Is the Drug War Coming to Argentina?

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(Photo: Global Panorama / Flickr)

Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri won November’s historic presidential runoff to usher Argentina into a new era as President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner departs from La Casa Rosada.

Macri, the Let’s Change coalition candidate, garnered 51 percent of the vote against 48 percent for Front for Victory candidate Daniel Scioli (who happened to be Kirchner’s chosen successor). During October’s first round of elections, pollsters predicted that Scioli would win by a majority, with some expecting a 10-point lead finish.

“With your vote today, you made the impossible possible, what no one believed in,” the conservative, pro-business Macri told cheering supporters at his Buenos Aires headquarters.

People are already debating the success of the presidencies of Cristina and her late husband Néstor Kirchner, whose terms have been coined la década ganada (the “hard-won decade“). Their combined 12-year legacy will undoubtedly face further scrutiny in years to come – whether for their social spending on poverty and inequality, fiscal ebbs and flows during and after the commodities boom of the 2000s, or allegations of impunity and government corruption.

As the post-election high fades, Macri’s working group will begin formulating an agenda for Latin America’s third largest economy. To address the most pressing needs, Macri will first have to tackle citizen security, which eight out of 10 Argentines labeled as the country’s main problem in 2014, according to Management & Fit.

Recent studies reinforce the notion that the public perceives insecurity as a consequence of skyrocketing levels of drug trafficking and consumption. Drug dealing in neighborhoods increased by 50 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to Argentina’s Social Debt Observatory, with vulnerable populations in villas and squatter settlements among the most affected. Further, a 2015 study by the Argentine University of Enterprise suggests that more than half the country supports tougher laws on drug trafficking.

In his victory speech, Macri asked voters to support him more than ever in his efforts to “construct an Argentina with zero poverty, defeat drug trafficking, and unite the country.” However, the question remains: What road will Argentina’s post-election security agenda follow?

Drug Woes and Security Medicine

Argentina has long been a transit point for drug shipments from Andean countries and across its shared border with Paraguay and Brazil. Its manufacturing labs and local drug markets have expanded in recent years, according to the country’s attorney general. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of State and the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime also reported increases in marijuana and cocaine seizures in 2015. Not surprisingly, the 2015 World Drug Report ranked Argentina as the most frequently mentioned cocaine transit country over a 10-year period. Two years before, the same report had placed Argentina third in the ranking, behind Colombia and Brazil.

Part of the Kirchner legacy has been a general institutional unwillingness to tackle the drug trade head-on. In 2005, amid the uncovering of an air-based cocaine smuggling ring, Néstor fired Air Force Gen. Carlos Rohde and other military and security forces for their lack of action. That year, the State Department reported that Colombian drug traffickers had increased their presence in all aspects of the drug trade in Argentina.

In another case, three major ephedrine suppliers with ties to Mexican cartels were murdered execution-style in Buenos Aires. Public outrage ensued, and Cristina Kirchner launched a highly publicized crackdown on the internal drug trade, Insight Crime reported. Although the crackdown on the distribution of chemical precursors to narcotics had only a mild effect, the late response came under fire, especially since pharmaceutical companies represented some of Kirchner’s top campaign donors.

The irony is exemplified in the contradicting narratives provided by the Kirchner administration. “Neither Argentina nor Chile is a drug producer,” said Kirchner during Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s state visit to Argentina in May 2014. Earlier that year, Defense Minister Agustín Rossi had said that the South American country had evolved from a transit point to “a consumer and producer of drugs.”

Influenced by public pressure both on the campaign trail and in debates, President-elect Macri and his opponents vowed to take stronger stances against this troubling trend.

During November 15’s presidential debate, Macri pledged to create a national agency that would fight organized crime and to professionalize and double the number of security forces in four years. He also promised to expand state presence in order to regain territorial control of dangerous neighborhoods within his first 100 days in office, and to build three new regional headquarters for the Gendarmerie and Coast Guard.

Even though Macri intended to brand himself as different, Scioli’s prescription for citizen security was comparable. He similarly intended to create a federal counternarcotics agency, incorporate 100,000 new security forces, enforce stricter gun permits, and tighten border security. At a base level, both President-elect Macri and Scioli proposed improvements for drug treatment and crime prevention policies, the creation a new agency against drug-related crimes, and an increase in the number of police forces throughout the country.

Yet even though these reactive security policies were a hallmark of both presidential platforms, would they actually work?

Drug Overreaction

John Collins, coordinator of the London School of Economics IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, explains that there is a universal tendency for governments to overreact to drug problems, which often leads to counterproductive security responses.

“There is sense that says, ‘Well, the market is becoming more prevalent, therefore we must crack down on it,’” Collins said. “You’ve got this demand, which is extremely profitable. And you have got this incentive to supply it. The commodity chain is pushed between regions.”

