Why has crime become a prevalent social problem in both Chile and Sweden?

By Felipe Estrada 

Felipe Estrada. Photo: Private.

I was recently in Chile as a visiting professor and was expecting to find a different conversation on crime and punishment than the Swedish one. The reason for my optimism was the rapid social changes that had occurred during and after the massive social protests in 2019-2020. One of the political consequences of that movement was that Chile elected a young progressive president in December 2021. Gabriel Boric won against a right-wing populist and close political friend of Jair Bolsonaro.

Boric’s government came to power on a social justice agenda with an ecological and feminist approach to tackle the huge income, gender and social gaps that still prevail in Chile and other Latin American countries. Regarding crime policy the idea was to reform the police force to make it less militarized and violent. The unacceptable situations in the Chilean prisons were also to be changed to better concur with basic levels of human rights. So, what happened?

When I arrived in Chile in November 2022 I found a country whose political debate had one big focus – violent crimes. The TV-news focused on topics such as violent car jackings, shootings and homicides between young men involved in the drug trade, and last but not least on violent immigrants. The right-wing opposition was on fire, and accused the left-liberal government for being naïve and for not taking crime seriously. Chile had become a country full of fear of crime. Importantly, according to this debate it was not the social injustices in Chile that produced this insecurity, but the importation of violence.

During a seminar, a Chilean criminologist used two comparative social surveys (IPSOS and World Bank data) to show that in general we can see a strong correlation between homicide rates and the percentages of a country’s population that agree that “crime is the most important problem in society”. However, at least in the year 2022, two countries were outliers; Chile and Sweden. More precisely, these countries had the highest rates of citizens rating crime as the main problem, but at the same time comparatively low homicide rates.

The Swedish wall at Los Leones subway, Santiago de Chile. Photo: Private.

For someone coming from Sweden and who had followed the political debate that precluded our elections in 2022, this discourse was not totally unfamiliar. We can easily find claims that violent crimes committed by migrants are making our Nordic societies insecure. There are political dynamics that make the crime issue more salient in specific political situations. In a previous study, I used an analysis of editorials to show that during election years there were more articles on crime published. This pattern was stronger when social-democratic parties were in office and centre-right parties in opposition.

This result is in line with the thesis that law and order is one of the favorite social problems when right-wing movements want to highlight the incompetence of liberal regimes. During the 1980s, we had a classic debate in our discipline when the so-called Left Realist school of British criminology criticized radical colleagues (branded left idealist) for “not taking the crime issue seriously”. The important argument was that crime and insecurity were not moral panics but real problems that victimized especially vulnerable and disadvantaged groups the most.

It can be discussed how accurate and fair this criticism was, and also if it countered or contributed to the more populist and punitive political agenda we have today in many (all?) Western countries. Whatever the answer is, I think it is fair to say that left-liberal parties, but also most of the academic field of criminology in the north, are having a difficulty with developing a powerful answer to authoritarian politics.

So, why have crime and insecurity become such a prevalent social problem in both Chilean and Swedish societies? Of course, this blog cannot answer such a big question. However, what I do want to stress is that the left realist position – that this should be attributed to factual crime trends and victimization patterns – is not sufficient. For me it is obvious that there is a clear political dynamic too. Migration and crime are constructed as connected problems and populist political claims are successful in both societies. The political construction of crime as a social problem needs to be better understood. Not least since these constructions affect the salience for knowledge-based crime policies in both the global North and the South.

Felipe Estrada is professor at the Department of Criminology, Stockholm University. He has recently been visiting scholar at the Department of Social Work, Universidad Catolica and CESC – Centro de Estudios en Seguridad Ciudadana, Universidad de Chile. His research interest are Inequality, Life Chances, Crime Trends and Crime Policy. Email: Felipe.estrada@criminology.su.se