Mexico's drug war is turning Argentina into the new Wild West of the global narcotics trade.
- By Haley CohenHaley Cohen is The Economist's Argentina and Uruguay correspondent.
BUENOS AIRES — Last September, Argentine Judge Carlos Olivera Pastor emerged from his courthouse in the northwestern province of Jujuy to find a box next to his parked car. Numbered as if it held judicial files, Pastor removed the box’s top and found instead a decapitated head, the eyes glassy and open. In October, two men savagely assaulted a penal secretary from the same district, warning that the next time they would murder him. According to officials at SEDRONAR, a government agency that fights addiction and drug trafficking, most of the drugs that enter Argentina pass through the sparsely populated northwest of the country, and the judges, who frequently handle drug-related cases, avowed narco-traffickers were responsible for the incidents.
Long a secondary shipping hub for drugs destined for Europe, international trafficking groups have recently expanded their activities within Argentina, increasing exportation and transforming it from a transit point into a destination for consumption and synthesis. Although Argentina’s drug problem is not as dire as Colombia or Mexico’s, "things have begun to change a great amount," says Monica Cuñarro, an independent prosecutor who formerly served as executive secretary of the National Commission of Public Policies in Issues of Prevention and Control of the Illicit Traffic of Drugs.
In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, drug traffickers capitalized on the country’s poor border control, lack of aerial surveillance, more than 1,500 illegal air strips, and long stretch of Atlantic coast to export more than 70 metric tons of cocaine — mostly to Europe, which consumes about 123 metric tons every year.
Busts over the past two years suggest that Spain is an especially popular entry point for drugs dispatched from Argentina. In April 2010, Spanish officials seized 800 kilograms of cocaine from a truck disguised as an official support vehicle for the Dakar Rally off-road race, later affirming that the drugs were loaded in Argentina. Last January, an executive jet piloted by two sons of Argentine dictatorship-era air force generals arrived in Barcelona from Argentina laden with 1,000 kilograms of cocaine, with the ties to the military piquing concern about institutional corruption. These busts suggest a clear transit route between the two countries and raise questions as to how such a high volume of drugs are exiting Argentina undetected. According to an official report compiled by Martin Verrier, a security advisor for Argentine congressman Francisco de Narvaez, 95 percent of the cocaine shipped from Argentina safely arrives at its destination."In Argentina, the situation is such that narcotraffickers enter and exit without inconvenience," laments Claudio Izaguirre, president of the Argentine Anti-Drugs Association, a Buenos Aires-based NGO.
As the volume of drugs coursing through Argentina has increased, so too has the amount of drugs available within the country’s borders. "Drug mules who move shipments through Argentina are often paid in a mixture of cash and drugs," explains Natalia Gambaro, a congresswoman for the province of Buenos Aires who specializes in security issues. As a result, Argentina’s drug consumption rates have exploded.
"Pretty much everyone I know does it," says a 30 year-old Argentine waitress who buys about a gram of cocaine a week. "It’s very easy to get hold of and the nightlife here makes it all but necessary. You can work on it and you don’t have to sleep." In Argentina, a gram of pure cocaine sells for about 100 pesos, or less than $25, whereas the same amount would cost $120 in the United States. "Buying cocaine in Argentina is like buying coca cola — it’s ridiculously easy," says a 25 year-old American female who lived in Buenos Aires until this April, and enjoyed the ease with which she has been able to buy cocaine, acid, and ecstasy. "I’ve never felt I had to worry about the law. I’ve even had friends take bumps as they walk down the street." In 2008, Argentina surpassed its neighbors and the United States: it now has the highest prevalence of cocaine use in the Western Hemisphere: approximately 2.6 percent of the country’s population aged 15-64 uses cocaine, a 117 percent increase since 2000. Argentines now consume five times more cocaine than the global average and has one of the highest usage rates in the world.
Equally worrisome is the country’s role as a producer of chemical precursors, the substances used to extract and refine drugs such as cocaine, morphine, and heroine. These chemicals are especially hard to police since they are also necessary to produce legal substances such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, cosmetics, and detergents. "This is the gravest problem in our country," claims Cuñarro, the prosecutor and expert in drug-related crime. "Argentina continues to be a place of transit, but because of its chemical capabilities, now it is also part of the production chain."
Smugglers move raw cocaine from Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia to clandestine laboratories in Argentina, where they refine it before shipping it to Europe. Approximately 250 such labs are hidden around Argentina. As chemical import legislation tightens in other countries in the region, the laboratories’ narco-chemists are also producing shipments of heroine, ephedrine, and methamphetamines, which are dispatched to Mexico by sea, and then finally trafficked across the border to the United States. While no estimates exist for the total amount of precursor chemicals present in the country, in 2010, authorities seized more ephedrine in Argentina than in any other country except China.
