While the cocaine and other drugs being transited through Argentina are mainly produced elsewhere, processing laboratories were also recently found in the country itself. The trade in methamphetamines is growing as well. Between 2004 and 2008, 48 tons of ephedrine—a precursor chemical used in meth production—were imported; only 8 tons are needed to meet the pharmaceutical industry’s legitimate needs. Marijuana, too, is a problem, with Argentine authorities seizing a record 8.5 tons earlier this month.
The impact is showing up in crime statistics. Argentina has historically been one of the most peaceful countries in South America, with a homicide rate under 6 per 100,000 inhabitants between 2004 and 2010, roughly a fourth of the regional average. Nonetheless, violence has increased in some key cities. In Rosario, the annual number of homicides has more than doubled, from 119 in 2010 to a record-high 264 in 2013, or 27 per 100,000 inhabitants. In Mendoza, murders increased by 60 percent between early 2013 and early 2014.
Additional indicators reflect the increasing levels of insecurity: In September 2014, a survey found that 37.5 percent of households had been victims of a crime in the past year, 57 percent of them violent robberies. This year, a series of high-profile kidnappings, including of soccer star Carlos Tevez’s father, has also put the worsening problem of “express kidnappings” in the spotlight.
Five main factors can account for the deteriorating situation in Argentina. First, the country is a significant drug market, the region’s largest after Brazil. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Argentina accounts for 25 percent of cocaine consumption in Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole, with levels of use five times higher than the regional average.
Second, drug trafficking organizations, notably from Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Italy, have established a formidable presence in Argentina. This is, of course, related to the strength of domestic demand for cocaine, marijuana, meth and other drugs, but it also stems from the tightening of drug law enforcement along the northbound route and in Brazil and Chile. It is yet another illustration of the so-called balloon effect, whereby improvements in drug control in one area very often leads to similar problems emerging elsewhere.
Third, Argentina’s geography makes it an ideal smuggling hub, with a land border stretching over 5,800 miles and nearly 3,200 miles of coastline. There are multiple shipping routes, including through Rio Parana, which links Brazil to Argentina via Paraguay, and serves the cities of Santa Fe and Rosario, where drug-related violence is on the rise.
Fourth, law enforcement and judicial capacity have been inadequate. Available equipment for air space surveillance, including radar technology and airplanes, is poor and outdated. On the ground, Argentina does not have the resources to effectively control the huge borders it shares with its neighbors. In addition, the government’s anti-drug agency did not have a director for most of 2013; the likelihood of indictment for traffickers and other criminals remains strikingly low; and the country has little capacity to investigate complex cases.
Finally, corruption has enabled the illicit drug trade to flourish. Recent money laundering cases around a major property developer and several soccer clubs highlight the ease with which illicit funds flow into Argentina. Corruption scandals even revolve around President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, including a former anti-drug policy coordinator who is accused of facilitating large-scale imports of ephedrine through pharmaceutical companies that provided significant financial support to Kirchner’s 2007 presidential campaign.
The policy response to these growing drug problems has been limited so far. Kirchner’s government raised the domestic security budget by 6.6 percent this year, which actually marks a decline in real terms when accounting for Argentina’s very high inflation of around 25 percent. A reshuffle of security authorities was conducted in some cities such as Santa Fe and accompanied by a ban on weapons, while law enforcement efforts were increased in some areas, including against black market merchandise between Bolivia and Buenos Aires. The government has also taken steps to decriminalize drug use. It is currently drafting proposals that are due to be presented to Congress by the end of the year. Under the present system, drug users can be sentenced to prison for possession of any type of drug, but the Supreme Court has ruled against the punishment of adult marijuana users as long as they did not cause harm to others.
These developments have occurred amid fast-changing regional and international drug policies. In May 2013, the Organization of American States produced a groundbreaking report openly challenging traditional prohibitionist drug policies and “mano dura”—or heavy-handed—enforcement strategies in the region, calling instead for decriminalization of drug use, a focus on public health and the exploration of legalization and regulation. In November 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalize and regulate the whole supply chain of marijuana.
Argentina would likely benefit from imitating its neighbor. Taking marijuana revenues away from trafficking organizations would help weaken some of them and potentially tamp down some of the associated crime and violence. Beyond that, the challenges require a more comprehensive approach. It would include strengthening Argentina’s judicial process and capacity; building up law enforcement and reframing counternarcotics to contain drug-related crime and violence instead of just seizing drugs; tackling corruption through an independent body and the inclusion of civil society organizations; providing economic and social opportunities to Argentine youth to ensure that trafficking does not become more appealing than legitimate careers; and bulking up financial regulation against money laundering.
Argentina has taken a back seat in recent civil society and intergovernmental initiatives to reform drug policies. The forthcoming United General Assembly Special Session on drugs in 2016 offers a clear opportunity to take on these challenges. Without swift action, Argentina indeed risks witnessing a steady increase in drug-related violence and a deepening infiltration of drug interests within its economy and institutions.
Benoît Gomis is an analyst and consultant on international security, focusing on counterterrorism and drugs and organized crime. He is currently writing a book on counterterrorism for CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) as a visiting scholar at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS). He is also an associate fellow at Chatham House and an associate faculty at Royal Roads University, where he teaches a master’s course on international conflict. He previously worked at Chatham House, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the French Ministry of Defense.