Relatives of imprisoned drug traffickers charged fees from other families to let them in to see their loved ones in an Argentine jail -- proof that prisons are fertile ground for all manner of criminal enterprises.
The scheme came to light when, in the early hours of August 11, armed men inside a vehicle indiscriminately shot at a long line of people outside the massive Piñero prison in the city of Rosario, La Nación reported.
Approximately 2,000 people visit the prison every weekend and pay for a good spot in the queue, allowing them more time with their relatives.
“There are fixed prices,” a woman who visits her husband weekly at the Piñero prison told La Nación.
“If one wants to visit on a Saturday morning, one has to pay 2,000 pesos (around $37). Sundays are cheaper. But if you want to get one of the first 100 spots, you have to pay an extra 500 pesos (around $9),” she continued.
For an “extra fee,” visitors can also slip in drugs, mobile phones and messages to certain detainees.
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Investigators revealed that the attack is believed to have been carried out by a criminal group trying to seize control of the lucrative ticket business, which reportedly generates earnings of 4 million pesos ($71,500) a month.
According to an investigation by La Nación, a group of women linked to high-profile drug traffickers held in the prison was behind the original scheme. The attack has been pinned on a woman identified as Ramona A., alias "La Gringa." She was reported by police as being a lieutenant for René "El Brujo" Ungaro, a well-known criminal who has been jailed in Piñero since 2011 but is believed to still control his drug trafficking gang from behind bars.
The Piñero prison, located 30 kilometers from the city of Rosario, houses some of the highest-profile drug traffickers in the area – one of Argentina’s top drug trafficking hubs.
The city of Rosario is at the center of Argentina’s criminal map due to its strategic location, connecting producer countries and large consumer markets.
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Prisons across Latin America have long been fertile ground for profitable illegal businesses, especially extortion. The overcrowding at Piñero and other Argentine prisons helped make extorting relatives to see their loved ones a profitable racket.
In March 2019, Argentina's national prison administration estimated prisons were at 120 percent overcapacity and that the prison population had increased by almost 50 percent in a decade.
This can be partly explained by Argentina’s drive to increase detentions for drug offenses, including large and small traffickers, a controversial strategy which has not shown any concrete results to date. In 2019, Argentina was found to have the second-highest cocaine consumption per capita in the Americas behind the United States, according to the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (Comisión Interamericana para el Control del Abuso de Drogas — CICAD).
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And as a result of this overcrowding, thousands of people line up outside prisons like Piñero and many are willing to pay to secure a spot at the front of the queue. "You pay for your time," one witness said to La Nación.
Corruption in the prison is rife. Earlier his year, an operation uncovered more than 50 mobile phones, cash and pen drives authorities believe drug traffickers use to coordinate their business from inside the jail.
Piñero has also made headlines for housing some of Argentina's most infamous drug traffickers, especially Los Monos.