Argentina’s government likes statistics.
Officials from Argentina President Mauricio Macri’s administration never miss an opportunity to tout the government’s achievements by using numbers to illustrate increased seizures of marijuana, cocaine and synthetic drugs; intensified operations and arrests; and decreased homicides in the country’s crime hotspots.
Critics of the administration, however, say that focusing too much on figures renders the government unable to distinguish between the little fish and the big. In the rush to show that something is being done, not enough focus is being placed on tackling the corruption that allows criminal groups to continue operating.
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Martín Verrier is the National Security Ministry’s deputy secretary for the fight against drug trafficking, and he disagrees with the Argentine government’s critics.
He cites figures, individual cases, examples. He shows detailed maps and graphs to illustrate the successes of his management and the intelligence techniques used in investigations. But with every illustration, he also says that “the challenges remain substantial.”
Verrier spoke with InSight Crime in Buenos Aires about the drug trafficking landscape in Argentina and the challenges the country is facing regarding new criminal dynamics and the current economic crisis hitting the country.
InSight Crime (IC): How do you evaluate the current state of organized crime in Argentina?
Martin Verrier (MV): We have three levels of organized crime. First, neighborhood organized crime, which focuses on street dealing; an intermediate level with family clans that dominate the country’s drug trafficking routes; and at the third level are the large international cartels, which only appear sporadically. What we are seeing in Argentina is that those cartels are not attempting to occupy territory. [Instead] what they are doing is looking for a local partner and trying to conduct occasional operations, not control routes or sectors. That is why drug violence is seen in the neighborhoods and not along the borders.
IC: Experts are saying Argentina is no longer a transit country. Why?
MV: Today, Argentina is a consumer country, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Today, shipping a kilogram of cocaine out of Buenos Aires is much more expensive than shipping it out of Santos, in Brazil. The exchange rate doesn’t support it anymore. We’ll have to wait and see if things change there.
IC: Argentina is going through a severe economic crisis with an extreme devaluation of its currency. How can this affect the drug market?
MV: Drugs are a commodity, so any dramatic variation in the exchange rate affects [trafficking] routes. So far, 99 percent of the synthetic drugs consumed in Argentina come from Europe. At the most, we’ve seen tablet manufacturing, but with imported raw materials. Maybe now that it’s more expensive to buy the drugs abroad, we’re keeping an eye out for any attempt at local manufacturing.
We’re watching to see if paco [a form of crack cocaine] reemerges. Before, you paid the equivalent of $1,800 at the Bolivian border and you got a kilogram. Now it’s almost 80,000 pesos [approximately $2,200]. So the guy says, “Instead of giving me cocaine, give me coca base.”
We’re playing a game of cat and mouse because the organizations are very dynamic.
IC: Your administration has a clear focus on fighting drug demand as opposed to legalizing personal use. Why?
MV: Working on demand and restricting the drugs available is what gives the longest lasting results. Rehabilitation and treatment. What we are seeking in restricting availability is that the drug market shrinks.
IC: But there is a difference between marijuana and cocaine, and some countries are getting positive results experimenting with legalization.
MV: Yes, of course. Despite legalizing or regulating consumption, it will inevitably attract other outside forces that affect security. In the Netherlands, for example, the police see that legal sales have attracted illegal activities because those who were going to consume the former were attracted to the latter too.
IC: But doesn’t regulating substances, just like with alcohol and tobacco, actually limit the power of organized crime?
MV: We’re following an experiment in Uruguay very closely, and while it’s still very early to reach any conclusions, for now we’re seeing that they have not managed to replace the illegal market. If I legalize one thing, I keep competing with another stronger one. When we make the regulations flexible, consumption increases. Today, with the capacity we have to react, I believe it’s riskier and that there could be significantly more negative consequences than benefits.
IC: Your critics say that the government is focusing on small-scale seizures and low-level arrests.
MV: We have a criminal policy directed at the big ones. We’re not interested in going after people who go around with two grams of marijuana in their pockets. But if, in a control procedure, I happen upon a person who does have that, the current legal framework requires me to turn that person over to the justice system. Whether this is the best system, I can't tell for sure, but it's the system that we have.
IC: The prison problem is particularly evident in the Monos case. Part of the organization was managed from behind bars. What is the administration’s assessment of that situation?
MV: The situation in [the city of] Rosario is a delicate one. We had a surge in violence in May 2018, but [homicide] rates are coming back down. It was the result of the dismantling of the main organizations: the Funes, the Húngaros and the Monos. Once the larger organizations were taken out, the partners, the subcontractors -- when they saw the power vacuum, they began to fight among themselves. That’s when the killings started. But the situation is already pretty stable. Rosario is facing an enormous challenge, though, because the poverty belt around it is very large. That’s the breeding ground for drug trafficking [we have to keep in mind] when it comes to improving government presence.
IC: Complaints about police corruption have been going on for many years. Why hasn’t this problem been resolved?
MV: One thing that really comes into play is that political leaders do not assume their role as head of security forces, and they don’t meet their obligation to have a system of accountability and efficient management control. It would be very difficult to be corrupt if your superior had an effective monitoring system.
*The transcript of this interview was translated and edited for clarity and length.