Photographer: Laura Millan Lombrana/Bloomberg

Xenophobia Simmers in World’s Copper Capital as Shantytowns Grow

  • City of Antofagasta sees mineral wealth drawing in immigrants
  • With immigrants come the return of extreme poverty in Chile

Pilar Murillo’s shack clings to the sandy soil on a steep slope above the Chilean town of Antofagasta. The desert heat bakes the wood and corrugated iron houses, dust lies everywhere and high-power transmission lines buzz overhead.

Yet Murillo feels lucky. Americas Unidas is among the few shantytowns in the city with electricity and water thanks to illegal connections to the city’s grid and water supply. Moreover, as a Colombian immigrant, she’s escaped from the regular xenophobic incidents that poisoned life in the town center.

A shanty town in the city of Antofagasta.

Photographer: Laura Millan Lombrana/Bloomberg

"People in the center say us Colombians have brought prostitution, drugs and crime to the city," said Murillo. "They have confronted me even in the presence of my son and daughter, so I prefer life up here, it’s much quieter."

Antofagasta, the capital of the wealthiest region in the wealthiest nation in South America is an accident waiting to happen. Anti-immigrant feeling is bubbling below the surface as people move in from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia and shantytowns mushroom around the city edges. With public services under strain and the local copper industry in the midst of a downturn, the issue threatens to sour campaigning ahead of November’s presidential election.

For more on the rising tide of immigration into Chile as a whole, click here

"The debate is heating up as we approach the election," said Benjamin Cruz, the president of Colectividad Colombiana, which represents Colombians in Antofagasta. "We think racial violence could increase as a result of some politicians using the anti-immigrant message in a manipulative way; they don’t realize they can put human lives at risk."

Only Chileans

The number of temporary visas issued by Chile has doubled in five years and reached over 166,000 in 2015. Antofagasta issued more of those visas than any other city after the capital, Santiago.

Homes made out of wood are seen in a shanty town in Antofagasta.

Photographer: Laura Millan Lombrana/Bloomberg

In the city’s town center, the old shops have given way to Peruvian restaurants and Colombian hair dressers, beauty saloons and clothes shops. Loudspeakers blare out Caribbean rhythms such as cumbia and reggaeton, while immigrants hawk fresh fruit from under umbrellas in the colors of the Colombian flag.

The signs of tension aren’t hard to find. At least 30 advertisements in the local newspaper El Mercurio de Antofagasta requesting workers or tenants specify applicants must be Chilean. "Security company needs to hire security guards. Nationality: only Chilean," one read in January. “Prestigious taxi company looking for radio operator for call center in Antofagasta. Requirements: Chilean nationality,” read another the month before. Job ads that do accept Colombians often aren’t what they seem.

"At times, Colombian women get sent directly to brothels when they respond," because they have become inextricably associated with prostitution in the mind of locals, Murillo says.

Across the Divide

Lilian Galvez, 65, is Chilean and has lived in Antofagasta for more than 20 years, recently retiring from her job at the fish market. She says the character of the city has changed with immigration and that crime has increased.

Black dots show shanty towns on the outskirts of Antofagasta.

Source: El Centro de Investigación Social (CIS)

"The police often have to come to evict Colombian tenants in the flats because there are loud parties and fights every night," she said. "I understand that most leave their countries looking for a better life, but they have altered the neighborhood’s peace and tranquility."

Perched on the coast and close to some of the world’s largest copper mines, Antofagasta has benefited from the decade-long commodities boom that ended in 2014. In Jardines del Sur, the southern part of the city, two-story houses with gardens and swimming pools have been built around a golf course and a tennis club. In the same area, a new shopping mall is being built next to spacious blocks of flats.

Gross domestic product per capita in the region is about $34,000, compared with $13,512 in the country as a whole. Yet, the region is now feeling the consequences of a drop in copper prices. Unemployment in Antofagasta was the second highest in Chile for the three months through December, at 7.6 percent, compared with 6.1 percent for the country as a whole.

Worst Nightmare

As immigrants pour in and the economy turns down, the number of shantytowns surrounding Antofagasta has doubled in five years, with the families living in them soaring to 6,229 from 1,061, according to the charity Techo Chile

Those shantytowns are everything that people like Galvez fear for their town.

During the day, neighborhoods such as La Chimba buzz with activity as people rush to work or carry buckets of water from standpipes lower down the slopes. But at night, many residents lock themselves in their houses as crime and drugs take over.

A Colombian hair dresser cuts a customer’s hair in Antofagasta’s center.

Photographer: Laura Millan Lombrana/Bloomberg

"We are surrounded by zombies; that’s how we call drug addicts who smoke and steal," said Jenifer Tapia, a 27-year-old Peruvian who moved to La Chimba with her husband and son two years ago. She lives on Luz Divina street in the heart of the shantytown, surrounded by high metal walls. “No one goes outside when it’s dark," she says.

Stoking the Flames

"It is very ingenuous and stupid to have a migration policy that ends up importing evils such as crime, drug trafficking and organized crime," presidential hopeful Sebastian Pinera said in November, after the opposition coalition Chile Vamos presented a proposal to toughen the migration law. "Many criminal bands in Chile, such as those who copy credit cards, are integrated by foreigners."

That is a dangerous message in a town like Antofagasta, said Catalina Rojas, the director of the charity Jesuit Migrant Service in Antofagasta.

"We have seen a sector of Chile’s politicians adopt Donald Trump’s approach to immigration issues after his victory, this puts every migrant at risk," she said.

While President Michelle Bachelet’s has stepped in to defend Chile’s open borders, her government has taken more than a year to introduce a bill to congress that would update Chile’s 40-year-old migration legislation by recognizing migrants’ rights and streamlining the congested visa system.

For more on Bachelet’s comments on immigration, click here

As the government delays, the flow of immigrants shows no signs of stopping and could even be expanding. The latest wave comes from Venezuela, which is suffering one of the deepest recessions the world has ever seen outside wartime.

"There is a part of Antofagasta’s population that doesn’t understand that this city will be diverse and multicultural, and that migrants have come here to stay," said Rojas. "There has always been a scapegoat, it used to be Chilean workers coming from the south, then Peruvians and Bolivians. Now it’s Colombians and tomorrow it could be Venezuelans."