A wave of violent murders in Argentina’s strategically located city of Rosario has exposed a deeply fragmented criminal landscape and the urgent need for deep reforms to tackle police corruption.

Since the start of 2020, over 50 people have been violently murdered in Rosario, according to official figures reported by Clarín. This is particularly noteworthy since the homicide rate in Argentina as a whole is among the lowest in Latin America.

While street crime is behind some of the murders, many are believed to be the result of drug trafficking organizations fighting for control of the expanding local market, Telam reported.

Among those killed were Agustina Thomson, a young woman with a drug trafficking record who was shot three times in the chest, Dora Ercilia Quiroga, a mother of six who was caught up in the crossfire of a confrontation between two drug trafficking gangs, and Ángel Adrián Avaca, the son of a former police officer convicted of colluding with Los Monos, one of the most influential crime organizations in the country.

One of the most talked-about incidents took place on February 17, when Cristopher Albornoz, the son of Miguel Ángel Albornoz, alias “Caracú,” a convicted drug trafficker, was shot dead while riding a motorcycle. Cristopher’s partner and one-year-old daughter were also killed in the incident, La Nación reported.

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Germán Montenegro, Security Secretary of the province of Santa Fe, told Telam that the violence is directly related to the “emergence of second or third-level leaders” of crime organizations after their bosses were put behind bars or “new groups that are fighting over control of the territory.”

Rosario’s strategic location is a tactical stop for drug traffickers, situated along the route from Bolivia and Paraguay to the capital Buenos Aires, home to a large consumer market.

Over time, an internal consumer market has also developed in the city. Since the leaders of Los Monos were jailed on drug trafficking charges in 2018, a number of groups large and small have been fighting to control it, often using deadly violence and colluding with local police.

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Although violence is not uncommon in Rosario, the recent spike in murders has revealed a power vacuum that many are trying to fill.

For decades, local drug trafficking organizations co-existed in the city, each controlling a specific market, often working side by side with local police.

But the killing of a prominent drug trafficker in 2013 kickstarted a bloody fight between two clans that ended with dozens of criminals and police officers who worked with them, behind bars.

The purge of the police didn’t stop there.

In May 2019, the chief of federal police in Santa Fe and five other officers were arrested on drug trafficking charges after investigators found nearly 100 bags of cocaine, confiscated from a local drug dealer, in their offices as well as large sums of cash in their homes.

Experts consulted by InSight Crime say the recent convictions of high profile criminals and the ongoing purge in the police has left a power vacuum which has become fertile ground for violence.

“The confrontations today are led by the ‘middle managers’ because the leaders are behind bars. These don’t have links with the new police officers who replaced the old ones after the purge. Without the police, organized crime cannot function. The police provide them with information, logistics and a certain sophistication that these local groups don’t have,” Germán de los Santos, a journalist and investigator told InSight Crime.

On the other hand, police officers face work conditions that make them easy targets for criminal groups willing to offer them easy cash to look the other way or participate in drug trafficking.

The result of this process is that both the authorities and criminal organizations are effectively competing for the attention of police officers, who are likely to side with whoever can give them what they need.

De Los Santos said that local organizations take advantage of that chaos to “try and control new territory, using violence”.

SEE ALSO: 3 Reasons Why Argentina Has Failed to Bring Down Violence in Rosario

Local authorities say they are working to reform the police.

“We have developed a plan that will be reflected in a series of bills aiming to restructure the police into a professional force, with an independent investigations unit, and an external body to control corruption within the force,” Germán Montenegro, security secretary for the province of Santa Fe said in an interview with Telam.

At the national level, Argentina’s Security Minister Sabina Frederic has also emphasized the need for deep reform of the security forces, including recruiting more police officers and investing increased resources into criminal investigations.

While there’s an undeniable need to restructure police forces, tackling entrenched and historical police corruption will require a long-term commitment from present and future administrations, an ask that has proven challenging in Argentina.

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