HomeArgentinaArgentina Profile
ARGENTINA

Argentina Profile

ARGENTINA / LATEST UPDATE EN

Despite Argentina's prominent role as a money laundering center and as a drug transit and consumption point, the country does not suffer from the high levels of violence that affect other Latin American nations. Still, deep-rooted corruption in various branches of government has helped fuel persistent criminality in South America's second-largest country.

Argentina does not appear to have many homegrown crime groups with international reach, but transnational criminal organizations have long conducted various types of illicit activities in the country. Moreover, there are indications that domestic crime groups -- though still relatively small-scale -- have developed ties with transnational actors, and may be increasing in sophistication and capacity for violence.

Geography

Argentina shares a border with drug producing countries, such as Bolivia and Paraguay, and with other important countries for organized crime, such Brazil and Uruguay.

Its borders are also poorly patrolled, making it one of the key countries in the Southern Cone for smuggling goods, people, arms and drugs, particularly marijuana.

The marijuana is primarily trafficked across the country's border with Paraguay, crossing the Paraná River, and then traveling along land routes to the main consumer cities or Argentine seaports. Meanwhile, cocaine is trafficked from Bolivia, by land and air routes.

The more than 5,300 kilometers of Atlantic coastline in the country’s southeast is home to numerous important ports, like that of the capital Buenos Aires, through which significant amounts of illicit goods and drugs flow both to and from international markets.

History

During much of the early 20th century, Argentina paid little attention to organized crime, as the country was beset by a series of coups, military dictatorships and recurrent outbreaks of political violence that dominated the security agenda.

A 1976 coup led to Argentina's last period of military dictatorship, which ended in 1983. The dictatorship-era government focused security resources on repressing political opposition, leaving space for organized crime to quietly take root in various forms.

Argentina's domestic market for drugs began to expand in the 1970s, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s as police in urban areas colluded with organized crime by establishing “liberated zones” -- areas where law enforcement allowed small crime groups to operate in exchange for a cut of illicit profits. This practice reportedly facilitated the growth of retail drug distribution networks.

Argentina passed a law in 1989 penalizing the use and sale of drugs, when the issue of drug trafficking took on greater significance in the eyes of the public and the state. In 1997, authorities in Buenos Aires seized 2.2 metric tons of cocaine that Colombia's Cali Cartel was poised to ship through the country to the German port of Hamburg. Two years later, Argentina made news when it was revealed that the late Pablo Escobar’s wife and his children had been secretly residing in their country and were suspected of laundering part of the drug lord’s criminal proceeds there. That same year, Argentina produced its first official drug consumption survey, which showed considerably high usage rates for cocaine and marijuana.

Argentina passed a law in 1989 penalizing the use and sale of drugs, when the issue of drug trafficking took on greater significance in the eyes of the public and the state. In 1997, authorities in Buenos Aires seized 2.2 metric tons of cocaine that Colombia's Cali Cartel was poised to ship through the country to the German port of Hamburg. Two years later, Argentina made news when it was revealed that the late Pablo Escobar’s wife and his children had been secretly residing in their country and were suspected of laundering part of the drug lord’s criminal proceeds there. That same year, Argentina produced its first official drug consumption survey, which showed considerably high usage rates for cocaine and marijuana.

Concerns about the drug trade continued to grow during the 2000s. Cocaine production in Colombia reached levels high enough to sustain demand in the United States, while cocaine produced in Peru and Bolivia began to be increasingly diverted to the European market. Due to its geographic location and strong trade ties with European countries, Argentina became one of the key transit and launching points for Andean drugs headed across the Atlantic.

With more cocaine flowing through Argentina, authorities began to also uncover drug processing laboratories for processing coca paste. The introduction of partially refined cocaine paste into Argentina, combined with economic factors including Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, contributed throughout the 2000s to the increased consumption of "paco," a highly addictive and harmful derivative of cocaine paste.

One factor that made Argentina an attractive location for processing drugs was its chemical industry, which supported robust petroleum and pharmaceutical sectors. Illegal synthetic drug production emerged in the country due to the availability of relatively inexpensive, precursor chemicals. However, demand for such drugs in Argentina grew beyond the ability of domestic producers to meet, and European suppliers have stepped in to fill the gap.

Criminal networks in the early 2000s also capitalized on Argentina's chemical industry to siphon off precursor products for sale in the regional black market. In particular ephedrine and pseudoephedrine -- used in the production of methamphetamines in Mexico – were imported from Asia under the cover of Argentina’s pharmaceutical industry needs. Between 2004 and 2008, Argentina imported some 48 metric tons of ephedrine, 41 tons of which were thought to have been diverted to the illegal drug production market. Although precursor trafficking from Argentina has dropped considerably since 2008 due to tightened regulations and decreased demand, it has not entirely disappeared, and the country remains one of the world's leading sources of precursors.

