Narco-panic in Argentina

A series of mafia-style assassinations and the ensuing investigation into their connection with possible drug cartels has Argentines asking whether their country has graduated from consumer and transit country to major producer in the international drug business.

First of all, a neighbour who detected strange aromas alerted police to a drug lab operating next door to her home in greater Buenos Aires, where, on July 18, nine Mexicans and one Argentine were arrested. The lab produced ecstasy, metamphetamines and ephedrine, and is the first of its kind to be discovered in Argentina.

Then, on July 24, there was a shooting in the parking station at a large shopping centre in the outer suburbs of Buenos Aires. First thought to be a robbery, police soon suspected it to be a settling of accounts involving narcotraffickers and money launderers. Two men, both Colombians, were shot – one was killed and the other is under arrest. Both men are said to be part of the Cordillera Cartel.

On August 7, three young businessmen were reported disappeared. That day, two of their burned-out cars were discovered and on 13 August their bodies were found, shot mafia-style with 16 bullets. On 16 August justice officials revealed that one of the three, Sebastián Forza, was under investigation for trafficking ephedrine to Mexico.

On 16 August the two crimes are said to be connected after police discovered records of telephone conversations between Forza and the survivor of the shopping centre shooting.

Last Sunday, August 24, an associate of Forza’s threw himself from his mother’s ninth-floor apartment in Buenos Aires, leaving a note that said, among other things, “if you really are investigating, please do it properly.” Like Forza, the man was involved in the pharmaceutical business. Police are investigating whether he killed himself voluntarily or was threatened – maybe even pushed.

According to La Critica, the Mexican Sinaloa Drug Cartel has set up shop in Argentina, using the illicit pharmaceutical trade to manufacture amphetamines.The paper says:

“An investigation shows that the nine Mexicans arrested in the laboratory… –  investigators say Forza may have been their ephedrine provider – belong to the cartel led by Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán Lorea, the most dangerous of Mexico’s drug bosses, named on the US’s most wanted list.” (Sunday, 24 August edition)

Ephedrine, a key ingredient in speed and other amphetamines, is readily and cheaply available in Argentina due to its widespread use in cold and flu medicines. Ephedrine has been banned in Mexico (it is tightly regulated in many countries) for the precise reason that it is used to produce illicit drugs, making the substance difficult to get hold of. Reports say ephedrine is more than three times the price in Mexico that it fetches in Argentina.

Argentina provides excellent conditions for narco-traffickers: multiple porous borders; an ineffectual and corrupt customs system; ineffectual, corrupt and underpaid police forces; chronic political ineptitude and corruption; and a generally lax regulatory environment.

Argentina’s government either doesn’t have or declines to reveal any comprehensive plan to fight drugs and drug-related crime, apart from a recent – and already controversial – policy to decriminalise drug use.

On the consumer-side, Argentines do enjoy their drugs – particularly cocaine, which is readily available, cheap and of high quality. The UN’s World Drug Report 2008 says Argentina is the world’s third-largest cocaine user, behind the US and Spain and tying with England/Wales. The report says 2.6% of Argentines aged between 15 and 64 years have used cocaine, making them the biggest users in Latin America.

The three young, fresh-faced empresarios and their grieving families paint a picture of middle-class society rent asunder by drug crime. But the lower classes in Argentina have long been afflicted by the consequences of drug abuse.

NGOs and families working and living in villas miserias, or slums, around Buenos Aires and some of the large provincial capitals have been pleading for intervention and assistance in their struggle against paco, a crack-like drug made from cocaine residue. Cheap, easy to produce and smokeable, paco is highly addictive and provides an intense, short-lived high. It can lead to serious brain damage when overused, and some say it’s behind the rising levels of violent crime in Argentina.

The New York Times has a good in-depth feature and accompanying slideshow on Buenos Aires’ paco scourge. To watch a video by Argentina Reporter filmed in a Buenos Aires slum, click here, or select the video called “There Goes the Neighbourhood” in the column on the right.

A paco smoker, image by Chaco Online

A paco smoker, image by Chaco Online