HomeNewsAnalysisBreaking Down Argentina's Drug Trade

Breaking Down Argentina's Drug Trade


In recent years, Argentina has seen rising violence and an influx of foreign drug traffickers as cocaine floods the country both for consumption and export, a situation that is likely to get worse unless the authorities take steps to secure its porous borders.

According to La Nacion, drugs crossing via land routes from Bolivia typically enter one of two ways: transported in a vehicle or carried by individuals and occasionally even animals. The largest cargos are transported in trucks or other vehicles, where they are hidden in secret compartments in the vehicle or disguised within other cargo. Human transporters, or "mules," carry smaller quantities of drugs in their luggage or on their person, entering the country on foot or in a bus -- the article highlights routes 11, 12, 14 and 34 as routes especially popular with traffickers.

The majority of these consignments are made up of marijuana and processed cocaine, but "kitchens" -- cocaine processing laboratories -- discovered on the Argentine side of the border indicate that cocaine base and even coca leaves are making the crossing as well.

Aerial routes are utilized to move large quantities of marijuana and cocaine from Bolivia and Paraguay. Flights land on clandestine airstrips in the northern provinces of Salta, Santiago del Estero, Tucuman and Jujuy to unload their cargo, reported La Gaceta and Clarin. Many small aircraft also drop their shipments without ever touching land, creating what federal judge Raul Reynoso described to La Gaceta as a "white rain" of cocaine packets. 

Water routes, though less commonly utilized, are yet another way for drugs to make their way in and out of the country. Container ships passing up the Rio de la Plata carry concealed shipments of drugs in their cargo, while the 4,880km Rio Parana, which winds from Brazil to Argentina via Paraguay, provides a natural shipping route for marijuana.

In Rosario alone, there are 16 different access points to the river, and Santa Fe governor Antonio Bonfatti has called the influx of drugs from the river one of the province's most serious issues. Traffickers are known to simply wrap the drugs in watertight black bags and float them down the river to their destination -- according to one local fisherman, people working near the river know better than to touch the bags.

La Nacion also examined the serious inadequacies in Argentina's capacity to monitor border crossings. There are 37 land crossings between Argentina and Paraguay, it said, but only two have "integrated control areas" with guards from both countries. Just five of the 17 crossings to Brazil have integrated control stations.

Monitoring of air space is also weak -- earlier this year federal judges in the north of Argentina criticized the lack of radars capable of spotting drug flights. According to the recent La Nacion report, Argentina currently has four radar devices monitoring the entire northeastern frontier. Each has a range of just 200 kilometers, and none operate 24 hours a day. If an illegal flight is spotted, agents have three 1970s-era planes at their disposal, which are capable of photographing the aircraft but have no ability to shoot it down.

InSight Crime Analysis

The lax enforcement of Argentina's border crossings is certainly nothing new. With 9,376 kilometers of land border and 5,317 kilometers along the ocean, monitoring all possible entrances would be near impossible."The Bolivia-Argentina border has always been permeable and open to contraband traffic, so it is an easy and established route in which cocaine is simply one more product," according to Douglas Farah, senior associate in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies."Neither the Bolivian authorities nor the Argentinian authorities make any significant effort to control the traffic of anything in that space, making it a low risk, high volume area."

An increase in border security in Brazil and Chile has added to the appeal of Argentine route, said Farah, and high levels of contraband will keep flowing until an external factor forces a change.

In addition to its weak monitoring capabilities, there are serious challenges facing anti-drug initiatives. Cases of high-level corruption have impacted both the effectiveness of law enforcement and the public's faith in it; while the country's judicial system faces severe delays and inefficiency. One judge in Salta has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases, the majority linked to drug trafficking. Judges also must deal with threats and intimidation attempts, like those directed at a judge supervising the case of an attack on Santa Fe governor Bonfatti.

Organized criminal groups from Mexico, Colombia and Brazil have a longstanding presence in the cocaine-producing sectors of Bolivia, especially in the Santa Cruz region, but they are now establishing territory in Argentina as well. The country has also long been known as a safe haven for powerful criminals, including Colombian drug trafficker Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias "Mi Sangre" and, allegedly for a short time, Sinaloa head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Currently the northern part of the country is seeing an influx of thousands of Colombians, according to a Salta magistrate, who links the immigration wave to the drug trade.

Despite mounting evidence of the presence of international groups, the government has yet to really take any meaningful action to combat the flow of drugs and precursors through the country. The proposed 2014 budget increases funding for domestic security by just 6.6 percent -- an amount that essentially implies a cut in funding, when the high levels of inflation are taken into account. According to Farah, the Argentine government simply has little interest in combating drug trafficking, preferring to concentrate on other issues.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the current state of the drug trade in Argentina is a double layer of operations, according to Farah. The drug trade in Argentina appears to function on a two-tier basis, with minimal overlap between transnational groups and local organizations.

The transnational organizations shipping their product into or through the country may have spurred the growth of the domestic market and local criminal groups but they are not directly involved in micro-trafficking; there is an absence of an overarching trafficking structure," said Farah. Local distributors move and sell small amounts because that is what they can purchase, and have no access to international networks. "This is a developing market, not a fully mature one," said Farah. Such small-scale business and a lack of coordination within local groups may have helped Argentina escape the violence that has accompanied the rise of drug trade in other parts of the region.

One exception is the northern city of Rosario, whose more developed trafficking structure may provide a window into the future of the country's drug trade -- and the view is a bleak one. Rosario is one of the few places where the interests of various groups appear to collide, with violent results. This year, the city has seen 225 homicides, the majority reportedly due to a turf war between the city's gangs. At the same time, the city is a transshipment hub for large drug hauls passing south along the country's infamous Ruta 34 from Bolivia, to Buenos Aires or international destinations -- shipments that belong to the major transnational players.

The rising levels of violence in Rosario may indicate that one or several groups may be making a serious bid to establish control of transit networks throughout the country, said Farah. If demand in Argentina continues to grow and the borders remain as porous as they are today, an increasingly violent battle for control of lucrative supply chains seems highly likely.

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