The myriad strategies used to combat organized crime need government officials to implement them and “sell” them to the public, and Argentina Security Minister Patricia Bullrich is undoubtedly an expert in the latter.
Bullrich is not a conventional government official. Her journey in modern Argentine politics now spans 40 years and several distinct -- even oppositional -- points on the political spectrum, which has afforded her a unique perspective on the issue of organized crime. Bullrich was second lieutenant in the Montoneros, a leftist Peronist guerrilla group active in the 1970s. She then worked closely with former President Carlos Menem, only to later join the opposition.
Almost two decades since then, Bullrich is with President Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos party and has been serving as security minister since 2015.
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Bullrich has been in charge of implementing a strategy she says is based on “territorial control, paradigm change, much more intelligence and less chance.”
Official figures indicate that the strategy is working, with reports of increased drug seizures and decreased homicide rates. The Macri administration has also said it is undertaking a thorough fight against corruption at all levels.
Critics of Macri, however, say that the numbers only show part of the reality. They argue that a strategy based solely on drug seizures is not resolving the biggest challenges Argentina faces regarding the impact of organized crime and the availability of drugs on the country’s streets.
In an exclusive interview in Washington, DC, Minister Bullrich spoke with InSight Crime about the present and future of a country that has been occupying an increasingly strategic space on the chessboard of the fight against organized crime in Latin America.
InSight Crime (IC): When you came to power you promoted the concept of “disorganizing crime.” What does that entail?
Patricia Bullrich (PB): When we came to power in the government, our [security] forces’ behavior was passive. At our borders, they only stopped 10 percent of [the drugs] Argentina was consuming.
We set into motion what we call the 80/20 model: 80 percent intelligence, 20 percent chance. We began working to generate criminal intelligence data with information from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI]. We aimed to reach the heart of Argentina’s drug trafficking organizations or families, while at the same time we initiated a program called “Safe Neighborhoods," where we went into the neighborhoods with the highest homicide rates from gang activity and definitively lowered those rates. This gave us territorial control in places where it seemed the drug trafficking gangs had infiltrated the government.
These strategies took us from approximately eight to 10 percent confiscated to 35 percent confiscated today, according to a report from our Security Ministry’s Anti-Drug Trafficking Subdirectorate.
IC: Seizure rates can fluctuate, so in the end, what do they really show?
PB: What they show is that we are not just seizing drugs but also disconnecting crime. There has been a 42 percent increase in drug trafficking arrests. That is why we say, “organize the government” and “disorganize crime,” because [when you rely on] just chance, maybe you’ll just get what was being transported in the car or truck you stopped, but if you use intelligence you’ll follow the links until you get the entire chain.
IC: But your critics are saying that you’re arresting mainly small-scale criminals.
PB: They are not small-scale. Today, the criminal organizations in Argentina are more flexible; they’re not vertical organizations, but rather families. In areas where drug dealing has led to violence, we have lowered the level of violence.
For example, in Villa 31 [an informal housing settlement in downtown Buenos Aires], the homicide rate was 27 percent. In Villas 11 and 14 [also in Buenos Aires] we’ve brought the rate down by around 80 percent, although we still don’t have an exact number. [Editor's note: This information could not be independently verified by InSight Crime.]
Since taking power [in December 2015] we’ve had a decrease of 21.5 percent in homicide rates. How did we do it? By conducting monthly monitoring with the 24 provincial police forces and security ministries in the country. Now, it doesn’t just depend on the federal government; it depends on coordination with the provinces to find out why the homicides are occurring -- how many are from robberies, how many are femicides -- to examine all the policies we have and think about which ones we should continue using to further bring down homicide rates.
The only place where we have seen an increase [in violence] is in Rosario [in the province of Santa Fe], where Rosario’s most important gang [the Monos] was tried. For now, the situation is out of control, but we’re working to get it under control.
IC: In countries like Colombia, the mafia is described as a small-scale army. In Mexico, people refer to the criminal gangs as logistics specialists. In Guatemala they’re former military officials, and Venezuela is like a “mafia state.” In Argentina, how is organized crime characterized?
PB: We’ve detained some security forces officials, politicians and judges, but I wouldn’t say that’s characteristic.
The main characteristic of organized crime in Argentina is that they are families -- thieves and criminals who change and see an opportunity to make more money through drug trafficking.
There are also gangs and drug organizations in the favela- or villa-type neighborhoods that fight over business territory and have a certain hierarchical model. There are Argentine, Peruvian, Paraguayan and Bolivian.
IC: How are you addressing the arrival of Colombian gang members to Argentina?
PB: By signing an information exchange agreement with Colombia. It allows us to know their identities, if they’ve had prior drug trafficking charges, if their passports are legitimate or not.
IC: But you have to be careful too. Here in the United States on a daily basis we face a president who blames everything on foreigners ...
PB: We’re saying that 75 percent of [criminal] activity linked to drug trafficking originates in Argentina.
To us it makes no difference whether it’s an Argentine, Colombian or Peruvian. What happens is the nature of the borders with countries that have the raw materials and the product makes everything more complicated.
IC: You mentioned the “Safe Neighborhoods” program as part of your security strategy. To me, it seems very similar to what they did in Brazil with the famous Police Pacification Units (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP). But it didn’t work in Brazil. Why would it work in Argentina?
PB: I think that in Brazil the program failed when its political crisis took the attention off the government, the ministries, the national and provincial governments, and the pacification police -- the UPP -- that were in each neighborhood were left on their own. If they’re left alone, they’ll naturally become the same police forces that operated in the favelas before.
