Argentina's criminal clans are growing stronger as domestic drug consumption rises, while trafficking networks now thrive in its border regions.
InSight Crime spent two years mapping out the evolution of organized crime in Argentina, as part of an in-depth investigation into cross-border crime across 39 departments in Central America's Northern Triangle and the Southern Cone's Tri-Border Area.
To compare criminal dynamics across these departments, InSight Crime carried out extensive fieldwork and used five data sets based on the Latin America Transnational Organized Crime Index (LATOCI).
Below are the three main takeaways from InSight Crime’s investigation of Argentina's border provinces:
Homegrown Clans Are Getting Stronger, More Violent
In 2019, the Organization of American States (OAS) reported that Argentina had the second highest cocaine consumption rate in the Western Hemisphere, surpassed only by the United States. Nearly two percent of the population had consumed cocaine during the last year, according to OAS. Rising consumption has been stoked, in part, by the nation's increased role as a cocaine transit point.
The increase in drug consumption has "changed the criminal dynamics of the country," including facilitating the growth of family clans -- often with political connections -- that have found opportunity in drug smuggling in Argentina's border regions, InSight Crime Co-director Jeremy McDermott said during the presentation.
The Castedo Clan, for example, dominates cocaine trafficking in the province of Salta, which shares a land border with Bolivia. The group has used its control of estates on both sides of the border city of Salvador Mazza to ensure the smooth storage and transfer of cocaine.
The Los Monos drug gang -- based in the Argentine port city of Rosario -- gained power by controlling the movement of cocaine. But the recent arrests of key members of the clan -- including longtime family head Ariel Cantero, alias "El Viejo," -- has led to a power struggle with other gangs and spikes in violence over street-level drug sales.
Misiones: The Principal Entry Point For Organized Crime
Argentina's northeastern province of Misiones remains a principal entry point for marijuana and contraband smuggled from Paraguay and Brazil.
InSight Crime found that Misiones is one of Argentina’s two most important provinces for marijuana trafficking, along with Corrientes.
Marijuana is largely smuggled into Misiones across the Paraná River, where inspections are scarce. About 60 percent of marijuana seizures in the nation are made in the northeastern province. Marijuana is also smuggled on to Corrientes, another border province, after which it is moved farther inland.
The dozens of routes used to transport marijuana to Misiones are well trodden by contraband smugglers carrying cigarettes, textiles and basic hygiene products like deodorant.
As authorities clamp down on drug trafficking in Salta, it is feared that this will open the door for criminal groups to transport cocaine through the porous borders around Misiones.
Organized Crime and Corruption Intertwine
Corruption occurs at both the national and local levels in Argentina but in distinct ways. While organized crime groups have been unable to infiltrate the state at a national level in Argentina, networks of political elites have been involved in money laundering schemes and taking bribes.
Argentina's former president and current vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been accused of leading a money laundering network. Judicial authorities also allege that Kirchner received bribes in exchange for public works contracts, gambling licenses and permits related to the oil industry.
Meanwhile, at Argentina's border zones, localized networks made up of corrupt police officers, judges and politicians facilitate the marijuana trade.
"Organized crime is permeating the state in almost all spheres, though the criminal activities appear to be be distinct when we are talking about political elites at the federal level, and the politicians and forces at the local level," McDermott said.
For example, local officials and authorities in the river municipality of Itatí, located in the province of Corrientes, were behind a vast marijuana smuggling ring.
In 2019, a municipal police inspector, Luis Saucedo, was accused of leading a criminal organization called “Los Gordos,” which trafficked large quantities of marijuana from Paraguay to cities across Argentina via Itatí.
Saucedo relied on support from a host of corrupt officials in Corrientes - including Itatí's former mayor, Natividad "Roger" Terán, to facilitate the storage and transfer of marijuana. Terán's role in the network fused politics and organized crime together, with authorities claiming Saucedo financed Terán’s campaign with drug money.
InSight Crime followed this case and discovered that Los Gordos had been able to penetrate state institutions, including the naval prefecture, national gendarmerie, federal police and judicial system.
This dynamic also appears to be affecting other border provinces, such as Formosa.
“The Itatí case is clearly just the tip of the iceberg,” a former prosecutor from the case told InSight Crime. “The network of connections between politicians, security forces and drug traffickers is a long-dated one and will continue to exist. You can cut some heads off, and others will quickly surface."