An ambitious mayor, a well-connected deputy mayor, dirty cops, a corrupt judge, and a lot of marijuana. This is the story of Itatí, the sleepy town that went from religious hub to key stop on Argentina’s marijuana highway, and the mayor that helped make it happen.
The tears running down Natividad Terán’s face were a telling sign that this was not just another political scandal.
“People are praying for me,” Terán told a TV reporter, visibly shaking.
Terán was the mayor of Itatí, a small town of some 9,000 people on the northern corner of the Corrientes province, on the banks of the Paraná River. On the other side of the river is Paraguay, the top marijuana producer in Latin America and, depending on who you asked, the source of Terán’s pain or his power.
It was April 3, 2017. Just a couple of weeks earlier some 700 members of Argentina’s gendarmerie had rained on Itatí. The “Sapucay Operation,” as it was called, was nothing short of an action-packed blockbuster. A special unit carried out 43 separate searches in residences where they found drugs, arms, mobile phones and cash in numerous currencies. They arrested 15 individuals suspected of being part of a sophisticated crime organization.
Terán was among them, accused of being the most important political cog in a translational criminal organization that used the town as its center of operations to move tons of drugs every year from Paraguay to Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, and other cities.
Logically, the story was top news in Argentina. And so Terán was crying, protesting his innocence.
“I’m a nobody in this whole issue. I’m just a mayor that has no real power in these issues, but I trust justice will be served,” he told America TV, tears running down his face.
Small Towns, Big Networks
Itatí was long known for its imposing cathedral in the center of town, which houses the Our Lady of Itatí. The cathedral put the small border town on Argentina’s religious map. Hordes of people travel to Itatí each year to visit the shrine, an annual pilgrimage slowed only by the coronavirus pandemic.
But Itatí also has a less desirable reputation for its role in Argentina’s drug trafficking. The town is one of the many places where illegal drugs enter Argentina, a country that is one of the largest drug consumer markets in the world and is a transit route for some of the cocaine headed to Europe and other destinations.
Much of these drugs come from or via Paraguay. Argentina and Paraguay are separated by the Paraguay and Paraná rivers. Authorities claim there is little to no drug trafficking via rivers, but the lack of policing in the waters that separate the riverbanks of Paraguay and Argentina makes it relatively easy to smuggle anything.
And smugglers do, from clothes and electronics to illegal cigarettes. A number of journalists and experts interviewed in both countries also said vast quantities of drugs are smuggled along these fluvial highways, navigable all year round. Indeed, seizures in Europe indicate that large cocaine shipments have left from Asunción, moved along the Paraguay River to the Paraná River, and then shipped from Buenos Aires ports or Montevideo.
Further west, along the Bolivian border, cocaine trafficking is even more prolific. In Salta, along the so-called dry border, the Loza family began moving small amounts of cocaine in the 1980s. By the 1990s, the Lozas were wholesalers in Buenos Aires, and by the 2000s, they had begun moving cocaine to Europe on cargo ships via the “rip-on rip-off" method – sneaking drugs into containers without top-level collusion from the ship.
Alongside them was the Castedo clan. The Castedos acquired land on both sides of Salta’s dry border in the city of Salvador Mazza and smuggled drugs through their private estates. Delfín Castedo, referred to as the “boss” of the border by media, reportedly owned as much as 25,000 hectares just on the Argentine side. Like the Lozas, the Castedos eventually moved to shipping cocaine to Europe. Several sources insisted that the group was not the owner of the merchandise but was hired by European-based drug traffickers.
Like Itatí, Salta provided the perfect setting for these clans to grow. The Aguas Blancas border crossing, in the municipality of Orán, is a known contraband hotbed where large swathes of the population live off illegal economies. As much as a third of locals could live off contraband, a local prosecutor estimated in 2017.
Argentine counternarcotics officials told InSight Crime that drugs are smuggled by land through the Aguas Blancas and the Professor Salvador Mazza dry border areas in Salta, and in the La Quiaca area in the neighboring province of Jujuy in lesser quantities. Cocaine is also trafficked in large volumes by aerial drops in a zone that covers southern Salta and the northern part of the neighboring Santiago del Estero province, they added.