They’re shaped by the place [where they operate], so it’s very important not to take your eye off them -- monitoring -- and not to remove the incentive to change that these police officers have. [It’s also important] to implement strategic changes in the lives of the people.
IC: In contrast to what happened in Rio de Janeiro, how do you ensure that the social aspect is implemented?
PB: We’re working on the whole social aspect, the education aspect and the active part pertaining to drugs. Because we’re the Security Ministry, we’re in the anti-narcotic part of it, but the government also has a directorate focused on drug prevention.
We have schools to prepare students for careers. We have institutions providing all types of education and social support, and places to help people, so what we are seeking is a comprehensive plan.
IC: In difficult situations such as Rosario and other places, the decision has been, “Okay, let’s send in the big guns,” like the Argentine National Gendarmerie. What are the criteria for using the kind of mechanism some would term “mano dura,” or zero tolerance?
PB: First, the gendarmerie is a security force that has two important strengths. It’s true it’s one of the more militarized of the security forces -- one might say the most militarized -- but it’s a security force that creates a lot of closeness. Its members are used to living in the interior of the country, on the borders in those smaller communities, so they have a closeness that’s very important for this type of work.
The first criterion we have is [focused on] the places where drug trafficking gangs have attempted to take over the territory.
This is always done with the agreement of the [provincial] governors, and basically everything considered organized crime and the provincial police is under the command of the gendarmerie.
IC: What lessons have you learned from the Monos case? There has already been a trial and 13 of those charged were police officers [nine were sentenced].
PB: In the Monos case, it’s important to know that there was complicity from the police, but also important is that they were tried and are now in prison, and they are standing trial for drug trafficking because the [previous] trials were for homicide. Now, the drug trafficking trial is starting. [Editor's note: The drug trafficking trial has not yet begun, but it is believed it will start at the end of the year.] That’s going to be very important. And today what’s happening in Rosario is a situation where other gangs want to try to take their place.
IC: But has a structure replaced that of the Monos, or are the Monos still giving orders, even from prison?
PB: Our objective is to send them to prison far from where they are, where they don’t have control -- that they’re not sent to their own province, so they don’t continue to give orders.
IC: We haven’t really touched on the idea of decriminalizing drug use. You’ve publicly expressed your opposition to it. Why?
PB: Because we believe that decriminalization, not consumption -- which is already decriminalized in Argentina. [Editor's note: Drug use is not completely decriminalized. See InSight Crime’s Argentina Profile for more details.] But decriminalization has had a negative effect, from our perspective, everywhere that it has been decriminalized.
We believe that if the population perceives less risk, the number of people using drugs will rise, the number of people selling drugs will consequently rise, and it will create a situation where problems with health and other issues will rise.
There is also a discussion going on in the Netherlands about the consequences of decriminalization ...
IC: And in Uruguay, of course, they’re experimenting.
PB: In Uruguay it’s very new. We’ll see. If tomorrow the United Nations were to say, “After today drugs will be sold in pharmacies like any other medication,” and that meant the price of drugs would immediately decrease, we would accept it. Now, to do it in just one country, no.
In a country like Argentina, which shares borders with [drug] producing countries, no. We believe that the situation would become worse than it is now.
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IC: You’ve been at your post for more than two years. What have you learned? What will be different here on out given what you’ve learned?
PB: Well, the first thing we’ve learned is that, in the decision to work on security, we’ve had to rebuild things that were largely destroyed. For example, the relationship between security forces and civilians was being destroyed by both sides. We believe that’s a relationship we have to rebuild and that it’s extremely important to do so.
We have to take better care of security forces when they are acting within the framework of the law. They have been neglected a lot in Argentina, and that leads to poor work and corruption, and it’s important that they feel that when they do things well they’re protected by the political authorities.
We’ve learned that organized crime groups know that the best way in is to bribe a government official. So, we need to have controls in place. We’ve created an external security unit, which has really given us results.
And something else we’ve learned that we haven’t yet put into practice is that we have to work more than anything with the youth when they commit crimes.
IC: Before they enter the prison system?
PB: Before they enter the prison system. And that’s fundamental, and we still haven’t achieved it. It’s something we’re discussing. I’ve brought it up with the president because lives can be thrown off course, and instead of becoming criminals their futures could be different.
IC: We do a lot of work on the subject of elites and organized crime. How do you address the issue, focusing on the political elite, the economic elite? In other words, rather than thinking of crime from the bottom up, thinking of it from the top down.
PB: Yes, the truth is we haven’t done any work on elites. If you have anything, it would be interesting if you gave it to us. But the truth is that we disarmed many of the large gangs that had mixed with Argentina’s elites, in the exclusive neighborhoods with the exclusive yachts and more exclusive cars and money invested in land.
IC: Which ones, for example?
PB: Well, for example, we recently ran an operation where we detained a very well-known attorney who was building a train station with a very large parking lot in a very well-known neighborhood where he had contacts and was laundering money for a Colombian drug trafficker. We confiscated all his funds and, well, brought him to justice.
Another very well-known case was the attempt to export 2,500 kilograms of cocaine to Canada. It was also a system for business start-ups involving locally and regionally known attorneys and accountants, together with the people who started up the businesses.
So, we’ve had many cases. We’ve noticed that there are many facets to drug-related activities. But I’d be interested if you have some work on elites.
* The transcript for this interview was translated and edited for clarity and length.
Josefina Salomón, Mike LaSusa and Tristan Clavel contributed research and reporting for this story.