Measures imposed by the Argentine government to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such as border closures and mandatory confinement, have affected organized crime networks operating in the region. However, there is evidence that transnational criminal groups are adapting.
From late April to the first week of May, the Argentine Naval Prefecture and the National Gendarmerie reported seizing hundreds of thousands of packs of contraband cigarettes coming from Paraguay. Several local news outlets noted a boom in cigarette trafficking, as tobacco plants in Argentina discontinued their production when mandatory confinement began.
According to InSight Crime, an international organization specializing in security threats in Latin America and the Caribbean, criminal gangs have adjusted their operations to respond to the Argentine cigarette shortage that the pandemic created. In a mid-May report, the organization said that the activity involves relatively low risks and huge profits.
“When someone is caught smuggling drugs, they face around four years in prison, while cigarette smuggling might get them a few days behind bars and a fine,” an official from Formosa, a province bordering Paraguay and a point of entry for drugs and contraband in Argentina, told InSight Crime.
Argentine Security Secretary Eduardo Villalba emphasized that cigarette smuggling has beset the country for several years, especially in coastal areas and on the borders with Paraguay and Brazil. However, “it has become more evident” during the coronavirus crisis, he told Diálogo.
Another indication that criminals are adapting is the increase in clandestine border crossings between Paraguay and Argentina, said Carolina Sampó, a coordinator at the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime at the National University of La Plata. National Gendarmerie units reported dismantling more than 60 clandestine border crossings between the two countries from mid-March to late April. Most of the clandestine bridges — precarious structures made of wooden planks — were found over the Pilcomayo River that separates the two countries in Formosa province, news portal Infobae reported.
According to Martín Verrier, an organized crime expert and international relations professor at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, criminal groups now face additional difficulties in moving illegal products, due to the more rigorous controls that authorities carry out.
“COVID-19 has significantly reduced the intensity of the international and domestic trade, affecting the narcotrafficking logistics chain,” Verrier told Diálogo. Criminal gangs, however, seek to evade movement restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such as by using means of transport that are exempt from government measures.
For example, criminals have been using private taxis in the port city of Rosario to distribute cocaine, InSight Crime indicates. In mid-April, the police of El Chaco, a northeastern province, arrested three nurses carrying cocaine inside an ambulance. A few days earlier, the National Gendarmerie seized more than 260 kilograms of cocaine in two refrigerated trucks carrying meat in the city of Clorinda, in Formosa province.
In its May 13 report How COVID-19 is Changing the World: A Statistical Perspective, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that the coronavirus has affected narcotrafficking globally, but points out that its impact is mainly linked to the way drug shipments typically cross borders. For example, international trafficking of heroin, which is mainly transported by land, has suffered more than cocaine trafficking, which relies more on sea routes, the report says.
“Organized crime is always more agile and flexible than the governments themselves,” InSight Crime executive director Jeremy McDermott told BBC News. “They have the means to change their modus operandi quickly.”