The prison sentences handed down to three leading members of one of Argentina’s most notorious criminal groups, as well as nine police officers linked to the gang, have been branded as a historic blow against organized crime. But questions remain as to the impact the ruling will have — if any — on the country’s underworld.
On April 9, the top leaders of the infamous criminal gang known as the Monos — Ramón Machuca, alias “Monchi,” and Ariel Máximo Cantero, alias “Guille” — were sentenced to 37 and 22 years in jail respectively on charges of racketeering and murder.
Guille’s father and ex-leader of the Monos, Ariel Máximo Cantero, alias “El Viejo,” was sentenced to six years in prison for being a member of an illegal organization.
In addition, nine police officers were found guilty of membership in the group while four others were acquitted.
The ruling marked the end of a trial that started in November 2017, based on an investigation that began with the September 2012 killing of Martín Paz, alias “El Fantasma.” Paz was married to the sister of Claudio Ariel Cantero, alias “El Pájaro,” who at the time was the leader of the Monos and laundered money for them. El Pájaro was shot dead eight months later, in May 2013.
The murders, allegedly the result of infighting within the group, triggered a bloody battle between local criminal organizations in Rosario for revenge and territorial control, which turned Argentina’s third most populated city — and a hub for the transport of drugs within the country — into one of the most violent parts of the South American nation.
The sentencing of top members of the Monos was the final chapter of what is seen as one of the most intensive, and most widely publicized, investigations of a criminal organization in Argentina’s recent history.
The investigation, based largely on evidence gathered through phone taps, unveiled an intricate criminal network involving gangs, police and businessmen in Rosario and beyond.
A closer look at the facts behind the trial paints a picture of the Argentine underworld and offers a glimpse of the challenges facing the fight against organized crime in the South American country beyond the city of Rosario.
The Bullet That Started the War
The criminal history of the Cantero clan began in the late 1990s, when the family provided security in the most marginalized areas of Rosario and helped ship marijuana from Bolivia. But it wasn’t until 2004 that they set their eyes on the very profitable microtrafficking business in the area.
The Monos operated in the context of Rosario’s strategic location. The city is situated to act as a transit point for drug shipments coming from neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay — mainly through the Ruta 34 highway which begins on the border with Bolivia and ends in Rosario.
“Rosario is a big distribution center. In the city of Buenos Aires you find a lot of cases that show that groups travel to Rosario to stock up on drugs. So that leads to the idea that Rosario is a stocking point,” journalist Virginia Messi told InSight Crime.
With time, the Monos developed into the “de facto” authority in large areas of southern Rosario, aided by strong connections in the security forces, the construction and car dealing businesses, and in politics — key in a country where voting is mandatory.
University of Rosario law school professor Eugenia Cozzi argues that criminal groups such as the Monos flourished in an environment of general marginalization, partly a consequence of Argentine’s devastating economic crash that left high unemployment and a lack of effective policies to help people out of poverty.
“What happened in Rosario is that the homicide rate increased and an explanation had to be given for that. The category of drug trafficking is very wide. But violence is a product of many factors,” she told InSight Crime.
A context of marginalization and few economic opportunities provided the Monos with ample potential recruits for their increasingly lucrative business.
The bunkers — tiny brick structures throughout Rosario’s marginalized areas where drugs are sold — became the illustration of the booming local drug market, and young boys with hands small enough to hand over cocaine doses trough the bunkers’ small windows became known as the gang’s “little soldiers.”
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In their book “Los Monos” Rosario-based journalists Germán de Santos and Hernán Lascano argue that it was one bullet that started the war that put the city at the top of Argentina’s criminal map and eventually led to the demise of one of the most powerful organizations in the area.
On September 8, 2012, El Fantasma was shot dead in cold blood and in plain daylight in the center of Rosario as he travelled in his car with his wife — El Pájaro’s sister — and his baby.
El Fantasma was believed to launder money for the Canteros though his car dealing business and occasionally would transport drugs for them. But his ambition may have been his downfall.
El Fantasma arranged for a shipment of cocaine to be brought in from Bolivia, with money from the Canteros family. However, the cargo was sized by the Argentine gendarmerie stationed on the border with Bolivia. The money and the drugs were lost. The Canteros, and in particular El Pájaro, saw this as a betrayal.
