Argentina’s 2015 Presidential Elections: Empty Campaign Promises, No Police Reform in Sight

Latin America and the Caribbean
Southern Cone

Demanding answers to structural and stability challenges facing their nation, Argentines will take to the polls on October 25 to elect a new president. Sunday will mark the end to 12 years of kirchnerismo, the peronist political movement born under presidential couple Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the late Néstor Kirchner, once lauded a leftist success for its sustained economic growth and robust spending on social programs.

Now key sectors such as the economy and agriculture are struggling, and drug trafficking has emerged as one of the go-to campaign focuses for presidential hopefuls. Civil society and the judiciary in Argentina as well as international actors, such as the United States and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have all raised an eyebrow about the growing drug concerns — which have even made their way to a Pope Francis letter to an Argentine politician.

In response to these concerns, the three most popular candidates have put forth a repertoire of policy proposals that promise to enhance police and military presence and increase security spending to effectively combat drug trafficking. However, experts say these proposals may actually worsen the security situation unless they tackle police corruption and impunity.

Security Promises and Drug War Goals

“Without weapons there’s no deaths; without weapons, there’s peace,” said Front for Victory (FpV) candidate Daniel Scioli in a recent meeting in Santa Fe. Scioli, who currently serves as governor in Buenos Aires province, must garner 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent of the vote with a 10 point lead, to avoid a November runoff.

His campaign proposes to invest in capacity building and equipment for security forces, increase the number of provincial policemen by 100,000 over the next four years, improve police-provincial court relations to crackdown on drug trafficking, pass a new gun control law, and renew cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Having the current president’s endorsement, Scioli is the number one candidate to beat, with 42 percent of voter support according to recent polls.

Trailing Scioli with an estimated 28 percent of voter support is Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri, the pro-business Let’s Change runner-up who has vowed to reach zero poverty, combat drug trafficking and unify all Argentines.

“We must defeat drug trafficking because it is endangering our culture, our families...corrupting our institutions, buying politicians, justices, policemen, public servants. We will be the first government that tackles this issue from day one,” Macri said last September at a meeting in Flores, a Buenos Aires neighborhood.


During October’s presidential debate, Macri proposed to pacify Argentina’s most dangerous barrios within his first 100 days in office and to take down drug gang leaders who “turn our young ones into soldiers on their way to death.” Macri supports the shooting down of narco planes and is also proposing to fortify border security, urbanize low-income villas, increase the state’s territorial presence across the country, and review the country’s money laundering laws.

Both Macri and Scioli propose the creation of a new anti-drug agency, with some differences and yet few known specifics. Macri proposes the creation of an autonomous agency, similar to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation that gathers intelligence and coordinates security forces to tackle organized crime and drug trafficking, whereas Scioli wants a federal agency that specializes in counternarcotics and combines federal and local security forces.

Renewal Front candidate Sergio Massa, who has about 23 percent of voter support, has perhaps the most contentious counternarcotics proposals yet. 

“I will not shy away from calling the armed forces to help with domestic security in the border,” Massa said during October’s presidential debates. The former Kirchner supporter is calling for an extended security law that would use 75,000 uniformed men in the Army, Navy and Air Force in a full-scale drug war. The measure would require a modification to the 1988 National Defense Law, which bars defense forces from acting in conjunction with security forces.

His campaign focuses on achieving criminal justice reform, establishing his own federal counternarcotics agency, lowering drug consumption, retaking specific drug-gang controlled territories by pacifying poor neighborhoods —inspired by Brazil’s Pacifying Police Units (UPP)— and supporting, similar to Macri, shooting down narco planes to curb aerial drug trafficking.

“No, we will not be passive like the current government. We declare a war on drugs,” Massa said in one of his security ad spots.

Campaign Rhetoric and Argentina’s Real Drug Problem

Currently, Argentina is a major transit point for cocaine in Latin America, receiving major shipments from the Triple Frontier area with Paraguay and Brazil and from cocaine-producing countries like Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. According to the 2015 UN World Drug Report, Argentina became the cocaine transit country most frequently mentioned in major individual drug seizures, with 2,101 reports from 45 different recipient countries over a 10-year period.

As a global paradigm, proponents of the prohibition of psychoactive substances, such the Ketamine used by Argentine youth, have punished users without assessing the costs to human rights, argues a recent report by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS).

