Is Chile safe?
Is Santiago safe?
I’ve lived in Santiago for a few months now.
Statistically it’s safe (ish).
It’s a bit silly to quote statistics. What does it mean to be safe? Is violent crime recorded on the same level as petty theft? What about state level corruption? What about pockets of crime which bump up the stats, but bear no relation to the neighbourood you live in? It’s a complex issue.
One the one hand, according to research, Chile is statistically a safer country to live in that the U.S on most counts. According to other research from the UN, Chile ranked number two in 2015 terms of home robberies.
Friends in Argentina lament the issue of kidnappings, in Brazil it’s guns on the streets, here in Chile it’s mostly street muggings. Not nice, but not on the same level.
According to the U.S. Department of Diplomatic Security:
The security environment as a whole is moderately safe, with comparatively less violent crime than in other Latin American countries. Pickpocketing, telephone scams, vehicle thefts, and residential break-ins are the most common crimes against Americans. Violent crime also occurs, particularly in metropolitan Santiago, most often in the form of carjackings, home invasions, and muggings; express and traditional kidnappings and random shootings are almost non-existent.
- No safe neighbourhood. There is a huge pay gap and class divide in Chile, with poorer neighbourhoods, such as El Castillo in Puente Alto suffering higher levels of depravation. But let’s be honest, it’s unlikely as an expat that you’ll be based here for any reason. The typical affluent expat haunts of Vitacura, Las Condes, El Golf and surburbs such as Lo Barnechea and La Dehesa are well protected. Nevertheless, this is the area with the most money and so crime is targeted. Vitacura is a lovely part of town, with some of the best restaurants, boutiques and galleries in town. This does not make it a safe place to walk at night. I’ve heard several reports of violent crime taking place when foreigners have mistakenly felt it was OK to walk around in the early hours.
- Day vs night. Most reports of violent crime seem to happen at night. Beatings, muggings, knife crime, guns, I’ve heard of horrible things taking place at night. Three recent cases involved people leaving their apartment blocks to hail taxis and being mugged on the way. Best to wait by your home until your prebooked taxi arrives. Busy, well lit areas such as bus stops and metro stations in the areas of Las Condes etc seem to be better, but as a foreigner you may stand out, so take a cab, don’t walk at night. Day time crime does happen, particularly pickpocketing and handbag theft, but most reports of violent crime seem to take place at night, especially in the more central downtown areas.
- Apartments vs houses. We are new in Chile and one reason we opted for an apartment was for safety reasons. Until we get our bearings I feel safer in an apartment block. True, the 24/7 security often amounts to a sleepy septuagenarian on reception, but following the safety in numbers rule, and based on an upper storey, I feel much safer than in an isolated house.
- Home security. It’s common for Santiago homes to be installed with CCTV, but these cameras are more about a mistrust of nannies (nanas) or other domestic staff than fear of crime. Electric wired fences, security doors and barbed wire all feature as crime deterrents. I’ve seen many houses with panic buttons, but with only one button in an obscure location it seems unlikely they serve any actual purpose. Many aren’t even properly connected to security services so I’m not sure how much value they add, personally. If you are very, very concerned, it’s worth noting that some apartment blocks are ‘white listed’ with the American Embassy. This means that the embassy deems the security adequate for its workers and every inch of the building block has been verified. A good realtor should be able to point you in the right direction.
- Transport security. Whenever I travelled by car in Angola I automatically locked the doors and placed my bag (if I was even carrying one) well out of view. Here in Santiago, it’s wise to take similar precautions as it has been known for thieves to pull up alongside and snatch bags while on the go, but the level of crime is not comparable to other parts of Latin America, I reckon. Don’t put any valuables in the storage compartments of buses and coaches – keep them with you at all times. While the U.K. Foreign Office advises against taking local taxis, I feel comfortable taking them. Sure they travel rather fast, you may have to double check the safety belt works, but I’ve never had any issues and have used them frequently with my kids (just ask the driver to lock the doors, if your kids, like mine, tend to open them on the go!)
