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After a federal court in a gritty suburb of Buenos Aires was burnt down this month, a sinister message in cut-out newspaper letters was found ordering the provincial governor to “stay away”. There was just one word beneath the terse warning: “drugs”.
Thousands of miles south of Mexico, a country traumatised by drug cartel violence, there are signs of escalating tensions in Argentina after President Mauricio Macriearlier this year declared a “war” on trafficking. Mr Macri this month sent armed border police into the most crime-ridden areas of Buenos Aires.
Insecurity has now displaced inflation as Argentina’s number one concern, thanks in part to Mr Macri’s progress in fixing economic problems inherited from former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Narcotics gangs, increasingly from Colombia and Mexico, are using Argentina as a transit point to export more than 70 tonnes of cocaine a year to markets in Europe and Asia.
Homicide rates fuelled by gang fighting have tripled over the past decade in the worst-hit areas, such as the port city of Rosario.
There is a growing regional consensus that the “war on drugs” has failed — with pioneering Uruguay legalising cannabis — and many fear that the centre-right Mr Macri is courting danger by adopting a militarised approach to solving a problem largely neglected by his predecessor.
“It is ironic and tragic that Argentina has not learnt from this regional and international debate, and is now reverting back to [militarised] policies that have failed,” says Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, who worries that a new government in Peru may be making a similar mistake.
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However, Eugenio Burzaco, Argentina’s security secretary, rejects accusations that his government is waging a war on drugs, which he dismisses as “a cliché from the 1980s” that “nobody believes in”.
“For 12 years [the Kirchners] did nothing. Both the local consumption and the trafficking of drugs has doubled or even tripled.” Mr Burzaco blames the previous government for failing to stop the advance of drug traffickers who co-opted police, judges and politicians.
Although it may be appropriate to use the military in “specific activities” such as shooting down aircraft suspected of smuggling drugs — a policy adopted by Mr Macri earlier this year — Mr Burzaco says he is against the use of the armed forces for resolving urban conflicts.
“It hasn’t worked well in Mexico,” he says, adding that it is “not too late” to prevent cartels from getting out of control.
“We have to focus on all fronts, not just demand and not just supply. It requires an integrated solution,” he says, pointing to a wide-ranging initiative launched in August that enjoyed cross-party support.
There is no drug trafficker that can operate without the endorsement of the police anywhere in Argentina
Some argue for a medical approach to the drugs problem.
“There is no justice for the poor,” says Alicia Romero, who runs a group of mothers that looks after a swelling number of addicts of “paco” — a cheap form of cocaine that is smoked — that plague the streets of Buenos Aires like “the living dead”. “The lives of our boys are at stake,” she says.
Ms Romero argues that the state and society at large are not interested in the plight of these young men, only in the cycle of violence created by the drugs trade.
Marcelo Bergman, a security expert, says that despite its modern image, Mr Macri’s conservative government is ideologically predisposed to treating drugs mainly as a security issue. There is no energy devoted to programmes for reducing demand or treating addicts, he claims.
“The government is in a trap. It wants to fight drugs and it doesn’t have the equipment or the law enforcement capacity to do so,” says Mr Bergman. After the previous government left Argentina without “basic equipment” to control the borders and make drug seizures, he says that Mr Macri has been forced to resort to using the militarised national gendarmerie, and sometimes the army itself, to enforce the law.
Alejandro Corda, a lawyer who specialises in drug policy, argues that “it sells much better to be belligerent than innovative”.
“Argentine politicians, not just this government, like to take a combative stance against narcotrafficking, as they think it produces good electoral results,” he says, pointing to important midterm legislative elections next year.
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, a political scientist, says complicating matters is “an extremely profound crisis in the justice system, which has led to an environment of great impunity and corruption”.
Marcelo Sain, a former vice-minister for security for Buenos Aires province, claims that the government is also continuing the practice of its predecessors of turning a blind eye and allowing the police to regulate the drugs market — as long as peace on the streets is ensured.
“There is no drug trafficker that can operate without the endorsement of the police anywhere in Argentina,” he says.