Dr. Manuel Tufró, CELS lead coordinator in democratic security and institutional violence, said that in no way does drug trafficking in Argentina pose a major territorial threat that requires military intervention. To propose a drug war, he says, kickstarts “a race to see which side has more fire power.”

“Argentina’s drug problem is not homogenous, but rather concentrated in several cities and neighborhoods. This leads to the hyper visibility of violence in comparison to its magnitude. Those who suffer most from the problem are the vulnerable sectors of society. Drug gangs with more sophisticated, international links are not as exposed to territorial violence in the barrios,” Tufró said.

For Francisco Lavolpe, professor of international relations at the National University of La Matanza, presidential candidates tend to make general statements regarding drug control when campaigning, but few conversations offer specific policies.

“Drug trafficking tends to be associated with common crime. There’s a strong emphasis on attacking the supply chain and consumption. Naturally, these instances are closer to the citizen experience. However, in recent years this has been used as a propaganda tool to advertise the results of drug raids and the dismantling of drug trafficking organizations,” Lavolpe said.

The CELS report also highlights how drug threats in Argentina serve as excuses to apply punitive and demagogic recipes that lead to human rights violations and mass detentions, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and an expanded security apparatus.

One reason it’s easy for the current candidates to offer simplistic security solutions to drug trafficking without any sort of empirical evidence is the fact that no official data regarding drug-related violence is available in Argentina.

Victoria Darraidou, CELS researcher in democratic security and institutional violence, explains that this data does exist, but that since 2008 security- and crime-related data stopped being published, which forces CELS and other coalitions to seek information in judicial cases or public health records.

“This choice was made because Buenos Aires province, which accounts for a great number of the country’s population, did not report its crime rates, diminishing the data’s validity,” Darraidou said. She emphasized that violence has increased in several provinces, such as in Jujuy and Santa Fe, but that these rates may be tied to specific districts or cities, such as the famous case of Rosario.

Evaluating Candidate Proposals and the Need for Police Reform

As other Latin American countries continue to beat the drum of using the military to tackle illegal drug trafficking, the campaign proposals of Argentina's presidential candidates seem to disregard the country’s own security strategy.

In contrast to other actors in the region, Argentina’s Interior Security Law, which mandates that internal security falls to the police and other related security forces, has existed since the 1980s. The National Defense Law, which states that the armed forces should focus exclusively on national defense, clearly shows the different roles between the military and police.

Further branding drug trafficking as a domestic issue, Darraidou said that a 2005 change to the Argentine drug law de-federalized security forces, making the provincial police responsible for minor drug trafficking, while the federal police are left in charge of larger criminal investigations. After 2013, the state drug czar SEDRONAR shifted its focus to preventing consumption and providing treatment, while the Security Ministry was left to handle drug trafficking.

Current government policy tackles consumption and trafficking on several fronts, exemplified in security interventions in urban centers, provinces and low-income neighborhoods linked to drug commerce. Operation Northern Shield, for instance, is one such security operation along the northern border that has involved the Gendarmerie and the Coast Guard to curb drug and human trafficking.

“In the last year and a half, the armed forces have been mobilized to provide logistical support in patrolling and interdiction to security forces, which is at the edge of what the law allows,” Tufró said.

In particular, the current security framework renders Massa’s proposals tough to implement, since by law these cases fall to the security forces, specifically provincial police in micro trafficking cases, and federal police and the judiciary in larger criminal cases.

“The armed forces have not been trained for these types of roles. In Mexico, they have led to systematic human rights violations. Given Argentina’s past with state-sponsored terror in the 1970s, we don’t think it makes sense,” Tufró said.

Albeit less direct, Scioli and Macri’s proposals may not be much better, since units would operate under the same institutional logic. Neither increasing the number of uniforms in the streets nor police intervention address the broader need for police reform, which remains absent from the current debate.

“Police coexistence with organized crime enables the existence of drug markets. It’s almost impossible for a drug gang to operate and sell drugs in a set neighborhood without the police’s nod. None address the [sic] issue, which is centric to drug trafficking,” Tufró said.

As long as presidential candidates continue to disregard police reform, their proposals will do little to solve police corruption, systematic human rights abuses, urban consumption and effectively tackle illegal drug trafficking.