Statements by high-level government officials about deploying soldiers to Argentina’s northern border to help tackle drug trafficking has ignited an intense and growing debate over the role of the army in fighting organized crime.
In an interview with La Nación in June, Argentina’s Defense Minister Oscar Aguad said the army would “cooperate with the security forces, mainly in logistics and strategic surveillance in the fight against drug trafficking.”
Sources from the Ministry of Defense who spoke to Clarín around the same time said authorities were looking to use Air Force radars to identify illegal flights and use other army equipment to transport troops.
Officials from the Macri administration said the deployment would not contradict a law that limits the army to protecting the country from external threats from other states and strictly bans it from performing security functions.
After repeated calls from InSight Crime, both the Ministry of Defense and the Army refused to confirm or deny a recent report by Infobae saying President Mauricio Macri has already ordered 500 soldiers to be deployed to Argentina’s northern border by August 1, and that around 3,500 more would follow in the coming months.
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The gendarmerie, the body in charge of guarding Argentina’s borders, has increased its presence in the country’s frontier with Bolivia and Paraguay after President Macri made the fight against criminal organizations one of its priorities.
Clarín also reported that authorities are looking to move gendarmerie officers from the border to more populated urban areas to, among other things, deal with protests, which are expected to increase as a result of Argentina’s deteriorating economic situation.
Critics of deploying army soldiers to the border say this is a first step towards militarization and warned against the negative impact these types of policies had in other countries in the region.
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The very suggestion to change the role of the military has raised alarms in a country with a deep distrust of the institution and questions around the Macri administration’s security strategy, which is largely based on policing the border, imprisoning low level offenders and increasing drug seizures.
As InSight Crime has previously reported, the lack of effective controls in Argentina’s northern border has allowed for drugs, arms and other illicit goods to move into and through the country with relative ease. This has contributed to turning Argentina from a transit into a consumer nation, as well as one that produces illicit drugs.
The Macri administration’s response to this has been to send more bodies to the border.
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The official argument is that the mere presence of security forces can dissuade criminal organizations from establishing a presence in impoverished towns along the border, which are prime for their exploitation.
But many experts disagree with this analysis. They say the military is not trained for this type of security strategy. They also say there is no reason for Argentina to turn to the military when the country already has the gendarmerie, which is a militarized police force in charge of internal security.
Rut Diamint, a researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas - CONICET), said the focus should be on how the government fights organized crime.
“Argentina is fighting a threat from the 21st century with models from the 19th century,” she told InSight Crime. “The country is no longer just a transit point, but a place of consumption and where criminal groups get organized, taking advantage of the lack of rules and the corruption in the security forces. What needs to happen is for the government to figure out what resources it needs to tackle the new threats it faces.”
They also argue that this militarized strategy has proven counterproductive across the region, and that there is no evidence it would work in Argentina.
In Mexico, for example, the controversial 2017 Internal Security Law, which effectively codified the armed forces’ ability to intervene in domestic security issues has not done much to curb violence. On the contrary, 2017 has been the country’s most homicidal year in recent history, and figures for 2018 are not showing an improvement.
So why would the Macri administration favor a militarized approach to tackling organized crime?
Jorge Battaglino, a professor in Latin American Politics at the University of Essex, says one possible explanation is related to Argentina’s ties with the United States – a relationship that is a key aspect of the Macri administration’s foreign policy.
“The United States has always suggested that the military turns into police and contributes to fighting drug trafficking and terrorism. So, if Argentina decides to militarize its public security, it can access many programs from the United States,” Battagliano told InSight Crime.
Still, the proposal has stalled. Even officers within Argentina’s military have come out against it.
In May, the head of the army Brigadier General Claudio Pasqualini said in an interview with La Nación that fighting crime was not within its mandate.
“The military can’t, because of a number of norms and rules, perform security functions. It would take time to implement these kind of changes,” he said.
Pasqualini added that the armed forces would likely request that Congress green-light the changes first. This might be a way of shielding the army from popular backlash. Argentina has tried numerous military for human rights violations. It may also be a way for the military to protect itself legally. Since Argentina abolished military tribunals in 2008, any abuses committed by its personnel would be tried in civilian courts.
Battaglino told InSight Crime that the army’s position on this debate is hardly surprising.
“Argentina does not have a real problem with terrorism or drug trafficking that would require the intervention of the armed forces,” he said. “So the military is struggling to understand what their role would be and they do not want to get involved. In a country with as many strong human rights organizations as Argentina, any military intervention would be under constant scrutiny.”