedness when dealing with the sudden surge in extreme urban violence during the 2019 protest. One of the factors contributing to this lack of preparation was that risk assessment on political threats relies primarily on the interior ministry through the national intelligence agency (Agencia Nacional de Inteligencia, or ANI), a structure of barely 140 employees for a country of 19 million people (by comparison, the Argentinian counterpart institution has around 1,400 employees). The ANI’s mission is to provide the president with intelligence and information about any possible national security threat, while the Carabineros and PDI focus mostly on the operational and judicial levels through criminal intelligence and counterterrorism investigations. A lack of coordination through an effective fusion center and a lack of strategic analysis due to the ANI’s limited resources may have contributed to the poor management that led to damage to property and violence against people.

Boric’s staff has prioritized this issue and presented a proposal for restructuring the national intelligence system (Sistema de Inteligencia del Estado, or SIE) under an autonomous fusion center. The center would be led by civilians, who would direct the different units and bodies such as the ANI, the Financial Analysis Unit (Unidad de Analisis Financiero, or UAF), law enforcement agencies, and military intelligence, with hopes that this reform would boost the information-sharing process. 

The ANI, created in 2004, remains the leading agency in this regard, but it would need additional human resources and powers. The UAF is an intelligence service established in 2003, whose mission is aimed at monitoring financial crimes such as money laundering and terror financing. Yet the UAF is not officially part of the Chilean intelligence system. Boric signaled his intention to strengthen this unit’s mandate within the improved coordination framework. Another institution that is not contemplated in the current system is the department of penitentiary intelligence belonging to the Gendarmeria de Chile, the national prison service. Since a paragraph of Boric’s program is devoted to prison reform and Estallido’s amnesty, this branch may join the system too, given the growing role of jails in strengthening criminal networks and the risk of political radicalization of inmates who participated in the 2019 protests.

Before the social turmoil in 2019, the Chilean parliament had already introduced a bill to modernize the SIE by amending the 2004 law (no. 19.974) that established its legal framework and the ANI. The proposal would establish an Intelligence Advisory Committee, composed of the president, the ministers of interior and defense, the under secretary for security and the heads of each agency, but it also envisages the inclusion of the prison (Gendarmeria) and customs (Aduanas) services into the SIE. Interestingly, the UAF and the tax monitoring service are not included as full members at this stage of the bill. President Piñera’s government had repeatedly flagged the bill as urgent, but the political crisis and the constitutional reform have overwhelmed the parliament with other pieces of legislation. President Boric will likely pursue his own agenda, which is why his fusion center seems more relevant.

Unlike most countries, Chile has only one civilian intelligence agency, tasked with both domestic and foreign activities. Apart from the ANI, the national intelligence system includes six other bodies: the defense staff joint intelligence directorate, three military intelligence branches (Dine, Dirinta, Difa), the Carabineros intelligence directorate (Dipolcar), and one from PDI. The ANI is supposed to coordinate all the branches, including the military, but this proved to be a hard mission.

On Nov. 15, 2019, following the outbreak of violence, the then-director of the ANI, Luis Masferrer, resigned and was replaced by former Chilean Navy intelligence director Rear Adm. (ret.) Gustavo Jordán Astaburuaga. In January 2020, the new spy chief Jordán expressed his intent to hire at least 120 additional employees, to reach a total staff of around 250 people. The annual ANI budget is about 6 billion Chilean pesos ($7 million) and is distributed among the different divisions: intelligence, counterespionage and counterterrorism, analysis, social monitoring, coordination and finance.

Despite the ANI being a civilian agency, its top positions are also held by retired military officers from the Navy, the Army and the Carabineros. Some other senior roles are managed by prosecutors or lawyers close to the administration in power. The head of the intelligence division is allegedly reviewing the internal working process, in an attempt to develop predictive analytical tools rather than investigative reports, considering what happened in 2019. The counterintelligence division deals with foreign partners and allies, sharing information on a variety of threats mainly with the United States, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina.

Mapuche Conflict

Mapuche Community: Identity and Violence

Out of 19 million people in Chile, about 1 million are Mapuche natives; however, the 1980 constitution does not mention indigenous peoples. Mapuches claim control over their ancestral land, which is sacred in their tradition, but this collides with government concessions granted to timber companies, water industries and other raw materials corporations. For this reason, the Chilean state has been dealing with a low-intensity conflict in the southern Araucania region for decades. The current problem dates back to the 1990s, but it intensified in 2013 with a series of violent protests that led to police raids and detentions. That year, the United Nations urged the Chilean government to stop using counterterrorism legislation to address the Mapuche unrest, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights reiterated condemnation of this practice in its 2014 ruling. Despite these calls, the authorities in Santiago kept applying the terrorist law against indigenous people, which radicalized more Mapuche youths.

