Argentina’s strategic location and booming consumer market have made it a major transshipment point for illegal drugs like marijuana, and massive seizures have raised questions about how well traffickers have adjusted to stepped-up security controls brought on by the coronavirus.
Authorities recently dismantled a well-known family clan of traffickers operating in Misiones province near the Argentina-Paraguay border. The National Gendarmerie seized almost nine tons of marijuana from various properties across six municipalities during the October 8 operation that was the culmination of a year-long investigation, according to a government news release.
Farms on the Paraná River's banks served as receiving points for drugs smuggled into Argentina via the river and by land. Authorities arrested four people, and they also seized thousands of US dollars, nine vehicles, two boats and several firearms, according to the National Gendarmerie.
The sweeping operation came after a number of significant drug seizures in this key stretch of the country.
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While on routine patrol on October 5, National Gendarmerie officers stumbled upon three tons of marijuana abandoned in undergrowth in the Puerto Esperanza municipality of Misiones, according to a government news release.
Days earlier, on October 1, Argentine naval forces announced they had seized more than 700 kilograms of marijuana and arrested a Paraguayan national traveling by boat near Playita Paraíso in the city of Candelaria, which hugs the banks of the Paraná River in Misiones.
During a 10-day stretch at the end of September, various Argentine security forces seized more than 11 tons of marijuana in Misiones alone. The loads were hidden in large trucks, discarded in wooded areas, concealed on boats from Paraguay and abandoned in the forest, among others.
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Drug seizures are not a perfect metric for measuring drug flows. But the steady string of large busts suggests that Argentine traffickers are hardly struggling to obtain marijuana from Paraguay, South America’s leading producer of the drug.
Marijuana travels into northeast Argentina from production centers, such as Amambay department. Paraguay's vast northern region accounted for 93 percent of marijuana plantations identified by authorities over the past 10 years, according to data from the Paraguayan Drug Observatory (Observatorio Paraguayo de Drogas -- OPD).
From there, marijuana is transported to towns like Pedro Juan Caballero along the Brazil-Paraguay border. The loads then move south in trucks to the porous Argentina-Paraguay border. The drugs are then crossed via land routes or on boats traveling down the Paraná River into the Argentine provinces of Misiones and Corrientes.
On the Argentina side, local family clans receive the marijuana and store it for transport to larger regional groups. While authorities have seized notable quantities of marijuana lately, it's likely the hauls represent only a fraction of the total drugs being smuggled.
“This is a vast border region that’s hard to control, and the local groups that operate there know the terrain better than anyone, including authorities,” said Carolina Sampó, coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (Centro de Estudios Sobre Crimen Organizado Transnacional -- CeCOT) at the University of La Plata, Argentina.
Indeed, local expertise has helped make small cities nestled along the Paraná River, such as Itatí in Corrientes, major transport hubs. One criminal group, known as “Los Gordos,” corrupted everyone from the local mayor to high-ranking police officers and other public officials to move up to six tons of marijuana per week.
These family clans are crucial to the larger groups that cater primarily to two specific markets: local consumers across Argentina, including in major cities like Buenos Aires, and Chile. Argentina’s neighbor to the west has developed a thriving domestic market of its own in recent years, with one of the highest marijuana consumption rates in all of Latin America, according to data from the Chilean Drug Observatory (Observatorio Chileno de Drogas).
However, the latest seizures could also point to difficulties traffickers encountered moving marijuana shipments within Argentina to consumer markets amid the coronavirus lockdown when national highways were dotted with security checkpoints.
“There could be a problem with the supply chain breaking from the border regions to the final destination points,” one former Argentine anti-drug official told InSight Crime. “There doesn’t seem to be an issue with product moving from the main suppliers [in Paraguay] to the middlemen.”
The former official added that the seizures may also result from criminal groups trying to smuggle marijuana stocks that accumulated during the first few months of the pandemic, when both federal and local security forces strictly controlled smuggling routes.
That said, Sampó warned that the entrenched corruption and impunity that has helped marijuana trafficking flourish in the border regions would likely allow smugglers to get past any current troubles to feed the country’s growing consumer market.