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Argentina’s Mauricio Macri is stepping up the fight against drug trafficking as the reformist president seeks to prevent the region’s powerful narcotics gangs from securing the kind of foothold they already have elsewhere in Latin America.
Mr Macri has made taking on the multibillion dollar drugs trade a priority since beingelected in November, and recently appointing Mariano Federici at the helm of the agency charged with tackling money laundering.
As head of the Financial Information Unit, Mr Federici has launched a drive to target the financial assets of criminals. He is also seeking to mend relations with banks and international partners that he says were needlessly soured under the previous regime of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
“Drug traffickers like to move to Argentina as they feel safe bringing their assets here,” Mr Federici said. “The level of enforcement here and the pressure against organised crime has been weak. We want to send a message that Argentina is no longer a safe place for their money.”
Pope Francis is among those to warn of Argentina’s creeping “Mexicanisation” — a reference to the bloody war between the Mexican state and drug cartels that has cost tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
Mr Macri, the former mayor of Buenos Aires, has made the fight against the narcotics trade one of three priorities, along with achieving zero poverty in Argentina and uniting his politically polarised country.
The president stirred controversy last week with a decree that authorised the armed forces to shoot down “hostile” aircraft, including planes carrying drugs. This was part of a broader security package that included the declaration of a year-long public security emergency and the building of a radar system along Argentina’s northern border.
Argentina has long been a transit point for shipments of cocaine to Europe from Bolivia and Peru, two of the three main producers of the narcotic along with Colombia. Argentina’s shared border with Paraguay and Brazil has also long been a smuggling hotspot.
But the numbers of manufacturing laboratories have proliferated in Argentina in recent years, and domestic consumption of drugs has more than doubled in the past decade. Argentines now consuming five times more cocaine than the global average.
The UN’s World Drug Report last year ranked Argentina as the “most frequently mentioned” country in major seizures over the past decade, having occupied third place behind Brazil and Colombia two years before.
Worst hit has been Rosario, Argentina’s third largest city in the heart of the country’s fertile soya belt. At about 22 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the homicide rate in Rosario — a major port and a place where many drug trafficking routes converge — has spiralled in recent years to four times the national average.
Amid vicious turf wars, a gang known as Los Monos — “The Monkeys” — has risen to power, using a network of underground tunnels, intimate connections with local police and even footballers to launder their money. In one incident the provincial governor’s residence in Rosario was sprayed with bullets.
Targeting the financial assets of the drugs gangs is vital to stopping narco-trafficking, the government believes. Critics say a recent prison break by three men convicted for killing businessmen connected to an ephedrine trafficking ring that worked with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel was only possible because of their continued access to financial resources.
Sensational allegations have claimed that the killings were masterminded by Aníbal Fernández, the president’s cabinet chief — whose alias was said to be “La Morsa”, or The Walrus, on account of his bushy moustache — so he could control the ephedrine-smuggling business.
The accusations, which are strongly denied, contributed to Mr Fernández’s defeat in the race last year for the governorship of Buenos Aires province, heartland of the Peronist political movement defeated by Mr Macri in the presidential elections.
Drug traffickers like to move to Argentina as they feel safe bringing their assets. We want to send a message that Argentina is no longer a safe place for their money
Mr Federici, a former legal counsel at the International Monetary Fund, was critical of the previous government’s “repressive” approach that caused “disruptive and confrontational” relations with banks and financial institutions. He said banks should be the main source of information to aid the seizure of criminals’ assets. He also hit out at the politicisation of the Financial Information Unit that had squandered the trust of international partners.
Underlining the importance of a new asset confiscation law, Mr Federici said the conviction rate in Argentina for money laundering was “laughable”. He pointed to Colombia, where officials have confiscated $1.3bn in criminal assets in the past three years, compared to “almost zero” in Argentina.
Mr Federici also described the “cartelisation” of Argentina, with Mexican and Colombian syndicates now operating alongside better entrenched Peruvian and Bolivian smugglers.
“The magnitude of the threat is very serious, and this would never have been possible without collaboration from government officials in this country,” he said. “The penetration of transnational crime [in Argentina] is directly linked to corruption.”
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