Reports that two of Colombia’s most wanted drug traffickers traveled to Argentina to hold talks are only the latest evidence that the country is being used as a hideout and base of operations by members of the Colombian underworld.
According to a report in newspaper El Tiempo, Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” and Erick Vargas Cardenas, alias "Sebastian," traveled to the city of Rosario, in northern Argentina, to negotiate a truce. The two men, who are currently locked in a struggle for control of the Colombian city of Medellin, spent at least three days in Rosario in early September, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sources consulted by El Tiempo. The agency is reportedly investigating how the pair, who between them have rewards worth at least $6 million on their heads from the U.S. and Colombian governments, could have managed to elude authorities and spend time in one of Argentina’s major cities without being caught.
If the story is true, it would not be the first time that high-up members of the Colombian drug trade have used Argentina as a safe location to carry out business, or even to live. The drive to increase security in Colombia over the last decade left many kingpins needing to leave the country, no longer able to enjoy the high life of a Pablo Escobar, and Argentina is suitably far away, as well as being a good location to run trafficking operations and launder money.
Most famously, Hector Edilson Duque Ceballos, alias “Monoteto,” a top member of the Cordillera Cartel, was gunned down in a Buenos Aires shopping mall in 2008. Some reports even said that he had gone to Argentina in order to murder another then-member the same Medellin mafia group as Bonilla and Vargas, who was in the country for surrender negotiations with the DEA.
There are many other high-profile cases. Ignacio Alvarez Meyendorff, allegedly a one-time member the Norte del Valle Cartel and still a leading trafficker, was arrested at Buenos Aires international airport in April on his way back from a trip to Tahiti. He had reportedly been living in a fashionable neighborhood of the city since 2005, and had not apparently been overly cautious with security; he had left and re-entered the country a number of times, and had set up various business enterprises. His fall followed that of business associate Luis Agustin Caicedo Velandia, “Don Lucho,” also caught in Argentina, who likely betrayed him. Alvarez’s brother, Juan Fernando Alvarez Meyendorff, alias “Mecha,” is also thought to be living in the Argentine capital. According to reports, he was detained by police along with Caicedo in 2010, but released without being identified.
Particularly media-friendly was the story of Angela Sanclemente, a former Colombian beauty queen who allegedly headed a massive drug smuggling network that shipped cocaine out of Buenos Aires (see photo, above). She is currently being held in a Argentine jail.
Peruvian traffickers are also building links in Argentina, as detailed in a recent investigation by newspaper Clarin. Despite the arrest of Peruvian alleged capo Marco Antonio Estrada Gonzáles, alias “Marcos,” in 2007, he has continued to run the trade in a neighborhood of Buenos Aires called Bajo Flores, which is the city’s hub for the sale of cocaine and “paco,” a crack-like substance. The product sold there all comes from Peru, and is transported to Argentina by land or by air, with drug “mules” who ingest a load being a thing of the past, according to the report.
There have even been reports that Mexican capo Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” perhaps the most wanted man in the world, had moved to Argentina in 2010, leaving only in March of this year.
However, Argentina is not just attracting high-profile capos, but also the lower-down managers who run the drug trade day by day. These Colombian middle-managers are locating themselves in Argentina in order to oversee the export of drugs to Europe, according to reports going back as far as 2008. A recent article in El Pais announced that “the Colombian drug trade has shifted to the south of the continent,” with Argentina becoming a new center of operations for traffickers.
The country is good place to base a drug trafficking business, as it has become increasingly important as a transshipment point for drugs being sent to Europe, either via West Africa or Spain. It shares long land borders with drug-producing Bolivia, and with Paraguay, an important transit route for cocaine and producer of marijuana. Meanwhile the high volume of cargo that passes through its many sea ports and airports help to disguise outgoing drug shipments.
El Pais report highlights the role of Colombians located in the city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in shipping cocaine into Argentina. According to the newspaper, Colombian traffickers have set up factories around the city, which process coca leaves from the conveniently close-by Chapare region, one of the country's biggest producers of the leaf. These factories ship drugs over the border into Argentina in "industrial quantities," using roads which are deserted and underpoliced, reports El Pais. As InSight Crime has noted, there have been reports that up to 3,000 Colombians are now based in the city, many thought to have arrived there around 2006
Argentina did not have the necessary climate or location to play a major part in the rise of cocaine in the last century, and this relative absence of the drug business has contributed to the country having a lax regulatory climate and less vigorous law enforcement. Drug kingpins can launder their money through the country’s poorly-regulated financial system. As InSight Crime has previously highlighted, this is made easier by the widespread use of cash, a legal loophole meaning it is not a crime to “launder” your own money, and an under-regulated real estate sector.
Another attraction for drug traffickers is that Argentina is an increasingly important transshipment location for chemicals used to make methamphetamine, as it does not have the restrictions placed on these chemicals in, say, Mexico. In addition to this the country is increasingly emerging as a drug market in its own right, accounting for some 25 percent of Latin America's entire cocaine consumption.