A high-profile Argentine drug lord is accused of colluding with a vast network of local politicians and police officers to transport large quantities of marijuana in one of the most significant narco-politics trials in the country's recent memory.
On September 4, Paraguay’s Anti-Drug Agency (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas — SENAD), arrested Luis Saucedo, alias “El Gordo,” in the city of Pilar, on the Argentina-Paraguay border.
Saucedo is accused of leading a crime organization called "Los Gordos," which trafficked large quantities of marijuana from Paraguay to cities in Argentina via the river city of Itatí, in Argentina's Corrientes province.
Saucedo has been sent back to Argentina, where a trial is ongoing against 34 people accused of leading or facilitating Los Gordos' criminal activities, La Nación reported.
The list of the accused reveals just how thoroughly the local officials were corrupted. Those standing trial include Natividad Roger Terán, the former mayor of Itatí; deputy mayor Fabio Aquino; high-ranking police officers; and other public officials. Saucedo himself was a low-ranking municipal employee who owned 23 vehicles and three properties.
A local judge is also being investigated for allegedly helping members of the organization evade justice.
The trial began in late August and could last as long as a year.
The investigation into Los Gordos began in 2014 when they were found supplying marijuana to local drug dealers in Buenos Aires. In 2017, their operation was blown open when the border town of Itatí was shown to be its nerve center. The trial is now referred to as the "Megacausa Itatí."
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According to investigators, elites in Itatí, a small river city of only 8,000 inhabitants, facilitated the transport of up to six tons of marijuana each week, turning Itatí into one of the main transport hubs in Argentina, Clarín reported.
The drugs were loaded onto trucks in the town of Pedro Caballero, in the north of Paraguay, South America’s largest marijuana producer. From there, they were driven to the Paraná River, on the border with the province of Corrientes, and loaded onto boats headed for Itatí.
Once in the town, the marijuana was stored in sheds before being dispatched to seven provinces across Argentina, including slums on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and to Rosario, home to the infamous crime organization Los Monos.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although this is far from the first case of suspected collusion between crime organizations and public officials in Argentina, the sheer scale of the Itatí organization is uncommon.
Los Gordos comprised an intricate network of members, many of them relatives, each fulfilling a strategic role based on their area of influence.
According to an investigation by Noticias, Saucedo coordinated operations directly with the then-mayor Terán, who would then pass orders to his deputy, Aquino. He, in turn, acted as the link with the local police chief Diego Octavio Alvarenga.
In a wiretapped phone call, however, the mayor was heard directly asking the police chief to release two drug traffickers in exchange for gasoline for police patrols.
“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 in the trial, according to Clarín.
The former mayor’s daughter and son-in-law and the deputy mayor’s brother are all suspected of involvement in transporting the drug. In February 2017, Aquino’s brother was arrested carrying more than 500 kilograms of marijuana in the trunk of this car.
Aquino’s sister, a local police officer, was allegedly responsible for alerting drug traffickers about raids or checks, according to Noticias’ investigation.
Rubén Ernesto Ferreyra, the deputy federal police commissioner for Itatí, is also being investigated after authorities found a bag with 17 packets of marijuana in his office.
Itatí was the perfect hub for this kind of operation. It is located on the Paraná River, which connects Paraguay with Argentina, home to a booming consumer market for marijuana. And its small population proved eager to collaborate. This is particularly evident in the number of municipal employees and police involved in Los Gordos.
How did such a well-oiled criminal enterprise get exposed?
Although authorities in Argentina have been improving their ability to tackle crime organizations -- the historic trial against Los Monos, one of the most powerful drug trafficking clans in the country, is one recent example -- it seems that Saucedo’s organization made a fatal error.
“The problem is that they didn’t do a ‘Pablo Escobar.' They didn’t [help] the poor, so that helped us reach two insiders who gave us all the information,” a member of the investigative team told Noticias.