Argentina Struggles with How to Respond to Increased Drug-Related Violence

Latin America and the Caribbean

Argentina, a country not commonly associated with the “drug war” in the same way as countries like Mexico or Colombia, is increasingly experiencing violence and corruption linked to drug trafficking. As with other countries, this crime and violence is not just the work of feuding criminal organizations, but also security forces that have been implicated in drug running, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Although U.S.-Argentina relations have been rocky recently, this uptick in violence has provided an impetus for law enforcement cooperation between the two countries.

The eastern Santa Fe province has been hit particularly hard by violence. The province’s capital city recently banned the sale of guns and ammunition for 90 days after an all-time record of 117 murders were reported between January and October of this year, 80 percent of which were committed with firearms. The city of Rosario, which lies along the infamous "Ruta 34" highway traditionally used to bring Andean cocaine into and through the country, registered 260 homicides in 2013, more than double the 119 experienced in 2010.

Messaging from the Argentine government about its public security strategy has been somewhat erratic, but insecurity is a major concern for Argentineans, and the governing party clearly wants to stem the growing violence ahead of the October 2015 presidential and congressional elections. To address the situation, National Security Minister Sergio Berni says he is looking to beef up federal forces now, but will eventually shift away from a strictly militarized policy. In an August 2014 interview, he told VICE News “the military-style fight [against drugs] has been a catastrophic failure worldwide,” and fighting crime “requires an in-depth and internationally coordinated effort.”

To curtail this violence in the long term, Argentina will have to address several institutional challenges. In many instances, drug trafficking groups have infiltrated and corrupted local police forces and political structures. An October 2014 investigative report by Mexico’s El Universal newspaper titled “Here the police are the Mafia” (“Aquí la Policía es la Mafia”) explored widespread allegations of corruption and abuse against state officials at virtually all levels of Argentina’s security apparatus.

The former Chief of Police for Santa Fe is currently on trial for alleged ties to the drug trade as well as for threatening the head of an organization working to fight drug addiction. Additionally, a number of high level officials from the national anti-drug organization known as Sedronar, including the agency's former director, have been accused of helping to traffic ephedrine, one of the precursor chemicals used in the production of methamphetamine.

Human rights violations have also remained a concern as the government has repeatedly reinforced police patrols in particularly violent areas. The Buenos Aires provincial police have received criticism for their alleged involvement in forced evictions and disappearances, including the 2009 disappearance of a local teenager whose body was only recently discovered and identified. According to the Argentine Center for Legal and Social Studies, police were responsible for the deaths of 98 civilians in the city and province of Buenos Aires in 2013. The violent and overcrowded Argentine prison system has also come under heavy criticism.

U.S. Military Aid and Arms Sales to Argentina FY2000-2013

While diplomatic dust-ups between the United States and Argentina, such as the latter’s sovereign debt, have dominated recent headlines, these spats do not seem to have interfered with cooperation on efforts to combat these rising rates of drug-related crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) both have plans to continue training provincial police forces and to strengthen information sharing agreements with Argentine law enforcement.

Since 2008 the United States trained more than 2,000 Argentine security personnel, including members of provincial police forces and anti-drugs units. Berni has reportedly limited the U.S. security assistance role in his country to sharing information and providing training, but this doesn’t appear related to a lack of political will to fight the drug trade on Argentina’s part. In 2013, Argentina had the third highest rate of cocaine seizures in the world, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report.

Argentina’s ongoing security coordination with the United States is not represented by high levels of U.S. security assistance to Argentina. While arms sales have been on a slightly upward trajectory, military and police assistance from the United States has been declining since 2010. The Congressional Budget Justification for FY2015 reports a request of just $590,000 for all accounts related to Argentina, including both security assistance and economic and humanitarian aid. In addition, Berni, Security Minister María Cecilia Rodríguez and President Cristina Kirchner have all recently expressed a willingness to consider decriminalizing drug consumption and drug production and it is unclear how this will affect the U.S.-Argentina security relationship. 

Regardless of the future of the U.S.-Argentina security and counternarcotics relationship, Argentina serves as another example of a Latin American country struggling to reconcile the political pressure for immediate relief from insecurity with the difficulty of developing and adopting an improved long-term approach to citizen security.