Many researchers studying the phenomenon in academia agree that the Mapuche political movement cannot be merely labeled as socialist. Recently, even Mapuche radicals distanced themselves from what they defined as the “bourgeois left” represented by Gabriel Boric. Aside from several political parties and legitimate movements founded by Mapuche activists, there is a network of radical groups and violent splinter cells, including the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco, the Weichán Auka Mapu, the Resistencia Mapuche Lafkenche and Resistencia Mapuche Malleco. Over the past decade, these armed groups have been responsible for numerous murders and hundreds of arson attacks targeting farmers’ houses and timber companies. These four major groups do not necessarily pursue the same strategy and sometimes disagree about who is a legitimate target.

While this conflict was going on, Chile’s domestic intelligence agency had a limited role in monitoring and analyzing this rising threat, as the only ANI headquarters was located in Santiago. As a result, the agency could not count on operatives on the ground or local branches, nor on technical equipment such as drones or wiretapping devices. Moreover, only military intelligence and law enforcement agencies are authorized to deploy undercover agents, which is why the situation in Araucania was delegated largely to the Carabineros, with a paramilitary-counter insurgency approach. The Carabineros has deployed both male and female undercover agents in Mapuche communities for intelligence collection, with loose judicial control. 

The Carabineros’ credibility and its intelligence capacity have been questioned in recent years. Past scandals have included fabricating evidence against Mapuche activists (Operación Huracán) and the involvement of a specially created tactical group (Jungle Commando) in the extrajudicial killing of Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca.

The tension in this region continues to grow, with hundreds of arson attacks occurring in Araucania during 2021. Radical groups have also been involved, with reported instances of them firing at an air tanker involved in the firefighting operations and shooting at the firefighters. In May 2021, a Carabineros officer was killed while dismantling illegal roadblocks set up by Mapuche militants, and in 2020 another officer (of Mapuche ethnicity) was killed in similar circumstances. Civilians have also been targeted in deadly attacks—a landowner and far-right politician was murdered by an unknown gunman in an area where Resistencia Mapuche Malleco operates; two local farmers were killed by insurgents during two different ambushes, in what looks like a further escalation of violence.

The Boric Cabinet’s Posture on the State of Emergency

On Oct. 12, 2021, President Piñera declared a state of emergency in Araucania and Biobio regions, deploying 900 Army soldiers, 15 armored vehicles and three helicopters to support the Carabineros in counterterrorism operations. Although Piñera promised the military would only assist law enforcement officers in their duties, this decision sparked criticism because the Army was empowered to contribute to public order, something unusual in liberal democracies where the military does not perform police duties. Regarding the deadly attacks on farmers, Army Gen. Luis Felipe Cuellar, in charge of the defense operations, called the insurgents “cowards” and asked why they don’t confront the military rather than targeting civilians. This statement provoked a heated political debate and the director of the National Institute for Human Rights (Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos), an independent governmental body, criticized the general’s words as inappropriate. This illustrates the difficult relationship between the armed forces and civil society in Chile, a legacy of the dictatorship.

The government arranged an online public consultation about the state of emergency extension; only 16 percent of residents participated, but 81 percent of them voted in favor. Turnout was low in part because of the difficulty of reaching rural voters by electronic means and because Mapuche activists boycotted the consultation.

In December 2021, the outgoing Piñera administration believed the escalation of attacks justified the extension of the state of emergency in the region, approved by the parliament. Yet the Boric cabinet’s vision is unclear, and the incoming head of state vaguely mentioned the words “Mapuche” and “Araucania” only twice in his electoral program. Until now, Boric has rejected the idea of devolving a special autonomy status to the Mapuche-populated region Macrozona Sur, the so-called Wallmapu. The president-elect insisted on the need to open dialogue and negotiations with Mapuche communities to reach a peaceful solution. Moreover, the incoming secretary general of the presidential administration Giorgio Jackson announced the state of emergency will not be extended.


President Boric will face numerous policy challenges in the field of security. The constitutional reform will certainly represent a cornerstone for Chilean democracy, but it should be followed by a comprehensive political strategy to end the state of emergency and solve the Mapuche conflict, as well as decisive measures to modernize the security apparatus. Boric’s cabinet will likely need to rely on skilled staff advisers and under secretaries to balance the lack of experience of some ministerial appointees.

Carlos Fernandez Villablanca is a lawyer and a Constitutional Law lecturer at the Catholic University of Chile (PUC). He has served as an advisor to the Chilean Senate and the Supreme Court, the highest body of the Judiciary in Chile, on matters related to human rights and public policy. He has specialized his research and academic work in public law and institutional entities.
Matteo Pugliese is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona and an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), for the program on Radicalization and International Terrorism. He is also an Italian Carabinieri (gendarmerie - armed forces) Reserve Officer in the General Commander’s Staff. He spent an exchange period at the Catholic University of Santiago del Chile.

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