- Sexual crime. Domestic violence is a sad reality of much of Latin America and indeed the world. As for violent crime and harassment on the streets, the situation is nothing comparable to the situation in parts of Asia such as Delhi for example. I feel safe walking and going about my daily business. I wouldn’t walk around at night, but more for reasons of general violent crime and muggings than for fear of sexual harassment. Nevertheless Chile is certainly not immune to the problem of sexual crimes and in the case of such an attack, your embassy should point you in the direction of the Fiscalia (the police work more on the direct crime side, rather than from the perspective of the victim’s rehabilitation).
- Shopping. Shopping malls come with security guards, but after hearing of several reports of pickpocketing and handbag theft, I wonder how effective they always are. For the bigger markets, such as La Vega it makes sense to leave any flashy jewelry (and tearaway kids) safe at home. Personally, I’ve never had a problem. If you’re a mum distracted with crying kids, or a foreigner glued to your phone for directions, you may appear like a nice, easy to distract target.
- Stray dogs. Street dogs are on the whole incredibly cute. It’s a travesty that so many dogs are abandoned here. It’s common to see pure breeds – Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Schnauzers all roaming the streets in search of comfort after an ill thinking owner decided dog ownership wasn’t for them. We got our kids vaccinated against rabies and lots of expat parents have done the same. Dogs’ skin problems, parasites and bugs are an issue too. I never allow my kids to pet a dog without checking first with the owner.
- Scams. While unsolicited calls are more common in houses than apartments, I’ve still had a few suspicious drop ins. Supposed gas workers, internet guys coming to check the network, water works companies asking to check the pressure… Never allow strangers or people who have not confirmed their attendance in advance into your home and make sure any domestic staff are on the same page. If you’re living in an apartment block, do not allow concierge to send up strangers unless you know who is calling. On another note, just as in many parts of the world, some shops have been caught skimming credit card details, so keep an eye on your card when you pay. Another scam involves a cold caller telling you that you’ve won a prize, that a loved one has been kidnapped or the like. Never release financial info over the phone.
- Keep cool. After every report of crime I’ve read about, I’ve read replies recommending pepper sprays, defence weapons and fight back tactics. However anyone I personally know that has lived in an area of violent crime always advises to drop any valuables you may be carrying, comply calmly and get out of the situation as soon as possible. I love my Rolex, but not as much as my life, or indeed that of my kids.
- Earthquakes. I have yet to experience an earthquake in Chile, but I’ve been warned that they’re common. In the case of such an event, windows may move in their frames, doors will rattle, furniture may jump, but most buildings are earthquake proof. We have fixed taller furniture, such as shelving units to our walls, installed latches to stop cabinet doors opening and we have also been recommended to place glasses and heavier items towards the bottom. For the reason of earthquakes, some locals prefer to be based on a reasonably low storey in apartment blocks so as to avoid a lengthier escape down the stairs in the case of an emergency.
- Travelling further afield. Chances are, as an expat you’re based in Santiago and the issue of terrorism never crops up. Every country I’ve lived in seems to have its separatist issues, some more violent than others. Here in Chile, tensions between the state and the Mapuche indigenous community in the Araucania region have been known to flare up, although there are signs of hope with last year the first Mapuche local elected to the government. On a more basis level, it makes sense to be a little more vigilant if you’re travelling to the more touristy parts of the country, as carefree or ignorant tourists are common targets for pickpockets.
Final thoughts: It’s a feeling.
I’ve lived in countries which statistically have been safer than others I’ve travelled to, and yet I felt more in danger.
It doesn’t matter how much people tell you you are safe, if for whatever reason you don’t feel safe, it makes little difference.
Interestingly, in a nationwide survey of people’s perception of the most important problems affecting Chile, most stated organised crime (24%).
Some expats will tell you that Chileans exaggerate the risk and are paranoid about crime. Others will put the fear of God into you about carjackings, street muggings and violent street crime. I live here with two preschool aged children and a baby on the way – for what it’s worth, so far I feel safe here.
Be cautious, not paranoid.
The only times I’ve experienced crime is when I’ve been new in town and distracted. I’m more cautious as I’m new here, but I’m not paranoid. Unlike other countries I’ve lived in and visited, the crime situation does not affect my daily life whatsoever. Life here is good.
The following government websites offer additional travel advisory information:
- Australian Government (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canadian Government (www.travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories)
- German Foreign Office (www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en)
- Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mofa.go.jp)
- Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.belastingdienst.nl)
- New Zealand Government (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US State Department (www.travel.state.gov)