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Chile president turns from quake rebuilding to fighting crime, promising more officers, raids

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Riding in a fake funeral procession with a hearse decorated with flower sprays and farewell messages, some 280 police officers slipped into the crowded La Legua slum in plain daylight, a theatrical undercover job that suggests a whole new approach to crime-fighting under Chile's conservative President Sebastian Pinera.

They nabbed 27 drug suspects and seized six pounds of cocaine without any trouble from residents.

"We stayed there four hours without firing one shot," Nelson Jofre, police commissioner of southern Santiago, told The Associated Press proudly.

Last month's "Operation Rest in Peace" shows Pinera is willing to go much further than his leftist predecessors in combatting low-level street crime, his aides say.

Chile is one of the safest countries in Latin America, but fighting crime still pays politically, and getting delinquents off the streets and keeping them in jail for longer terms were key campaign promises for Pinera, who brought the right wing back to power for the first time since Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 16-year dictatorship.

Pinera took office in March only days after Chile's devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake transformed his agenda, but now that reconstruction is well under way, he seems determined to keep his promises of hiring 3,000 more officers by year's end and 10,000 by the end of his four-year-term.

The president rolled out part of his crime-fighting plan Thursday in a package of proposals to be sent to Congress.

The details have been closely guarded. But they will include an additional $4.5 million in funding this year alone to install video cameras and alarms in known crime areas and to reclaim public squares and playgrounds, said an Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name.

The plan also envisions more police raids in 100 neighborhoods considered dangerous, and the continued presence of additional officers — for up to 3 years if necessary — to crack down on robberies and illegal sales of drugs and alcohol, Public Safety Director Jorge Nazer told the AP.

Pinera's government is taking lessons from cities like Bogota, Colombia, and New York, where crime rates have dropped dramatically. Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter met last month with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose Zero Tolerance plan in the 1990s showed a crime-fighting ripple effect in cracking down on graffiti artists and windshield-washers.

"We are looking for the best experiences in the world, the best practices," said Hinzpeter, who also cited Rio de Janeiro's efforts to bring peace to one of its largest slums.

Opponents say the crime effort is all politics, and dispute Pinera's contention that crime is rising in Chile. Felipe Harboe, a deputy interior minister in former President Michele Bachelet's center-left government, says crime dropped 9 percent from 2003 to last year.

Still, one Chilean neighborhood where residents say Pinera's intervention has worked is Bellavista, a middle-class district in central Santiago where young people flock to boutiques, nightclubs and restaurants. The usual street trouble has dropped sharply since police detained 400 people over two days last month, community leader Gerardo Lanzarotti said.

Victoria Aviles, a community leader from La Florida, a gentrifying area in southeast Santiago, says police surveillance is not enough. She says her neighbors have closed off their streets with tall fences and try to control who enters — something currently against the law.

"If the government is incapable of sending police to protect us, they at least should pay for the fences," said Alves, who blames crime on low wages and poverty.

Another key aspect of Pinera's plan is the Centaur Squad — a special unit of 125 officers announced four days after the president took office, with a mission of entering critical neighborhoods in force. The squad takes its name from the Greek mythological creature — part horse and part human — that Pinera said represents strength and reason.

The squad has received special training and equipment, including a camera that can more easily identify stolen cars from their license plates.

However, opposition deputy Felipe Harboe, a deputy interior minister under President Michelle Bachelet, said the Centaur Squad already existed under other names during previous center-left governments.

"Call it what you want, it has existed for a long time and these interventions are something we've always done," he said. "Probably the media didn't give it as much spectacular attention then as they do now."