A series of arrests of drug dealers in Argentina has highlighted the increasingly popular role of Telegram in drug dealing activity, as both dealers and consumers seek to guard their identity in the growing online marketplace.

The most recent case came on November 2, when federal police arrested three people from a drug-peddling gang in the capital, Buenos Aires. The gang used Telegram and Facebook to sell “designer drugs,” including the ever-popular “tusi,” as well as home-grown cannabis, according to Argentine news platform Minutouno.

The operation came just five days after the anti-narcotics department arrested three men for selling drugs via Telegram in Chos Malal, a city in the west of the country, where another dealer operating through Telegram was arrested in September.

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The provinces of Río Negro and Mendoza have both seen arrests of dealers operating via Telegram this year. And in November last year, police in La Plata, a city south of Buenos Aires, arrested Duvier Vallejo, a drug dealer who had over 350 loyal customers in her group chat, where she promoted her “super cheap” drugs, according to Infobae.

Indeed, the use of Telegram as a sales and communication platform for drugs has spread across Argentina, and Telegram-enabled crimes have increased by 350% in the last two years, Argentine news platform Clarín reported.

Telegram became a popular alternative messenger service around the globe after WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging service, made a change to its information-sharing policy in early 2021. The change highlighted how it shared user data with its parent company, Facebook, which was previously embroiled in data-sharing scandals. On the back of this, Telegram promoted its privacy ethos, claiming it never shared data with authorities. This claim has since reportedly been debunked.

InSight Crime Analysis

As street-level drug dealing has moved online, the dealers themselves have looked for channels that enable them to evade the scrutiny of the authorities. Telegram’s apparent focus on anonymity and encryption offers that possibility.

The first advantage Telegram offers drug dealers is its high degree of anonymity and privacy. Unlike some other popular messenger services, Telegram does not require users to link their accounts to their identities or phone numbers. Conversations using “Secret Chat” feature end-to-end encryption, meaning that no data from the chat stored in any data center and nobody except the chat participants can read or decipher the messages. Once the chats disappear from the users’ mobile devices, they are gone forever. Meanwhile, self-destructing messages allow dealers to advertise their wares through temporary images and videos without concern.

While WhatsApp offers end-to-end encryption on all conversations, the company’s past involvement in data-sharing scandals has marked its reputation. Those seeking security have moved elsewhere. Telegram also collects less information about the user — including IP address and the type of device a user operates — than WhatsApp, according to TechAdvisor.

Carlos Timo Brito, a policy specialist at Brazil’s ministry of justice and an international relations professor at Centro Universitário de Brasília, told InSight Crime that the companies’ domiciled location may play a role.

“Perhaps the big difference, in the case of the control of illicit activities, is the ownership and legal domicile of each of these platforms. Telegram is owned by Russian nationals and domiciled in the British Virgin Islands. WhatsApp is owned by an American citizen and is legally domiciled in the United States, as is [another messaging service] Wickr. In this context, perhaps WhatsApp and Wickr have greater control potential than Telegram because they are based in the US and can probably be subject to greater legal and enforcement scrutiny than platforms hosted elsewhere,” said Brito.

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Secondly, Telegram allows users to reach a wide audience and link with other Telegram users that they do not know. The app allows large group chats of up to 200,000 users, which can be searched for by specific interest. By searching for groups relating to drug sales, users are able to find and communicate with dealers. It also has a “Find People Nearby” feature that allows people to connect with others, including drug dealers, within a specified geographical range.

But as dealers like Duvier Vallejo in La Plata found out, watertight encryption and online anonymity do not necessarily protect from real-world consequences. Vallejo was arrested after a disgruntled customer or someone close to her tipped off the police. 

Similarly, with anyone able to enter drug-dealing Telegram groups, police are also well able to find local actors, as Clarín’s recent reporting showed.

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