An investigation by Clarin reveals the lack of law enforcement controls along Argentina’s Ruta 34 highway, the main entry point for cocaine into the country, which is one of the biggest markets for the drug in Latin America.

Argentina’s Ruta 34 begins on the border with Bolivia, in the province of Salta, cutting through the provinces of Jujuy and Santiago del Estero before winding through Santa Fe and coming to a halt in the city of Rosario. It is one of the most important highways in the country, and is a major transport corridor towards the north of the continent. But it also serves another purpose. Authorities believe the 1,500 km-long road is the main route used by drug trafficking organizations to smuggle cocaine to the country’s three largest cities: Rosario, Cordoba and Buenos Aires. Together, these three cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas account for nearly half (46 percent) of the country’s population, and the lion’s share of its cocaine market.

Following claims made by former Santa Fe Governor Hermes Binner, who said in late October that Ruta 34’s status as the main cocaine route into the country was an open secret, Buenos Aires-based daily Clarin published an investigation into the matter on November 17. According to the paper, Ruta 34’s importance to the drug trade is so well known that locals in Jujuy and Salta provinces refer to it as the “white road,” a reference to the massive quantities of cocaine shipped southward on the highway.

Whether the product is intended for local consumption or for the European market (for which Argentina acts as an increasingly important transit point), cocaine enters Argentina mostly via its border with Bolivia, in either Jujuy or Salta. As Clarin reports:

It is through [this corridor] that the largest quantities of cocaine shipments from Bolivia pass, with the narcos entering Argentina by slipping through the Salta border crossings in [the towns of] Salvador Mazza and Aguas Blancas, as well as in La Quiaca (in Jujuy), where Ruta 9 joins Ruta 34 just a few kilometers away from the border between Salta and Jujuy, on the Las Pavas river.

In the north of Salta, where the highway passes through the town of Pichanal, it meets bumpy Ruta 50, which comes from Aguas Blancas. This marks a strategic point: if the narcos can make it past here, they can rest assured that they have left the border controls behind, and now have an 80 percent chance of getting their cocaine shipment to its intended destination.

Like their counterparts on the US/Mexico border, drug smugglers in northern Argentina have tried and tested methods for moving their product without being detected. Clarin’s correspondents found that trucks laden with cocaine often travel down Ruta 34 in convoys in order to avoid law enforcement:

“Drug trafficking organizations,” says an investigator familiar with the subject, “send a vehicle ahead of the cocaine shipment to ‘sweep’ the route, as well as another which travels behind as a precautionary measure, both at a distance of one or two kilometers. The one in front, upon spotting a police checkpoint, sends a warning via satellite phone and the car that is carrying the drugs will stop, or return to the nearest town to wait.”

Yet run-ins with the police are unusual along Ruta 34; in six hours traveling along the road, Clarin reporters only saw two police checkpoints, one of which was apparently only concerned with monitoring speeding vehicles. Even when traffickers do encounter authorities, they often see them more as competitors than enforcers of the law. According to one high-level judicial official consulted by the newspaper, there are “many” federal and provincial police involved in cocaine trafficking in the area. “The practice of ‘chapeo’ (showing a badge to avoid searches) has always worked well, because it practically allows the drugs to move themselves to Buenos Aires,” the official said. In June, for instance, a federal police officer was arrested in Salta for attempting to smuggle some 110 kg of cocaine.

Not all of the cocaine that travels along Ruta 34 enters the country by road. According to Clarin’s investigation, the stretch of the road between Colonia Dora and Selva, in Santiago del Estero (see map), is a key landing site for drug flights. The paper describes this area as “critically” under-monitored, noting that police patrols only began some four years ago, and that aerial monitoring systems are still relatively new there. Ruta 34As a result, aircraft bearing shipments of cocaine are able to touch down on clandestine landing strips just a couple of miles from Ruta 34, unloading their cargo onto trucks which continue south on the highway. As Clarin reports, these runways dot the rough terrain on either side of the highway, and their crude construction makes them easy to replace if discovered:

These ‘landing strips’ are improvised stretches of earth, about 500 meters long and 15 meters wide, flattened by a beam which is about 12 meters long and weighs almost half a ton (and which … is often left lying to one side). Their length is just enough to allow planes carrying 500 kg of drugs to land.

Once the illicit shipments make it to Rosario, Santa Fe, they are nearly home free. As InSight Crime has reported, the police force in Santa Fe is notoriously corrupt, and drug traffickers often meet little resistance in the province. Indeed, Clarin notes that officials in Santa Fe carried out only one drug bust on Ruta 34 in the whole of 2011, and have seized just 63.1 kilos of cocaine so far this year. From there, smugglers make their way to Cordoba and Buenos Aires with little trouble.

The case of Ruta 34 offers a detailed look into the dynamics by which drug traffickers move their product into Argentina, which is becoming an increasingly important cocaine market in the region. Consumption of cocaine in the country — especially of a cheaper, crack-like derivative known as “paco” — has surged in recent years, with the estimated number of users having doubled since 2007. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Argentina now accounts for 25 percent of the total domestic demand for cocaine in Latin America, making it the second largest market in the region after Brazil.

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