Argentina is preparing for one of the biggest drug trafficking trials in its history, and the tangled web of corruption, business and soccer that has already been revealed is proof of just how sophisticated the Argentine drug trade has become.
The story of what has become known as the "White Charcoal" (Carbon Blanco) case began in 2012 when authorities in Spain, Portugal and Argentina seized over a ton of cocaine hidden in three shipments of charcoal being transported from Argentina to Portugal. As the case unraveled, investigations revealed a multi-million dollar transnational drug trafficking and money laundering network hidden behind a façade of export companies, real estate, soccer clubs and law firms.
Currently 65 alleged members of the network are awaiting trial, the start of which has been postponed due to the legal wrangling of defense lawyers, reported La Nacion. When the trial does finally get underway, all eyes will be on the prosecutors to see if they can obtain the convictions that would confirm what has become increasingly apparent in recent years -- Argentina's role as a cocaine transit hub has spurred the growth of homegrown transnational drug trafficking networks.
According to prosecutors, the "White Charcoal" traffickers used a sophisticated logistical network to move Bolivian cocaine into Spain. First, the cocaine crossed the Bolivia-Argentina border loaded onto tankers, which moved it as far as Rosario, the hub of Argentina's drug trade and home to a number of the alleged traffickers.
From Rosario, the drugs were moved up to the city of Quitilipi in the northeastern province of Chaco, site of Carbon Vegetal del Litoral, the charcoal company used as a front for the cocaine exports. At the company, the cocaine was packed up disguised as charcoal then sent to Buenos Aires where it was loaded onto shipping containers headed to Lisbon, Portugal.
A number of the alleged traffickers were based in Europe, and prosecutors say they were responsible for moving the shipments from Lisbon to Spain, where they distributed the product.
With the network moving hundreds of kilos of cocaine at a time, it also had huge profits to launder, which prosecutors believe it did through a broad business portfolio that included at least 60 businesses, investments in massive construction projects, and the purchase of soccer players, reported La Nacion.
The central figures in this multi-million dollar criminal empire were not bloodthirsty drug lords and hardened criminals, but a lawyer in his late 50s and a businessman in his mid-60s.
The alleged head of the network and the driving force behind the operation was lawyer Carlos Salvatore. Prosecutors said Salvatore was responsible for "supervising, controlling, administrating, defining, organizing and financing what has been a true commercial business dedicated to transporting drugs to the continent of Europe," report La Capital.
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After his capture in Rosario in 2012, Salvatore was granted house arrest for health reasons. However, this was revoked earlier this year after police recorded a phone call between Salvatore and his wife -- who had just been arrested on money laundering charges -- in which he said he was planning to pay for a hit on the judge in the case. Salvatore later told the media it was an idle threat made in a desperate moment and that he "couldn't even kill a fly."
In Europe, the alleged principal operator was Patricio Gorosito, a man better known as the founder of Argentine soccer club Real Arroyo Seco. Gorosito has moved in soccer business circles for years, forming an especially close relationship with Spanish soccer giants Barcelona FC, and even helping with the rehabilitation from injury of superstar player Lionel Messi -- himself no stranger to being dragged into narco-scandals.
According to prosecutors, Gorosito, who was arrested in Barcelona in 2012 and later extradited to Argentina, was responsible for distributing the drugs in Spain and moving money back to Argentina.
InSight Crime Analysis
The "White Charcoal" case offers a rare opportunity to see the workings of an Argentine drug network from sourcing cocaine to laundering the profits, and shows just how sophisticated such networks have become.
The importance of Argentina as a drug transit country has grown in recent years as traffickers have increasingly looked to the European cocaine markets, which offer growing demand and higher prices compared to the United States, and unlike the United States, are not cornered by Mexican cartels.
Argentina's border with cocaine-producing Bolivia and location on the continent's eastern coast as well as institutional weaknesses and official corruption have made it ideal for cashing in on this trade.
The popularity of this route has attracted the attention of transnational drug trafficking organizations, with both Colombians and Mexicans operating in the country. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that it has also spurred the growth of homegrown trafficking networks.
The trafficking ring exposed in the White Charcoal case appears not to have operated as a traditional drug cartel, but instead as a network of cells with specialized logistical functions. Aside from the recorded threat against the judge, there is little to link the organization to any violence and nothing to indicate that it maintained any sort of armed wing.
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However, this does not mean Argentine organized crime is necessarily evolving along non-violent lines; in fact, rising murder rates would suggest the opposite.
The violent side of Argentina's current organized crime groups is clearly demonstrated by possibly the most significant organized crime group to come to prominence in the country in recent years, the Rosario-based Los Monos, a notorious gang linked to drugs, murder and corruption.
The nature of drug trafficking -- where there can be no legal guarantees or recourse for action for any deals gone bad -- means there will always be a need for violence in the trade. What remains to be seen is how the relationship between logistical cells such as the White Charcoal network and armed groups such as Los Monos will evolve.
One possibility is that the country will replicate the model developed in Colombia, where armed groups often act as the guarantors of the drug trade, hiring themselves out to those managing the business side to collect debts, enforce deals or take revenge on those who break agreements. In Argentina, this would raise the possibility of networks such as the White Charcoal group employing gangs such as Los Monos.
However, for the moment, there is only one thing that can be predicted with any confidence: the White Charcoal trial will not be the last of its size.