Along the northeastern border, marijuana is trafficked more often. One recent report in La Nación said cargo operators receive as much as $10,000 to move marijuana along the riverine highways. In Argentina, where marijuana use has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, the drug could be more lucrative than cocaine.
It is little surprise then that around 20 percent of all illegal marijuana produced in Paraguay is transported to Argentina, much of it through towns like Itatí. Along the river, a collection of small islands scattered across the approximately three kilometers that separate both shores make for useful stop-off points. But once the drugs are in Argentina, they need storage and transport networks. That, judicial investigators say, is where politicians and small-town bureaucrats came into the picture.
The Itatí Network
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Natividad Terán is that, until the day of his arrest, he wasn’t particularly remarkable. Before launching his political career as a local city councilor -- an entry gate for politicians in many small towns across Argentina -- the Paraguay-born 54-year-old turned Argentine national owned a local hardware store.
“Political figures from small border towns close to Paraguay are always under suspicion, but there was nothing that pointed to Terán in particular. He was a bit of an unknown figure until all this,” a former prosecutor in the case said.
His 12 years as city councilor for a Peronist political faction during the administration of César Torres were also unremarkable. Torres, who was from the center-right New Party (Partido Nuevo – PANU), was mayor of Itatí for more than two decades and dominated the local political scene.
But Terán, who was known more popularly by his nickname “Roger,” had higher ambitions, even if he didn’t show it. And so, prior to municipal elections in September 2013, he brokered a coalition with PANU and another party, Crecer con Todos (Grow with Everyone), to back his candidacy for mayor, which he won with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Then he set to work with his new colleagues. One of them was Fabián Aquino of the Crecer con Todos party, who became his deputy mayor. The two were close, investigators later said, and would eventually become the foundation of the drug trafficking scheme. (For his part, Aquino claimed Terán promised him a level of political participation that never materialized and that they “hardly spoke.”)
Authorities said Terán also became close with Luis Saucedo, a police inspector, who people referred to as “El Gordo” (the Fat One). Saucedo had begun working with City Hall in 2012, under the Torres administration. And by the time Terán took office, Saucedo already had a reputation for his connection to drug trafficking. Still, Terán left him in his job, perhaps because he was the logistical mastermind of the Argentine side of the network.
In fact, investigators say it was Saucedo’s network that extended to Paraguay. There, according to an anonymous witness who spoke to Argentine prosecutors, the police inspector worked closely with Hugo and Ariel Arce, brothers who transported marijuana by truck from the north of Paraguay to the city of Ayolas, just upriver from Itatí.
That is where Federico Marín, known as “Morenita” after a type of bait for fishing, would often take over. Marín was famous for his knowledge of the Paraná River and for the high-quality marijuana he provided his customers. He got the drugs to Itatí, often via speedboat.
“They have everything arranged with people from the coast guard, gendarmerie and the federal and local police. They load (the boats) up 100 meters from the Coast Guard,” one witness declared.
The marijuana that arrived in Itatí was stored in sheds where the network relied on municipal authorities to hide and then move it. Saucedo, for instance, coordinated operations directly with Terán, who then passed on orders to his deputy mayor, Fabio Aquino. Aquino, in turn, was the link to local police Chief Osvaldo Ocampo Alvarenga, who, according to court files, was working with at least two members of Argentina’s Federal Police stationed in Corrientes and one member of the gendarmerie. They sometimes freelanced, authorities later claimed, stealing and reselling drugs to trafficking groups.
Except for the local priest, who was forced into exile due to death threats, there was little resistance in the town. Money flowed easily, and it was injected into the local economy through car dealerships or horse racing. Even kids were employed as lookouts, their parents unaware or turning a blind eye.
The close family connections also made the network efficient as they ensured loyalty and agile communications. “Fish” was code word for marijuana. They used various species to indicate the quality of the drugs. The “golden key,” federal prosecutors told InSight Crime, was their connection within the top echelons of the judiciary.
