Argentinian police report dramatic surge in seizures of ecstasy
By Dialogo February 19, 2014
Argentinian police have recorded a dramatic surge in seizures of the drug ecstasy, an indication that there is a growing demand for the popular but dangerous “party drug” in that country, authorities said.
The increase in ecstasy seizures also indicates a shift in the way organized crime groups are producing and distributing the drug, law enforcement officials said.
In Buenos Aires alone, ecstasy seizures increased almost 3,000 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to police and press reports. In 2011, police in Buenos Aires reported the seizure of just 1,700 ecstasy tablets, while in 2013, police seized almost 50,000 tablets.
Synthetic drug labs in Buenos Aires
Police conducted a series of raids in 2013 against a criminal ring that was allegedly manufacturing ecstasy pills and other synthetic party drugs in clandestine drug labs in Buenos Aires – the first such synthetic drug labs ever discovered in that city.
The raids revealed a marked change in the ecstasy trade in Argentina, which previously had relied on ecstasy pills that were almost exclusively manufactured in other countries, primarily in Europe, and then smuggled into Argentina. The newly discovered presence of synthetic drug labs in the country indicates that criminal gangs are attempting to avoid the expense and hazards of smuggling by producing the drugs domestically.
“Ecstasy” is the street name for the chemical MDMA (methylenedioxy-methylamphetamine). Its inhibition-suppressing and hallucinogenic properties have made it popular with the “rave” culture and in urban dance clubs worldwide. Although MDMA has legitimate clinical therapeutic uses, the street version of the drug can cause dangerous and even lethal effects, especially when it is laced with adulterants, as most street drugs are. As many as 25 million people worldwide have used the drug at least once within the past year.
In Argentina, the number of ecstasy users has been relatively small, but use of the drug is growing among younger people. A 2011 survey found that the number of people in Argentina between ages 25 and 34 who reported using the drug at least once had quadrupled, from 0.4 percent in 2004 to 1.6 percent in 2010.
The drug is most popular among relatively affluent urban dwellers. Although prices vary widely, police reports and social media indicate that a single dose of ecstasy can cost between $30 (USD)to $60 (USD) in Buenos Aires.
The high price makes ecstasy an attractive product for criminal gangs. Prior to 2013, almost all of the ecstasy found in Argentina was produced in Europe, primarily The Netherlands, according to police reports.
A changing ecstasy market
In August 2012 Argentine Customs officials at the international airport in Buenos Aires seized 30,000 ecstasy pills from an arriving Dutch national who had hidden the drugs in false bottoms in his luggage. Authorities estimated the wholesale value of the drugs at 3 million pesos, or about $400,000 (USD) at the current exchange rate.
However, a significant change in the ecstasy trade in Argentina was revealed in September, 2013, when police in Buenos Aires seized 25,000 ecstasy tablets, and precursor chemicals capable of producing 100,000 more, from a Buenos Aires clandestine drug lab. It was the first synthetic drug laboratory ever found in the capital city, Security Minister Sergio Berni told reporters.
Argentinian Federal Police (PFA) agents arrested the laboratory's alleged owner, a Spanish national who had previously served prison time in Spain for similar crimes. Police also arrested four other suspects, including a nightclub bouncer who allegedly distributed the drugs, according to press reports.
The bust was one of 15 raids conducted throughout Buenos Aires, which turned up a total of 200,000 ecstasy tablets, as well as guns, cocaine and cash, according to press reports. The ecstasy precursor chemicals seized in the raids had originated in China, authorities said. The raids were part of a police effort to target ecstasy dealers, Berni said.
In a related series of raids in October, 2013, police discovered seven more drug laboratories and seized more than 12,000 ecstasy tablets as well as precursor chemicals. They arrested five people suspected of selling the synthetic drugs in Buenos Aires nightclubs and also of exporting them to Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil and other countries. Some of the drugs labs were producing ketamine, a large animal tranquilizer known on the street as “Special K,” which is often used in conjunction with ecstasy to heighten its effects, authorities said.
The problem is not limited to the capital city, however. In January 2013 police in the coastal resort town of Mar de Ajo in Buenos Aires Province raided another synthetic drug laboratory, seizing 700 ecstasy tablets and precursor chemicals capable of producing 600,000 more.
The need for cooperation
So far, most ecstasy users in Argentina are from the upper and middle economic classes, said Paz Tibiletti, a representative of the Security and Defense Network of Latin America (RESDAL), which is based in Argentina.
“Drugs are offered to young people at parties,” Tibilietti said. “Ecstasy is a drug that is on the rise as organized crime groups become more involved with micro-trafficking,” Tibiletti said. “An ecstasy tablet costs $10 (USD) while a rock of crack costs $1 (USD). This is a serious problem.”
Security forces throughout the Americas need to cooperate to stop the trafficking of ecstasy, which is being sold not just in Latin America, but throughout the world, Tibiletti said.
“International collaboration, such as the exchange of information, is important in the fight against drug trafficking organizations,” Tibiletti said. “This is not a problem only in Argentina. It is an issue facing all Latin American countries. The authorities also need to intensify campaigns to prevent the use of ecstasy, crack and other drugs. The Argentinian government must strengthen security institutions and establish greater coordination among the provinces in the fight against micro-trafficking.” Julieta Pelcastre contributed to this article .