A new report on drug consumption in the Americas once again lists Argentina as the country with the second highest rate of cocaine consumption per person, just behind the United States. As the Southern Cone country struggles to kick its drug habit, authorities are targeting traffickers in new ways.
The study, published by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (Comisión Interamericana para el Control del Abuso de Drogas -- CICAD), found that 1.6 percent of people consumed cocaine in Argentina in 2017, similar to the 1.9 percent of people in the United States. Consumption in most other countries in Latin America was about 0.5 percent that year.
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Argentina has also seen a rise in the consumption of synthetic drugs, particularly ecstasy, with a 200 percent increase between 2010 and 2017, according to official data.
The report, published every four years since 2011, analyzes data and reveals trends in consumption of legal and illegal drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, cocaine and marijuana. The commission, which is part of the Organization of American States (OAS), said the study aims to inform drug policymakers.
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Over the last decade, Argentina has gone from being a drug transshipment point to a major consumer market, presenting a new challenge to authorities.
At the launch of the report, CICAD Executive Secretary Adam Namm said that one of the likely explanations for the expansion of the cocaine market in the country is that large and small criminal groups are increasingly working together.
“Traffickers used to pay those transporting drugs with money and then they started doing it with drugs. It was easier. That has been a game changer. It led to drugs spreading like the plague,” Namm said in an interview with La Nación.
The payments in cocaine turned traditional transporters into sellers, leading to more drugs on the street and a rise in demand.
Martín Verrier, an anti-narcotics official in the country's National Security Ministry, told InSight Crime that the current situation has been years in the making.
“Argentina is clearly a consumer country. Ninety-five percent of seizures we have carried out in recent years are of drugs destined for the domestic market. Marijuana and cocaine are the most popular drugs with synthetic drugs quickly rising,” he said.
“Those numbers are the consequence of how easy it was to get drugs into Argentina until three years ago, and the fact that people do not see them for how dangerous they are,” he said.
Since taking office in December 2015, Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has placed a particular emphasis on tackling microtrafficking across the country. The result has been a considerable rise in seizures and arrests.
Government critics say authorities are punishing dealers and consumers alike.
In October last year, Bullrich told Congress that one third of Argentina's drug arrests in 2017 were linked to personal use, and a recent report revealed that small-time drug offenses accounted for a high percentage of the prison population.
Verrier argues that targeting microtrafficking organizations is an effective strategy to reach the more powerful figures. He said that authorities have created units dedicated to stopping microtrafficking in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Santa Fe and Córdoba, an emerging drug trafficking hub.
"We are looking to work from the bottom up," he said. "Look at who provides drugs to the small-time seller, and that way, get to the larger organizations.”
Argentina's anti-narcotics secretariat has drastically improved the data it collects on the local drug market in recent years. Such data is particular useful for developing drug abuse prevention and health policies.
Any strategy to reduce drug consumption needs to target not only small-time dealers, but also the many reasons -- including socioeconomic ones -- that drug demand has risen in Argentina.