On April 9, a court in the province of Santa Fé in Argentina sentenced leaders of the criminal group known as "the Monos" and nine police officers to prison for racketeering and murder in what is being called a blow to organized crime in the country.
The sentences resulted from an investigation that began in 2012, involving more than 100 witnesses and 200 hours of wiretaps.
The case revealed a complex criminal network in Argentina and the connections between the most notorious criminal group in the province and the country’s powerful elites.
However, the case also raised questions regarding the numerous challenges involved in bringing organized crime groups before the courts.
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Luis Schiappa Pietra, one of the public prosecutors assigned to the case, spoke to InSight Crime about the details of the trial and the future of organized crime in Argentina.
InSight Crime (IC): What were the main challenges to bringing the members of the Monos to trial?
Luis Schiappa Pietra (LSP): This was a very complex case. In general, our justice agencies are not used to conducting investigations and preparing for trials of this magnitude, with so many people involved and with the level of conflict this investigation brought with it. Going through the trial also presented many challenges. We had 200 hours of wiretaps to present in a way that could be understood. The witnesses were another difficult issue; many of them were afraid to testify.
IC: Were you pressured or threatened?
LSP: Personally, I didn’t experience any threats. We obviously know that these are high-pressure cases, and the people involved aren’t just any defendants. There is an open case here [in Rosario] for threats made against a judge who investigated members of the Monos, and it’s true that some witnesses were very afraid.
That’s why I think we should consider investigation models that address [this issue]. We should create tools for these cases because these situations come up in a lot in trials like this. But then again, I also think this case shows we’re up to the task. The fact that a very large investigation could be brought against a very complex organization shows that the justice system is able to intervene even when there is an unusually high level of conflict.
IC: What is needed to bring about a trial like that?
LSP: Political will is needed, and a system to make a trial like that possible, in terms of resources, witness preparation, organizing the investigation. I believe we're making progress in that front. This was a case that began with a lot of debate over whether it fell under provincial or federal jurisdiction, and I believe progress needs to be made in coordinating work between provincial and federal agencies. We need to come up with a more coordinated model for dealing with problems connected to drug trafficking.
IC: Where does the Monos case fit within the larger context of the fight against organized crime in Argentina?
LSP: This case was very important because it touched on a very large organization. Among those convicted are police, which shows that this investigation has reached many spheres that judicial investigations usually don’t reach. Now we have to move forward as a province and as a criminal justice system towards more complex offenses. I really hope we can have more investigations and trials of this magnitude.
IC: The leaders of the Monos were already in jail and continued operating from the inside. Why would things be different now?
LSP: A case was very recently brought to trial at the federal level called “Los Patrones,” where some members of the organization [the Monos] were charged with crimes allegedly committed from inside the prison. But the fact is that the parameters in which the organization is functioning aren't the same as they were a few years ago. Today, it’s very disconnected, and whether or not they were able to conduct some activities from inside prison, they weren’t what they were in 2013.
But I also believe that this is another question we have to explore because we have to remember that the people going to prison aren’t the same kinds of criminals anymore, that they commit other types of crimes and have different connections in and out of prison.
IC: Is this the end of the Monos?
LPS: I don’t know if I would say "the end." I believe you can’t look at the issue of organized crime through the lens of this group because what we have seen in many places is that, when these more organized groups are hit in this way, other actors appear to take their place. Everything is very volatile.
IC: What did this case mean in terms of the fight against organized crime in general in Rosario and Argentina?
LSP: This investigation revealed (the identities) of a lot of this organization’s members, and many of them ended up in prison. The sentencing of the leaders of this criminal group will definitely have an impact on how these structures reorganize. To get an idea of the impact in practical terms, a more detailed study would have to be conducted, one that measures some of the variables associated with public safety and other types of measures.
IC: Why is it so unusual to see these groups brought to justice?
LSP: I believe that in Argentina we’ve made slow progress on some aspects of organizing the systems of justice, investigation and criminal intelligence. But the criminal organizations have been changing at a much faster pace than many government agencies have. That is one of the big challenges: to make our investigations and trials more sophisticated to confront that criminal element. I think that areas of law enforcement as well as justice, prosecution and the courts have to make progress with much more agile models for interagency coordination.
I believe that as prosecutors we have to begin to distance ourselves from the idea of only seeing cases in an individual sense and start to have a more general view of the issues that will allow us to see these complex narratives.
* This transcript was edited for clarity and length.