So when El Fantasma was shot dead, all fingers pointed to the Canteros.
Eight months later, in the early hours of May 26, 2013, El Pájaro was also shot dead as he was leaving a nightclub with some friends, in what was perceived as another revenge killing.
The murder sent shockwaves through Rosario’s underworld and kicked off a killing spree driven by vengence. Anyone the Canteros believed was involved in planning, ordering or executing the murder of El Pájaro, and their relatives, were a target.
In the week after the killing of the leader of the Monos, four people were shot dead.
In the years that followed, the city’s homicide rate broke all records, rising to nearly double the national average, as smaller groups sought to move in on territories once controlled by the Monos that were put up for grabs as the group was weakened by its internal feud.
Cozzi says that the rise in violence cannot be explained without looking at the context.
“Violence is not only related to a territorial dispute. To understand violence in Rosario you have to also think about the illegal arms market and another actors that comes into play, such as the police, and what they allow and do not allow people to do. When the focus is placed on one group, other groups and actors that allow for that group to flourish are forgotten,” she told InSight Crime.
Rosario: The New Medellín?
While the murders continued to spread and local authorities struggled to find a solution to what had become a crisis, many were quick to compare Rosario to South America’s one-time crime capital: Medellín, Colombia. But most experts consulted by InSight Crime disagreed with this.
“Here there’s no narco state, we are centuries away from Colombia or Mexico. We can’t compare ourselves to that. But in the smaller institutions, such as municipalities, there’s penetration [from organized crime]. It doesn’t mean that they are controlled by the narcos, but there’s a context that allows these groups to commit crimes,” Messi explained.
“I think what is interesting about Rosario is, that [the phenomenon] exists in a city that is very important in Argentina, and secondly that you have a lot of elements combined in one place: the war between clans, money laundering, judicial corruption and police corruption. So it is attractive because it is like seeing a whole world in one city, in one neighborhood. Rosario appears in many judicial cases that have nothing to do with the Monos,” she added.
Faced with enormous pressure to reverse the skyrocketing murder rate, authorities in the state of Santa Fe began investigating the Monos. They started tapping phones to map the structure of the Monos and other local groups operating in Rosario.
What they found was a deeply complex network of connections between criminals, politicians, police officers and businesspeople. This allowed groups such as the Cantero family to cement their power and largely evade justice.
Militarization vs. Investigations
As the death toll mounted, so did pressure to take action. Authorities both at the state and federal level focused on two strategies.
In April 2014, then Argentine Security Minister Sergio Berni led a 3,000-strong Hollywood movie-style gendarmerie incursion into Rosario with the aim of dismantling the bunkers, which were seen as the power base for the local drug market.
In the years that followed, the Macri administration also largely focused on militarization as a strategy to tackle organized crime, by deploying the gendarmerie to troubled hotspots and border areas, securing logistic and financial cooperation from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
But it was ultimately the investigation that put the Monos’ leadership behind bars.
The decisive action by the courts in Santa Fe to investigate and bring the Monos to trial was seen as a sign that authorities were serious about tackling an increasingly problematic underworld, using the judiciary as the main tool in that fight.
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But many of the underlying factors that allow criminal organizations like the Monos to prosper have not been tackled by the sentencing.
One of those factors is the deep-seated corruption within Argentina’s security forces, and particularly the police.
“The issue with the police is structural, and functional. In Buenos Aires too, but I think there, they are more organized. And I don’t think it is a problem that is being looked at. I think there’s no [political] will because corruption reaches the highest political elites, at all levels. And the problem is so structural that what can you do to resolve it? If you try to tackle it in Buenos Aires, in two days the province would go up in flames because the police are involved in all crimes,” Messi said.
Another factor is the problems within the country’s corrupt prison system, which allows criminal organizations like the Monos to operate from behind bars.
A clearer picture of the impact of the sentencing of the Monos will likely emerge in the coming weeks and months. But there are already signs that it could be limited.
The video showing the judge giving harsh prison sentences to the men who had become synonymous with organized crime in Rosario to was an image few in the city thought they would ever see.
But as members of the Canteros family, clad in bulletproof vests, watched the proceedings, the convicts smiled — a worrying sign that not even the gangsters themselves saw this as the end to their business.
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