The offense is classified as robbery by force or intimidation of vehicles. But in Chile it is widely known as encerrona, and today it is the terror of motorists circulating on urban highways and avenues in the capital’s metropolitan area where this type of event is mainly registered. It consists of at least two cars driven primarily by hooded teenagers who corner drivers, point guns at them, knock them out and then steal their vehicle, cell phone, computer and anything they find of value. Victims are left in shock on the streets or highways, sometimes in the middle of the night. Others have suffered a robbery with their children.
Argentinian newspaper Clarín called it a gang of piranha when, in early January, it described the group that ambushed a Mendoza family vacationing in Chile, escaping from a trap on Route 5, the South American country’s main thoroughfare. The windows of his truck, a Volvo XC90, were shattered with an iron blow.
The first cases were reported in 2017, and according to Sub-Prefect Óscar Bakovic, head of the Investigative Police’s (PDI) Robbery and Criminal Intervention Investigation Brigade (PDI), capture is a real Chilean crime. “We have been in contact with Interpol and with various police forces in the region and we have not found that this is a criminal phenomenon that has existed in other countries,” he says.
Surveillance cameras recorded the attacks in different parts of the country.
This style of robbery has mutated from the so-called portonazos, in which armed groups approach people as they open the electric gates of their homes and steal their cars. Lock-ins mainly occur at highway and road junctions. “The subjects place one car in front and another behind and sandwich the vehicle and the victim to attack them with firearms, knives or blunt objects,” says Marcelo Vargas, chief prosecutor for criminal analysis and investigative focus of the Metropolitan East prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutors and police have identified five motivations for the gangs, ranging from stealing luxury cars to taking over all manner of fairly new vehicles of preferred brands. Therefore, today a trap can happen to anyone.
Some luxury vehicles use them to party and give them up after a few days. Others use them to commit new crimes. But much further up the chain are criminal organizations who buy them to sell their parts in junkyards. In addition, they clone their patents, launder them, and sell them through shell companies that abuse a law designed to encourage entrepreneurship, which allows you to set up a business in Chile within 24 hours. There are also cars that are taken to the border in the north of the country to be exchanged for weapons and drugs.
“We are also confronted with the phenomenon among those who order these vehicles. They are the people doing the twinning. That is, changing the VIN and engine identification number and re-registering it in the Chilean civil registry to give it life like a new vehicle,” says prosecutor Vargas.
It is precisely these mafias who earn the most. For teenage gangs, “the pay is tiny,” says Bakovic. “In the informal market, a vehicle paid to people ranges from 1,200,000 to 1,400,000 Chilean pesos (about $1,600) depending on range, while they can get 300,000 pesos (about $370) for an ordinary car . This, compared to the one who sells, who can get up to 5,000,000 pesos (more than six thousand dollars)”.
Meanwhile, among the buyers are the careless and the accomplices.
Children up to nine years in the bands
A trap, says Bakovic, usually happens at night. And it can even take less than a minute.
Evidence of this is that in Chile it is common to see videos taken by other drivers witnessing speed and violence. There are footage the gangs themselves upload to their social media showing guns and the car they just stole.
Such was the case with the gang calling themselves Los malditos de la encerrona, who are credited with 40 crimes against motorists and were arrested two weeks ago in an investigation led by Vargas and Bakovic as part of Operation Return, as reported calls him in Chile after a bridge back to the capital. Composed of 13 youths and seven adults (over 21 years old), it is representative of the groups: among the leaders were two minors aged 13 and 14, whose role was driving.
“90% of the gangs we stopped are made up of minors. We have even seen nine-year-old children actively participating and not criminally responsible. In the more than 80 arrests in Santiago, we found that the money from the sale of their robberies is spent on clothes and shoes from well-known brands,” says the police officer.
111% increase, according to prosecutors
Although there have been disagreements between authorities over the rise in these crimes due to the way the numbers are broken down, the recent quarterly report on traps from the Western Metropolitan Prosecutor’s Office, whose jurisdiction covers a significant part of the US, has raised an alarm the concessionary highways, including the one that leads to Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport in Santiago. She found that this type of robbery increased by 111.8% in November 2022 compared to 2021.
To get an idea of the frequency, the family of Sergio Soto, head of the criminal prosecutor’s office and investigative focus of this prosecutor’s office responsible for preparing this quarterly report, suffered three attempts to catch him in two years : once he; two, his wife. Although most of the victims are unknown, including application drivers, a judge, a football coach, television presenters and Miss Universe 1987 Cecilia Bolocco, who escaped unharmed in December 2020, were also involved.
“You are ready for anything. We’ve had high-speed chases and obviously they’re willing to take any risk, both to commit the crime of shooting a person and not to get arrested,” says Bakovic.
There are also fatalities. In February 2021, Tamara, a five-year-old girl, was shot dead during a lockdown (her killers were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2022). And that’s while in September last year a 62-year-old driver was shot six times while attempting to flee backwards in his Jeep.
“More than the number of crimes, the forms of commission have increased because of the experiences and stories of the victims. They used to come with a knife or a screwdriver, and now unfortunately we’ve seen more firearms,” says prosecutor Vargas. Bakovic adds: “A criminal phenomenon is not always linked to numbers. For us, a phenomenon is that crime that is established in an area and creates a high level of public insecurity. And given the violence with which they are committed [las encerronas]Today it is one of the main crimes”.
President Gabriel Boric’s government, through the Secretary of State for Crime Prevention, has implemented a series of measures including a working table, an anti-lock braking plan and coordinating with concession companies to illuminate highways and equip them with more cameras. In addition, the so-called anti-lock law has been in force since 2020.
Chile faces a security crisis reflected in the rise in homicides, which rose 32% in 2022. According to the survey conducted by the Center for Public Studies (CEP) on Jan. 4, when asked about the top three problems the government should focus its efforts on solving, crime, mugging and robbery ranked first. An answer that stood above health, pensions and education.
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