The 2000s also saw Argentina's role as a money laundering center continue to develop. A leaked 2009 cable from the US State Department described Argentina as being "ripe for exploitation" by criminal interests due to what it described as "near complete absence of enforcement coupled with a culture of impunity and corruption." In 2010, the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering group, strongly criticized Argentina for failing to meet standards and added it to a "gray list" as a warning to make improvements. The task force removed Argentina from the gray list in 2014 after it bolstered its efforts on money laundering, and the issue remains a priority for officials today. In the latest report published by the State Department in 2021, Argentina is listed as one of the “major money laundering jurisdictions.”

During the late 2000s, Argentina also became a regional hub for human smuggling and trafficking. The country is listed by the US State Department as a recruitment and exploitation country. Argentina passed a law against human trafficking in 2008, leading to a sharp increase in the number of victims rescued and in the charges pressed against traffickers in the years following. Despite these efforts, human trafficking remains an issue.

The same qualities that made Argentina a human trafficking hub also made it an attractive hideout for foreign criminals. Opportunities for laundering money and buying protection from crooked local officials also served as an incentive. For example, Colombian crime boss Henry de Jesús López, alias “Mi Sangre,” was arrested in 2012 in Buenos Aires, where authorities said he had been living for two years, traveling throughout the region frequently and posing as a Venezuelan businessman.

The same qualities that made Argentina a human trafficking hub also made it an attractive hideout for foreign criminals. (Opportunities for laundering money and buying protection from crooked local officials also served as an incentive). For example, crime boss Henry de Jesús López, alias “Mi Sangre,” was arrested in 2012 in Buenos Aires, where authorities said he had been living for two years, traveling throughout the region frequently and posing as a Venezuelan businessman.

In addition to using Argentina as a refuge, foreign crime groups began deepening their presence in the country during the 2010s. Authorities uncovered operations by Mexican, Colombian and other foreign groups.

During the early 2010s, domestic criminal organizations also grew bolder, more sophisticated and more violent. One of the groups most emblematic of this new generation of Argentine organized crime was Los Monos, a gang based in the drug in the city of Rosario. In 2012, an internal dispute began within the group, mostly made up of members of the same family, unleashing a bloodbath that turned the city into the poster child for rising drug-related violence across the country.

Under heavy public pressure, authorities resisted resorting to militarized policies but sent mixed messages about how they planned to deal with the growing waves of violence, which have been attributed to local groups battling for control of Argentina’s local drug market. The domestic drug gangs also have been diversifying their portfolios and branching out into activities like kidnapping. On top of this, corruption continues to plague many levels of government, the judicial system and law enforcement.

Due to data collection being spotty under the governments of Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, perceptions of violence, insecurity and drug addiction associated with organized crime helped law-and-order candidate Mauricio Macri win Argentina's 2015 presidential election.

Macri's inauguration signaled important changes in Argentina’s security and drug policies, as the new administration moved swiftly to implement toughened security policies -- some of which were criticized for their militarized tint.

In its first months in office, Macri's government launched operations against Chinese mafia groups, soccer gangs known as "barras bravas" and key players in the domestic drug trade. The administration also put more emphasis on gathering data and intelligence to inform policymaking in the security realm, and took some initial steps to start treating drug use as a public health issue rather than as a criminal one.

However, the Macri administration's victories did not bring lasting results. During his presidency, there was abundant evidence that both international and domestic criminal groups managed to adapt to continue to run various sophisticated and lucrative criminal schemes.

His successor, Alberto Fernández, has looked to make structural changes to the judiciary and to security institutions, such as the Federal Police. But deep-seated corruption remains an issue. Criminal organizations throughout the country have built strong relationships with top local officials. Inefficiency and corruption in the judicial system have also contributed to impunity in many cases. There are some encouraging early signs that authorities are beginning to take this problem more seriously.  However, any advances have been quickly overshadowed by various scandals.

Criminal Groups

While previously there was little evidence of domestic criminal groups in Argentina with a national or international reach, several groups have evolved into more complex and sophisticated structures in recent years.

One of the most power national groups is the Rosario-based Monos, a family clan. This group took advantage of the situation during the early 2000s to consolidate its power in the city, a key thoroughfare for drug smuggling. The group was also able to ally itself with some political and economic elites and to infiltrate the local police.