Indeed, if anything went wrong, they had at least one judge working with them. Judge Carlos Soto Dávila had been dealing with drug trafficking cases in the province for more than two decades. The judge, prosecutors said, worked with two of his secretaries and five lawyers who used to represent individuals on drug trafficking charges. Together, they negotiated delays in investigations or secured reduced sentences in exchange for payments, prosecutors said.
Authorities, for example, say Soto Dávila helped Saucedo escape prosecution on several occasions. They also noted an anomaly in the statistics: the considerable number of seizures did not match the low number of arrests. One of the lawyers believed to have acted as an intermediary between the judge’s office and criminal groups, who has since become a key witness in the case, said they were frequently asked to “collect money for the old man," including from those in Terán’s organization.
Eventually, authorities said, the marijuana left the city and was transported to least seven distribution points across Argentina, including important consumption and distribution hubs such as Rosario and the poor neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. In all, investigators think the network was moving as much as 15 tons of marijuana per year worth millions of dollars.
It was in Buenos Aires that investigators caught wind of the network. It happened because they were tracing the origin of the marijuana that three women were selling in a rundown area known as Villa 21. They tapped their phones, which at first led to a number of small wholesalers. Soon after, authorities arrested the women. The arrests and the wiretaps eventually led to the wider network.
The leader, authorities said, was Carlos Alberto Barreiro, a convicted drug trafficker who was operating from his jail cell in Chaco. Authorities said that locals called him “El Patrón,” an homage to a person they described as “the Pablo Escobar of Itatí.”
Barreiro’s connection to Itatí’s City Hall was personal. Deputy Mayor Aquino’s sister, María Emilia Aquino, had two children with Barreiro. Aquino later claimed that after the couple split, he cut all contact with Barreiro. But at some point, the sister got a loan to purchase a drug load, authorities would claim later. The load, they said, was captured and the sister was left owing the criminal group for the lost drugs and her loan.
“I’m not involved in anything strange, and neither is she,” Aquino told the courts, referring to his sister. “Many of these problems are happening because I wanted to become mayor. I used to help everybody, but I never did anything illegal.”
Aquino’s brother, Hernán, was also connected to the network. He was arrested on drug trafficking charges. Judge Soto Dávila released him. One of Aquino’s other sisters was also linked to the network. A local police officer, she was allegedly responsible for alerting drug traffickers about upcoming raids or road checks.
Just what role Terán played in the network is still a matter of debate. Some paint Terán as a pawn in this scheme, and he would later famously say on TV that he was a “nobody.”
“This was a big organization, there is no doubt of that,” a former prosecutor from Corrientes told InSight Crime, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case. “The arms they had access to and the kind of boats they used. That shows the power they had. Terán, the members of the security forces, the judge. They were just cogs in that network and paid for their favors.”
But prosecutors say Terán was a key member of the group, providing top-cover for its activities and connections to various parts of the wider network. Authorities also say Saucedo financed Terán’s campaign with drug money.
What’s more, some of Terán’s family were also tied to the scheme, including his daughter and son-in-law. The investigation into the two had begun in 2014, when188 kilos of marijuana were found in their abandoned car after the car outraced authorities in a chase near Itatí. Both said their car had been stolen and that the drugs were not theirs.
Still, relations between the two became tense in the months afterwards. Authorities knew because they were monitoring their communications.
“I can destroy your family,” he once told her on the telephone, “because we know where your money comes from.”
To be sure, authorities said the couple had a hard time explaining why they owned several SUVs and had as much as $60,000 in jewelry in the house. On February 14, 2017, Terán’s daughter and son-in-law were arrested.
A week later, Hernán Aquino was arrested again, this time after he and the sister of a local city councilor were stopped on a highway with 500 kilos of marijuana.
The noose was tightening.
