Family clans have traditionally shaped Argentina’s criminal map. But a growing drug consumption market, historic prison corruption and a lack of coordination among local authorities when tackling these groups are creating the perfect storm for them to flourish.
Criminal groups made up by close relatives come in all shapes and sizes in Argentina. Small-time micro-trafficking organizations proliferate alongside mid-sized, more sophisticated groups, who have access to resources and contacts within security forces and the political sphere as well as in nearby drug-producing countries.
“The main advantage of these groups is the trust and loyalty provided by blood ties,” crime experts Carolina Sampó and Ludmila Quirós argued in an investigation into the reach of these structures.
“They are part of the communities and gain the respect of their members because in some cases they invest in them in ways the states are unable to. Their leaders do not show off their earnings and they usually stay in the areas that saw them being born," they added.
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The port city of Rosario, strategically located on the Paraná River that acts as a transit point for drug shipments coming from neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay, is seen as the mecca for this phenomenon.
A bloody fight for territorial control between a handful of family clans has turned the city into a backdrop that would not be out of place in a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
The most prominent family, the Canteros, led the organization known as the Monos. For more than two decades, this group held control of the drug market in the city, contested by other family clans, most notably, the Bassi.
The clashes turned the Monos into one of the most infamous criminal organizations in Argentina and Rosario into one of the most violent cities in the country in 2013.
More recently, the homicide rate has dropped and 34 members of the Monos were sent to federal prison on drug trafficking charges for the first time. This reckoning has also unveiled entrenched collusion between the group and local security forces, leading to a number of police officers also being jailed.
However, a series of threats and violent attacks against judges, prosecutors, and witnesses involved in the case has raised alarms and confirmed the power of the group, even from behind bars.
The imprisonment of most members of the Funes and Camino families, two clans who have fought for control of the south of Rosario, also revealed a lot about how these structures operate.
The official investigation into the Camino clan published by Clarín confirmed that Alexis Camino, son of Roberto “Pimpi,” leader of the fan club of one of the main football teams in Rosario has run the organization from behind bars. He has been coordinating other members of the family still active in areas under their control and overseeing the buying and selling of drugs, among other criminal activities.
But Rosario is far from the only place where the underworld is controlled by family clans.
In Argentina's northern border provinces, these organizations are arguably more sophisticated with close ties within the political and security circles and contacts with crime groups in Brazil and Paraguay.
The city of Itatí, on the banks of the Paraná River in the province of Corrientes, is probably the best example of this trend. A small city of 6,500 inhabitants, it is also home to three family clans working together as well as with local politicians and the police, even taking their business to other provinces. The lack of violence has helped them turn the area into one of the main marijuana distribution points in Argentina.
In March 2017, authorities arrested the city’s mayor, deputy mayor and police chief in a massive security operation. They were accused of colluding with crime organizations.
In Córdoba, a province at the heart of local drug trafficking routes, family clans also have a great role in the local underworld.
“Family clans used to control the drug market in Córdoba but since the establishment of cocaine kitchens, the business has become more divided. Now family clans are in charge of the lesser part of the trade, distribution, while larger more sophisticated organizations are in charge of transport, storage and payments,” Juan Federico, a journalist and author expert on organized crime in Córdoba told InSight Crime.
The province of Buenos Aires is no exception either. The most populated area of Argentina is home to family clans large and small, with many known to be operating from behind bars.
The Torres clan, for example, led an intricate delivery system with 22 cars and two bikes to distribute cocaine and marijuana across the province. Their leaders were arrested in late 2018.
And even more sophisticated, the recently dismantled Loza clan, an organization managed by two brothers in Buenos Aires which used to coordinate the shipping of cocaine from producer countries to consumers in Europe, a strategy that had rarely been seen before.
InSight Crime Analysis
Family clans are not unique to Argentina but they define its criminal landscape to a far greater extent than most others.
A number of reasons explain this phenomenon.
First, the dynamic of family clans makes them highly efficient organizations. Deep trust amongst members makes them efficient and flexible to adapt to changing circumstances, even when some of their leaders are giving orders from behind bars.
This, in turn, makes them extremely difficult to challenge. When one member is jailed, a relative on the “outside” continues to run the business. The Monos is a great example of this.
Second, they control markets in the towns and cities where they were born, which helps them develop close ties with local authorities and security forces. These relations allow them to operate freely within their cities and, often, in other provinces.
Third, they serve an increasingly demanding internal market, which is an ever-expanding source for business – and growth.
Fourth, with the exception of a handful of recent cases, authorities – particularly at the local level – have struggled to coordinate efforts to tackle more sophisticated family clans with connections in various provinces. These groups know that once the heat is on in one place, they can simply pack up shop and move on.
“These organizations are very difficult to investigate, mainly because probes are extremely local and there is a great lack of coordination between authorities in these various places. Crime groups know that and they take advantage of the flaws in the system,” explained Federico.