BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina has become a refuge for Latin American narco-traffickers.
Security experts and authorities recognize there are organizations from Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic and Paraguay operating inside Argentina.
Claudio Izaguirre, president of the Anti-Drug Association of Argentina, said cartels from each of those six countries control a specific region within Buenos Aires or elsewhere in Argentina.
The first cartel is that of Colombia’s Daniel “El Loco” Barrera Barrera, who is also known as “the new Pablo Escobar.” The group operates out of Isla del Cerrito, in the province of Chaco, and extends to the provinces of Misiones, Corrientes, Entre Ríos and Santa Fe in northeastern Argentina.
“These areas are filled with clandestine airstrips,” Izaguirre said. “Given that the Argentine Air Force is prohibited by law from monitoring the country’s airspace, there is an unrestricted flow of incoming planes with drugs.”
The second cartel is the Sinaloa cartel, led by Mexican Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, with operations in Pilar, Zárate, Campana and other cities in the province of Buenos Aires, Izaguirre added.
“The perception is that the Mexicans and Colombians are more focused on international drug trafficking, with complex networks and a lot of money changing hand,” said Bo Mathiasen, a representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for Brazil and the Southern Cone. “On the other hand, groups from other countries [such as Peru and Bolivia] are most likely involved in small-scale domestic drug sales in Argentina, with much less sophisticated operations.”
About 70 tons of cocaine passed through Argentina in 2010, mostly destined for Europe, according to the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
A portion of the cocaine is produced in Argentina in clandestine laboratories, known as cocinas, which belong to Peruvian and Bolivian narco-traffickers.
“They are taking advantage of the local availability of the precursor chemicals needed to purify the cocaine paste [cocaine in its raw form],” Izaguirre said.
The Peruvian group operates in the province and the city of Buenos Aires, while the Bolivians dominate the Liniers region within Buenos Aires city, Izaguirre added.
Located in different areas, each organization carries out specific activities.
“The Mexicans and Colombians bring cocaine paste in from Bolivia and Peru. The drugs are then manufactured here in Argentina,” Izaguirre said. “Of that total, 80% is exported and 20% is used to pay the cocinas, which, in turn, distribute the drugs within Argentina.”
The fifth foreign cartel belongs to a group of Dominicans who are focused on the sale of drugs at the retail level in Buenos Aires. The group occupies the rectangle bordered by Avenida de Mayo, Caseros, 9 de Julio and Entre Ríos, as well as parts of the San Telmo neighborhood – where it also exploits Dominican girls in brothels, Izaguirre said.
The Amambay cartel, made up of Paraguayans, operates out of Villa Soldati, a poor neighborhood on the south side of the city of Buenos Aires.
“Their customers are wholesale vendors who distribute the marijuana that comes in from Paraguay,” Izaguirre said.
Narcotics consumption on the rise
The cartels have contributed to an increase in narcotics consumption by Argentine citizens.
Argentina has South America’s highest rates of cocaine (2.7%) and marijuana (7.2%) consumption among people aged 15-64, according to the UNODC’s 2010 World Drug Report.
Argentina has the region’s second-highest number of cocaine users (600,000), behind Brazil (900,000), which has a population five times larger.
The increase in the number of cocinas has kept pace with the growing consumption of paco , a byproduct of the cocaine production process that has devastating effects on the human body.
Connection with South Africa and Spain
One of the most common air transportation routes used by narco-traffickers is between Argentina and South Africa, Mathiasen said. A second route links Argentina to Spain, where large seizures of cocaine are common.
“The information that we have is that the Mexicans are more interested in the precursor chemicals in Argentina, in order to supply methamphetamine laboratories, as well as money laundering,” Mathiasen said. “The Colombians are more involved in cocaine trafficking, focusing on Argentina’s domestic market and using it as a transit point on the way to Africa and Europe.”
In January 2011, for example, brothers Gustavo and Eduardo Juliá – sons of retired Brig. Gen. José Juliá, who ran the Argentine Air Force from 1989 to 1993 – were detained at a Barcelona airport after landing a Bombardier Challenger 604 jet loaded with 944 kilograms (2,081 pounds) of cocaine. The case became known as the “Narcojet” scandal.