Diego Gorgal, former head advisor to Argentina’s Ministry of Justice, Security, and Human Rights, said that under Argentina’s old-fashioned security approach, policymakers tend to call for either more police or more sanctions – which may not be an effective preventative measure.

Currently, Argentina stands second to Uruguay as the country with the largest police-to-population ratio in Latin America, with more than 700 policemen, investigative units, and special security forces per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF). “Our problem is not the lack of policemen, but to change the way in which the police works,” Gorgal said.

Within the interior security framework, security forces like the federal police and gendarmerie are in charge of large criminal investigations. In 2005, a de-federalization reform sought to hand over micro-trafficking cases to provincial and local police forces, although only some provinces, such as Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Salta, have followed through. The armed forces have also played a role in domestic security, mostly limited to providing logistical support, such as in Operation Northern Shield along the tri-border area.

Even though Gorgal said that not enough evidence exists to draw causal connections between violence and the drug business, he pointed to the uptick in drug seizures and homicide rates as a tentative measure of the expanding narcotics market in various regions or cities.

“We can see how in a port city like Rosario, with cocaine and marijuana trafficking roots, the homicide rate increased,” Gorgal said. Branded by the press as Argentina’s “narco capital,” Rosario’s murder rate has recently jumped: its 2013 to 2014 murder rate of 22 murders per 100,000 inhabitants is far above the national murder rate reported by the Ministry of Health of 8.8 per 100,000 (the most recent to date).

“We know that something is going on at the street level, where the drug business and the violence are expanding,” said Gorgal, who also served as undersecretary for security planning in the city of Buenos Aires. “The market is being supplied in a different way.”

Police tend to arrest small-scale traffickers and consumers rather than high-level producers, at a rate as high as 70 percent of all drug-related cases, according to one study by Intercambios and the University of Buenos Aires. The case of San Martín, in Buenos Aires province, is one such example, where 93 percent of 400 of those sentenced by a judge between 2009 to 2012 were related to simple possession of drugs or micro-trafficking.

Most targets of police investigations are from low-income neighborhoods and in possession of only small quantities of drugs. Victoria Darraidou, a researcher at the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), says that these types of interventions are not only ineffective, but “will lead to more systematic abuses of human rights violations and stigmatization of society’s vulnerable sectors,” citing the issue of female incarceration in the country.

The Road Ahead

Unlike other Latin American countries like Colombia and Mexico, which use their armed forces for domestic security purposes, Argentina’s Interior Security Law and National Defense Law draw an explicit distinction between national defense and homeland security.

The last time that the government reformed federal agencies, in the 1990s, it left security forces and the criminal justice system untouched. Gorgal says that the Federal Police, Gendarmerie, and Coast Guard operate under institutional and organizational models nearly a half-century old.

Gorgal said it is important to define the instances in which the armed forces can and cannot be used. “If you use the armed forces as police, that is a bad idea. They do not have the training and means to work as one [police force]” he said, although he added that the armed forces can support law enforcement in several logistical capabilities, through the use of radars and border surveillance technologies.

In the long-term, Collins said this is not a sustainable framework for public security to enforce the law. “To rely on them to fight a war that has by definition no end is a terrible idea. Racking up seizure rates tells us nothing. What we want to know is how are police institutions relative to the market,” Collins said.

Both experts agreed that the general trend will not be reversed unless a comprehensive security approach curbs the demand and supply sides of the drug problem.

Collins recommended reducing the interactions of the drug market with local populations to maximize citizen security. “The market will continue to exist. Therefore, you do not incarcerate people that have drug dependence issues,” Collins said, pointing to alternatives such as harm reduction programs and community-based treatment services, which can encourage behavior change.

On this front, Macri has agreed that the treatment of addicts should be prioritized through early-intervention and consumption reduction programs, with a special emphasis on paco (a variation of crack). He would also reform the state-run SEDRONAR, which works to reduce the supply and demand of drugs and oversees prevention policies.

Regarding the creation of an agency against organized crime, Gorgal said that the most important task for criminal intelligence was the consolidation of information from judges and federal agencies. “The information of each specific case is not shared among them,” Gorgal said. Using resources for this purpose would be more cost-effective, since there are already four security agencies in charge of prosecuting drug-trafficking organizations.

He emphasized how more criminal intelligence could be a first step to understand regional patterns of drug smuggling and money laundering. “Argentina is operating in the shadows,” he said. Macri will have to develop accountability systems, such as impact evaluations for prosecutors and police chiefs, so corrupt public servants answer for their choices on the job.

Yet to seriously dissipate public safety concerns, Macri will not only have to implement reforms that address these broader symptoms of insecurity, but also restore the lost confidence in institutions. “I hope that the next president can call all of the political forces in the country and strike an agreement to have a general agenda,” Gorgal said. “We need a comprehensive [security] policy to respond sooner than later.”

As soon as Macri takes office on December 10, the clock will start ticking.

This piece was reprinted from Foreign Policy In Focus by RINF Alternative News with permission.