The arrest in March 2017 of top local officials in the town of Itatí, in Argentina's northern province of Corrientes on the border with Paraguay, revealed how the flow of Paraguayan drugs had corrupted local institutions. But revelations surrounding the massive drug trafficking scheme soon shed light on graft well beyond the border town and throughout Corrientes, whose geographic advantages made it an attractive passageway for the drugs heading south to Argentina's urban consumption markets.
Among the 23 individuals arrested during a massive deployment of security forces on March 14 were Itatí Mayor Natividad "Roger" Terán, Vice Mayor Fabio Aquino and Police Chief Ocampo Alvarenga.
The three officials would eventually be indicted on May 11 along with 25 other suspects for their alleged involvement in a criminal association dedicated to trafficking marijuana, La Nación reported. Their cases are ongoing.
The indictment states that the mayor and vice mayor, who allegedly financed their campaign with drug money, were in charge of "coordinating part of the plot to move narcotics and intervening in favor of members of the association to ensure their impunity," according to La Nación.
Perfíl reported that Terán coordinated with a local drug lord running the Itatí scheme, Luis Saucedo, alias "Gordo," before passing orders to Vice Mayor Aquino, who served as the intermediary with police chief Alvarenga. In an intercepted phone call, however, the mayor was heard directly asking police chief to release two drug traffickers, in exchange for gasoline for police patrols.
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It wasn't just the mayor's office and the police force that seemed to be infected with marijuana-fueled corruption. The top drug boss in the area, Carlos "Cachito" Bareiro, who allegedly operates from prison, "gives work to everybody" in Itatí, according to a court testimony reported by Perfíl.
"They had everything fixed" with both local and federal security forces working in the area, another witness said, according to Clarín.
But the corruption wasn't limited to Itatí.
The investigation that led to the Itatí arrests was actually born from an operation targeting a retail drug distribution operation in an urban slum on the outskirts of the capital, Buenos Aires. That probe widened as authorities retraced the path of the marijuana to the northern border town.
In order to arrive at the large urban consumption markets such as Buenos Aires and Rosario -- where the group dealt with one of Argentina's most infamous homegrown drug gangs, Los Monos -- the marijuana had to transit through much of Corrientes province.
And just as Itatí's strategic location as an entry point from Paraguay to Argentina led to deep criminal infiltration of local authorities, a growing body of evidence suggests that the flow of drugs through Corrientes has equally fueled corruption throughout the province.
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Part of the explanation for such deep and widespread corruption resides in the magnitude of the scheme. Located just a few kilometers from Paraguay's shores across the Paraná River, Itatí provides smugglers with a convenient cross-border smuggling route: from largely rural Paraguay, the top marijuana-producing nation in South America, to neighboring Argentina's sizeable urban markets for the drug.
The Paraná River, a major marijuana trafficking route, stretches along Corrientes from the border to Argentina's major urban centers. And despite the fact that Corrientes shares 320 kilometers of riverine border with Paraguay, security force presence is sparse and the Paraná River is littered with small islands that traffickers reportedly use to store marijuana. Moreover, land shipments departing from Misiones, the adjacent province to the northeast, typically pass through Corrientes.
The Itatí ring reportedly used a fleet of boats to smuggle between six and 15 metric tons of marijuana per week, delivering it to seven of Argentina's 23 provinces. This would suggest that the group moved hundreds of metric tons of marijuana per year and that hundreds of millions dollars were involved, based on estimated marijuana prices in Argentina.
Cecilia Di Lodovico, a Perfíl journalist who covers security, told InSight Crime that corruption was key to ensuring the smooth operation of the scheme.
"The question is, how does the drug succeed in passing all the checkpoints from the extreme [northern] part of the country to the center? The groups that operate in Corrientes, evidently, are branches of other organizations that operate in the cities, and which require the collusion from the public sector."
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Law enforcement appear particularly impacted by this widespread corruption, as does the judiciary to a lesser extent. Itati's local police, the state police, and detachments in the area from the three federal forces, all suffered from corrupt elements. Two federal police officers were accused of stealing drugs in order to resell them, Infobae reported. Suspicions were also raised against Federal Judge Carlos Vicente Soto Dávila, who appears to have systematically delayed or buried judicial moves against suspects in the Itatí scheme. The judge has denied all allegations, but has been removed from at least seven drug trafficking cases, according to La Nación.
The drug trade's corrupting effects may even have reached as high as the governor's office. Corrientes Governor Horacio Ricardo Colombi is under investigation for interfering with a December 2016 anti-narcotic operation in the city of Goya, also located in Corrientes along the Paraná River. Colombi travelled more than 200 kilometers from the provincial capital to Goya in an attempt to stop the operation and retrieve two witnesses, Perfíl reported. Before his arrival, Colombi ordered Corrientes police to delay the execution of search warrants carried out by officers sent from the neighboring Santa Fe province.
In addition to geographic location, socio-economic factors may also be driving drug trafficking through Corrientes and facilitating corruption. Lucas Manjon, the director of the investigative unit of the Argentine non-profit organization Alameda Foundation, explained to InSight Crime that the economic policies instituted by President Mauricio Macri have favored cocaine transshipment through Argentina.
"Seizures in ports and airports remain at very low levels ... In addition, the government decided to drive a process focused on exporting food, cereals and typical products from Argentina. This increases the level of circulation of boats in ports, and thus also that of legal and illegal products," Manjon said
He added that Corrientes itself has a substantial agricultural industry, and pointed to the emergence of new routes that place Corrientes as an entry point for Bolivian cocaine passing through Paraguay, while traditional cocaine routes enter Argentina's northwestern provinces bordering Bolivia.
And despite the flow of lucrative drugs through Corrientes, the province maintains a high proportion of the population living under the poverty line, which according to Manjon, favors impunity for corrupt officials.
"Poverty generates a high level of structural dependence from the most impoverished, with regard to all sectors of state power, many of which are completely corrupted by organized crime. This generates a society that does not possess institutions to defend its rights and punish the people that attempt to exploit this poverty," he said.