Another important characteristic of Los Monos lies in the family ties that connect its members. Family clans have molded the criminal map in Argentina for years. Most of these clans act similarly, managing to infiltrate various local political and security institutions, while exercising strong control over certain territories.

Another clan from Argentina that has achieved some notoriety is the Castedo Clan, originally from the province of Salta, in the north of the country. Its leader, Delfín Castedo, was captured in Bolivia and extradited to Argentina for cocaine trafficking. The clan enjoyed the support of local politicians and judges, like Raúl Reynoso, which allowed him to transport cocaine from Bolivia to Salta and later to the most important ports of the country. In addition, there is Clan Loza, whose leaders were accused of coordinating drug shipments to Europe.

Meanwhile, soccer gangs known as barras bravas are known to engage in a variety of criminal activities, and certain powerful trade unions have also developed criminal portfolios. Organized crime groups described as "Chinese mafia" have sprung up in Asian immigrant communities in Argentina, and reportedly have ties to larger structures in China.

Finally, transnational crime groups from other South American countries have tried to consolidate their operations in Argentina, and national groups have tried to imitate these larger syndicates. Brazil’s largest gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) has set its sights on expanding its presence in Argentina for years, as has its biggest rival, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV). But the gangs have found it difficult to gain a foothold in Argentina, because the country largely has control of its prisons and has avoided the levels of extreme violence that these gangs use to consolidate power.

Security Forces

Argentina's police forces have the leading role in combating crime. According to the United Nations, in 2018, the country had a total of nearly 795 police officers for every 100,000 citizens -- the highest ratio for any country in the region.

The federal security ministry oversees nationally deployed forces, including the Airport Security Police (Policía de Seguridad Aeroportuaria), the Coast Guard (Prefectura Naval), the Federal Police and the Gendarmerie.

Additionally, Argentina's provinces and municipalities have their own police forces, many of which struggle with deep corruption. For instance, the Buenos Aires provincial police, known as the "bonaerense," has been accused "of abuses of authority and collusion with criminal elements. Police in border regions have also repeatedly been accused of colluding with traffickers and other criminals.

Judicial System

Like its security forces, Argentina’s justice system is divided between federal and provincial entities. The federal Supreme Court is the country’s highest judicial authority. Below it are appellate, district and territorial courts. Each province has its own Supreme Court as well as various lower courts.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Argentina 121 out of 138 countries with regard to the judiciary’s independence. Political interference in judicial proceedings is common, especially in cases involving elite interests.

Prisons

Argentina's prison system operates slightly over capacity, and overcrowding is worse in some institutions than in others.

More than half of the country’s roughly 69,000 prisoners are held in pretrial detention, meaning they have not been convicted.

Drug laws have been a major driver of sharp increases in Argentina's prison population in recent years. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that punishing personal drug consumption violated Article 19 of Argentina’s Constitution, which protects people's privacy. And the anti-drug law was updated in 2016 to soften punishment for personal drug use when it “does not affect other people," though it did not go as far as decriminalizing personal consumption. Despite a number of legislative proposals regarding this issue, drug crimes remain the second-most common reason for incarceration in Argentina.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Tags

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

ARGENTINA / 3 MAR 2014

Statistics released on drug sales investigations and drug seizures in Argentina and Mexico suggest both countries are experiencing a boom…

ARGENTINA / 2 DEC 2016

A high-level migration official and two Chinese nationals were arrested in Argentina as part of an ongoing investigation into the…

ARGENTINA / 29 MAY 2017

Argentina's national government is scaling up a pilot project that provides treatment instead of incarceration for drug addicts accused of…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Combating Environmental Crime in Colombia

15 JUN 2021

InSight Crime presented findings from an investigation into the main criminal activities fueling environmental destruction in Colombia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Collaborating on Citizen Security Initiatives

8 JUN 2021

Co-director Steven Dudley worked with Chemonics, a DC-based development firm, to analyze the organization’s citizen security programs in Mexico.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Deepens Its Connections with Universities

31 MAY 2021

A partnership with the University for Peace will complement InSight Crime’s research methodology and expertise on Costa Rica.

THE ORGANIZATION

With Support from USAID, InSight Crime Will Investigate Organized Crime in Haiti

31 MAY 2021

The project will seek to map out Haiti's principal criminal economies, profile the specific groups and actors, and detail their links to elements of the state.

THE ORGANIZATION

We Have Updated Our Website

4 FEB 2021

Welcome to our new home page. We have revamped the site to create a better display and reader experience.