Drugs in Argentina
Southward marching powder
WITH its extensive network in Argentina the Catholic Church is arguably the non-governmental organisation with its ear closest to the ground. Its priests work even in areas so precarious that ambulances and police avoid them. That makes its report on the spread of drug consumption and trafficking, released earlier this month, all the more disturbing. Argentina, it warns, is “entering a situation from which it could be difficult to return”.
In October suspected drug dealers strafed the house of Antonio Bonafatti, the governor of Santa Fe province, firing 14 bullets at his front door. The judge investigating the case later received an anonymous text message warning that Mr Bonafatti could be attacked on the highway.
Argentina was once a conduit for drugs on their way from Andean cocaine-producers like Bolivia, Colombia and Peru to Europe. It has now become an important producer and consumer in its own right. This is the consequence of what drug-watchers call the "balloon effect". As Colombia, Mexico and others squeeze narco groups at their end, operations simply swell elsewhere, with the charting of new routes, forging of new alliances and setting up of new bases. Argentina's ample Atlantic coasts, poorly controlled borders and patchy aerial surveillance make it an ideal hub. The country enjoys visa-free travel to the European Union. Many of its citizens also hold European passports.
Over the past decade traffickers began to pay their Argentine mules in drugs, prompting them to find—or create—a domestic market. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 0.9% of Argentine adults took cocaine in 2010, three times the proportion in 2004 (though still somewhat less than the South American average).
Argentina’s developed pharmaceutical industry has also made it an inviting country for cocaine processing. Almost no coca leaves are planted in Argentina, but plenty of laboratories have sprung up to purify coca "base" (a pulp made from coca leaves) into marketable powder cocaine, using mostly legal chemicals. These labs, or “kitchens”, can range from tiny ventures run out of shacks in rough neighbourhood to wide-scale enterprises in surprisingly salubrious ones. In September authorities dismantled one kitchen capable of producing 100kg of cocaine a day in a luxurious gated community.
In 2011 Edgardo Buscaglia, a drug expert, revealed that Chapo Guzmán, the leader of Mexico's notorious Sinaloa cartel considered by the US Treasury Department to be the “the world’s most powerful drug trafficker”, had expanded his network to Argentina’s north. Other foreign drug lords have chosen Argentina as their home as well as their business headquarters, sometimes living in luxurious apartments and closed communities for years without bother. One Colombian drug chief, Henry de Jesús López Londoño, known as “My Blood”, lived snugly in another gated suburban community outside Buenos Aires. He was actually apprehended and released by Argentine authorities before being arrested in October 2012. “Narco groups move quite freely in Argentina,” laments Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, of Torcuato di Tella University in Buenos Aires.
Cartels bring with them violent crime—both directly, as with the Santa Fe shooting, and indirectly, as a consequence of increased drug consumption. A survey conducted by Torcuato di Tella’s Laboratory of Investigations on Crime, Institutions and Policies registered that 37.5% of Argentine households were victim of a crime in the last 12 months; 57% percent of those crimes were violent robberies.
The government’s response to such issues has been anaemic and patchy. Co-ordination between different law-enforcement agencies remains poor. The government's anti-drug agency has not had a boss since March. Spending is insufficient. The government plans to spend only 6.6% more on security in 2014 than it did this year. With inflation running at around 25%, according to independent estimates, that amounts to a severe cut in real terms.
Authorities have focused on seizing drugs, not dismantling the organisations that peddle them. “This strategy is futile,” says former under-secretary of security for Buenos Aires province, Diego Gorgal. “It doesn’t change the supply, demand, or price of drugs.” It is also poorly executed. According to the latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report produced by the US State Department, Argentine security forces seized 12 tonnes of cocaine in 2010; in the first six months of 2012 they confiscated only 3.4 tonnes. Operation Northern Shield, an initiative to improve Argentina’s border security through the installation of seven radars in the north, has flopped. Only three have been activated. Their backup? Forty-year-old aircraft.