Other countries in the Southern Cone – Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile – have also been targeted by drug traffickers from Mexico and Colombia who are fleeing from the increased enforcement in their native countries, Mathiasen said.
“A major challenge for the Southern Cone countries is increasing cooperation between the police and the judiciary, as criminals are moving between them in order to continue to operate,” Mathiasen said.
Why do cartels choose Argentina?
The country’s informal economy, efficient airport infrastructure, weak enforcement and European living standards are some of the factors that attract narco-traffickers to Buenos Aires, according to political scientist Fabián Calle, a security specialist at Argentina’s Torcuato Di Tella University.
“We’re at a stage where the lines have been drawn and the factions are starting to fight among themselves,” Calle said. “It’s not just about controlling business, but also intimidation – and that includes killings in broad daylight.”
On April 17, for example, Colombian citizen Jairo “Mojarro” Saldarriaga Perdomo was shot five times by a gunman on Marcelo T. De Alvear, an elegant street in the Retiro neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
Mojarro was a former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and also worked for Colombian paramilitaries, according to Colombian news reports. He is believed to have organized the 2008 point-blank shooting deaths of two Colombian citizens at the Unicenter shopping mall in Buenos Aires.
Argentina’s proximity to three major drug-producing countries makes it even more attractive to narco-traffickers, Calle said, adding Paraguay is one of the largest producers of marijuana in the world and Peru is now the world’s main producer of cocaine, overtaking Colombia. Production in Bolivia has also been increasing.
Coca cultivation in Colombia has decreased by 58% from 2000 to 2009, mainly due to eradication programs, according to UNODC. Yet, during that same period, coca cultivation increased 38% in Peru and 112% in Bolivia.
The proximity to Montevideo, Uruguay – a major financial center – is another factor that encourages cartels to operate in Argentina, Calle said. The problem is aggravated by the lack of investment in border surveillance and the poor track record of the country’s security forces in its battle against drug trafficking.
“We also have strong maritime links with Europe, which is a growing market,” he said.
Still, Calle added Argentina is not conscious of the risks that drugs pose to the safety of society.
“Nor is there a consensus on the use of government forces, as you have in Brazil,” he added. “Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff talks about legalizing marijuana on the one hand, but she also sends soldiers and pacifying units into the favelas. In Argentina, there’s still this idea that security forces are suspect and repressive. The state itself doesn’t trust them, and so it ties their hands.”
Salta: On the front lines against trafficking
On the border with Bolivia, the Argentine province of Salta is the gateway for cocaine coming into the country.
In 2009, the province introduced the Salta Drug Enforcement Agency, the only entity of its kind in an Argentine province, given that narco-trafficking crimes fall under federal jurisdiction.
“The decision to form the agency within the provincial Ministry of Public Safety was done in order to get Salta directly involved in the fight against drug trafficking,” said Néstor Ruiz de los Llanos, the organization’s executive director. “We operate as a link between the federal courts, the provincial police and other national security forces.”
Llanos added drug enforcement tasks are performed separately in Salta.
The National Gendarmerie is in charge of major seizures – the so-called macrotráfico that involve large quantities of drugs coming in from Bolivia en route to the southern provinces or international destinations.
Meanwhile, the microtráfico, meaning the sales by small distributors within the province, is handled by the provincial police force.
In operations against microtráfico, the police seized 2,651 kilograms (5,844 pounds) of cocaine from 2008 to 2012, which is the equivalent of 5,000,000 doses. Also seized were 363 kilograms (800 pounds) of marijuana, according to the local Drug Enforcement Agency. In addition, 5,025 people were arrested in these operations.
“The work is carried out in a comprehensive manner: the enforcement effort is complemented with prevention and awareness campaigns about drug use in schools,” he said.
Major trafficking organizations have not settled in Salta, Llanos said, adding the business is mainly handled by groups of relatives.
“We’ve seen an increase in the quantity of drugs, but no killings or issues related to the large cartels,” he said.
The provincial police also have not found any cocaine cocinas in Salta. The reason, Llanos said, is economic.
“The local producers prefer to bring the precursor chemicals to Bolivia, for example, and then bring in the cocaine as a finished product,” he said. “It’s cheaper than bringing in the substance in its initial state and producing it here.”