Around 5 a.m., on March 14, under the cover of darkness, the first teams of gendarmerie entered Itatí. They set up a communications hub at the entrance to the town, and then they began rustling up civilian witnesses in the neighborhoods where they were staging more than two dozen simultaneous search and seizures.
At 6 a.m., the teams hit 32 houses. In all, over 700 gendarmerie took part in the operation. The haul was monumental: motorcycles, boats, cars, trucks, drugs, weapons and 70 people arrested, among them Mayor Terán, his deputy mayor, Fabio Aquino, and the police chief, Ocampo Alvarenga. In addition, the gendarmerie found marijuana bricks in the local jail cell and in Ocampo Alvarenga’s desk. All three were accused of various crimes related to drug trafficking.
Others initially evaded capture. Even though there was an Interpol arrest warrant and a large reward for information hanging over his head, Saucedo managed to stay off the radar for more than two years until authorities caught up with him in the city of Pilar, Paraguay, where they arrested him in September 2019. They quickly extradited him to Argentina where he is now facing charges that include international drug trafficking, money laundering and falsification of documents.
Most damning in the case against Saucedo was his patrimony. Although Saucedo was receiving a municipal employee salary that his wife said was 10,000 pesos a month (approximately $1,000 at the time), he had 23 luxury cars and three properties, among other assets.
Marín also evaded authorities for years. He went into hiding before the first raids took place in Itatí in 2017, and it took authorities more than two years and an intense search across Argentina to find him. They finally caught up with him in October 2018, when he returned to Itatí to visit his five children and his wife, who was under house arrest at the time, serving out her own drug trafficking sentence.
Soto Dávila at first claimed he was innocent and that the charges against him were politically motivated. However, as pressure around him built and after he was indicted in February 2019, he resigned. He is now awaiting trial alongside the two secretaries and five lawyers who worked as intermediaries.
Operation Sapucay was one of many that broke up long-time Argentine border trafficking networks during this same time period. In July 2016, authorities captured Delfín Castedo, the capo of the Castedo clan. Other arrests of key members of the organization followed.
In December 2018, authorities hit numerous Loza clan hideouts and properties, arresting four of the clan leaders. And in September 2019, authorities seized a record 800 million Argentine pesos from the clan (over $13 million), 45 buildings and 30 vehicles just in Argentina.
The Never-ending Battle at the Border
Authorities in Argentina see these as success stories in the country’s long fight against drug trafficking -- an example of the results they yield from long investigations and efficient coordination between governmental institutions. Indeed, the country’s Attorney General’s Office reported that 40 individuals have already been sentenced in the Itatí case, and 36 more are awaiting trial. This includes Barreiro, who is accused of being one of the main leaders of the organization.
But many battles remain.
“The Itatí case is clearly just the tip of the iceberg,” the former prosecutor from the case told InSight Crime. “The network of connections between politicians, security forces and drug traffickers is a long-dated one and will continue to exist. You can cut some heads off, and others will quickly surface. As long as one has money and territorial control and the other, a need for campaign funds and votes, those relations will continue.”
Still, criminal organizations may be making some slight adjustments. Alfredo Zacarías, a journalist who has been investigating security issues in Corrientes for more than 30 years, said the traffickers are becoming more clandestine, moving drugs, for example, under the cover of darkness rather than during the day as they once did.
Controlling the waterways is extremely difficult at any time, he added, particularly given the limited resources the authorities have at their disposal. He also said that while the organization in Itatí was dismantled, the business hasn’t been.
“The problem is that when they (authorities) dismantle an organization, the big bosses move to another area, where they find new partners, so the business continues,” he explained. “Itatí is not an exception. Since the ‘Sapucay Operation,’ everybody says there’re no drugs in Itatí, but that is not true. It’s just that the dynamics have changed.”
To Zacarías’ point, the Paraguayan networks remain very much operational. And groups like the Castedos allegedly keep trafficking operations going from prison. What’s more, record loads of marijuana are still being seized in Itatí, even during the pandemic-induced lockdown.
*InSight Crime researchers Tristan Clavel and Laura Marcela Zúniga provided additional reporting for this story.