As anti-drug efforts have intensified in their home countries, Mexican and Colombian cartels have shifted parts of their operations, as well as their families, abroad. Last June, U.N. advisor Edgardo Buscaglia travelled to Argentina and confirmed that the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, headed by Chapo Guzman, "the world’s most powerful drug trafficker" according to the U.S. Treasury Department, had established a network of bases in the country’s north. Other reports suggest Guzman lived in Argentina with his wife and step-daughter until 2011. "Big narcotrafficking organizations are capitalizing on the current characteristics of globalization: the immediacy of transactions, intangible assets, transport, and so on," says Verrier. "Countries with weak institutions, like Argentina, are more exposed to the penetration of these organizations."
The bonds between narco-traffic and terrorism in Argentina also seem to be strengthening. Since 2001, the United States has had intelligence of "terrorist cells in the triborder area (where Argentina meets Paraguay and Brazil), some of which engaged in narcotrafficking," says former FBI director Louis Freeh. In February 2010, President of Argentina Cristina Kirchner expressed concern about the triborder area to a U.S. congressman. A few months later in June, Interpol arrested a suspected Hezbollah financier just across the Argentine border in the lawless Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este. According to a former Obama administration senior security advisor who asked for anonymity, "there has been a big increase in cooperation between organized crime, drug cartels, and terrorist groups" in the triborder area over the past few years.
In reaction to the country’s deteriorating drug environment, last July Kirchner announced a new plan called Northern Shield, which will involve the installation of 20 aerial radars and an injection of 6,000 Gendarmerie and Coast Guard personnel, plus 800 Army Special Forces in Argentina’s northwest. The Ministry of Security declined an interview request and none of the agencies contacted would comment on the current military presence in Argentina’s northwest. Recent announcements by the head of the country’s counternarcotics agency SEDRONAR suggest that Argentina might soon decriminalize the possession and consumption of marijuana, allowing the government to redirect its resources away from punishing individual users and towards pursuing drug-trafficking organizations.
Argentina, however, recently lost a key partner in the fight against drug smuggling. In July, Argentina’s Ministry of Security ordered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to suspend its activities in the country until further notice, citing the need for an internal review of cooperative international counternarcotics programs. The U.S. State Department, in their 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), suggests that the suspension might have also been related to a February scandal in which the Argentine government accused the United States of smuggling guns and surveillance equipment into Argentina under the guise of supplying a police training course. The DEA and the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires both declined interview requests about the drug situation in Argentina.
Verrier, the U.S. congressional security advisor, believes the split may have been more mutual. "We believe that the suspension of the collaboration with the DEA has to do with the strategy of the government to introduce the de-penalization of personal drug consumption this year — a strategy the DEA has always been against," he explains.
Whatever the source of the rift, without DEA assistance Argentina’s drug interdiction capabilities decreased markedly: cocaine seizures dropped from 12.7 metric tons in 2010 to 5.8 metric tons in 2011."Decreased seizures may be linked to the constraints imposed on DEA activities, as well as the Government of Argentina’s limited capabilities to mount complex, long-term counternarcotics investigations," the State Department wrote in their unusually harsh INCSR Argentina section.
Argentine drug experts are equally critical of their government’s efforts. "There are not mixed commissions that work. There are not bonds between judges and prosecutors; judges and prosecutors distrust the law enforcement agencies, and the law enforcement agencies in the provinces don’t coordinate with the national law enforcement agencies," says the prosecutor Cuñarro. "It is ridiculous that even now we don’t have a collaborative program with Colombia … it’s unintelligible from where I see it."
While experts avow that Argentina will not become a narco-state like Colombia or Mexico, they admit that the country is at a crossroads in its anti-drug efforts. Huge judicial backlogs of trafficking subjects and subpar port and ground control have yet to be addressed, while the decentralized nature of international trafficking groups operating in Argentina will make them much more difficult to disable. "Even when Argentine law enforcement agencies make successful busts, it is usually at the lower levels of the operation. It is rare that those apprehended even know who they’re working for," explains Gambarro, the congresswoman.
Judge Pastor is less optimistic. In an interview with an Argentinean newspaper this February, he wondered where his country is going. "Are we going to wait until we find a car in Jujuy with five dead people inside, like in Ciudad Juarez, or until we find hanging corpses or they kill a judge to start battling this scourge?"