Rising cocaine seizures in Argentina coupled with growing concerns about domestic consumption could be signs that the Andean nation may be headed down a similar path as Brazil, although questions remain.
Cocaine seizures in Argentina have increased at an alarming rate in 2017. In just the first three months of the year, authorities seized 1,678 kilograms of cocaine, nearly double the 840 kilograms that authorities nabbed during the first six months of 2016, according to figures from Argentina's Ministry of Security (Ministerio de Seguridad), reported by Clarín.
Argentina has increasingly become a key transshipment link for South America's cocaine trade. In 2015, federal forces seized 4,300 kilograms of cocaine, a figure that increased by 28 percent in 2016 after 5,500 kilograms of cocaine was impounded, according to Clarín.
Brazil remains the largest cocaine consuming nation in Latin America, but Argentina has also seen an increase in it's domestic trafficking market and local consumption in recent years. Still, it is unclear whether this is a result of the authorities doing a better job at combatting drug trafficking, or an increase in the amount of cocaine flowing through the country.
To find out, the Ministry of Security is launching a pilot program, "Price, Purity and Power of Narcotics" to determine if anti-narcotic operations have been efficient, according to Clarín.
The program will target two main factors: the price of a gram of cocaine and the purity of cocaine seized by authorities.
Authorities calculate that if the purity is high and the price is stable, there is an abundance of supply in the market, suggesting that authorities are falling short in their anti-drug operations. But if purity is low and prices are high, this would suggest that supply is low and law enforcement is indeed having an effect.
Nonetheless, authorities recognize that they will need to collect this data for several years to draw any firm conclusions.
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Brazil is a key departure point for cocaine destined for global markets, and Argentina is also a departure point for the drug leaving South America for transportation to Europe, according to the 2017 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
As a result, both countries are battling with increasing consumption rates. Brazil has the second largest consumer market for cocaine and its derivatives in the world after the US. Roughly half of Argentines surveyed for a 2015 report felt the nation had a high level of drug abuse. In 2016, 50 percent of drug-related judicial cases in Argentina were for personal possession or consumption.
Fueling this growth in consumption is a rise in microtrafficking, which has steadily increased since 2010, according to a study from the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (Universidad Cátolica Argentina - UCA). While just 30 percent of respondents said they witnessed drug trafficking activities in their neighborhood in 2010, nearly half of Argentines surveyed said they had in 2016.
In Brazil, open-air drug markets are helping to facilitate microtrafficking. In these so-called 'cracklands,' primarily in favelas located in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, coca paste and crack are sold in bulk at very low prices. As these markets have developed in Brazil, so have battles to control them, which may serve as a warning sign of what is to come as those markets expand in Argentina.
SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles
Powerful Brazilian organized crime groups have historically worked with Colombian cartels in the cocaine trade. Today, the country's oldest criminal group, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), is now thought to be expanding its domestic operations along with the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) in an attempt to better control the regional drug trade.
Most recently, after a series of criminal acts attributed to the two groups, a number of alleged members of the Red Command were arrested in Bolivia, which Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero suggested was an attempt by the group and the PCC to carry out operations aimed at "monopolizing the control of drugs" in the region. And increased violence along the Brazil-Paraguay border has raised concerns about an ongoing battle for drug trafficking routes in the area.
On the other hand, the major criminal syndicates that have been identified as operating in Argentina are primarily from Mexico and Colombia, and are known to have a presence there largely in part to its strategic role as a transit point. However, small, loosely organized domestic crime groups have typically controlled the regional drug trade in Argentina's interior as multinational groups have typically operated in the border regions.
As cocaine continues to flood Argentina, the country's domestic organized crime groups could seek to expand their operations with hopes of controlling more of the regional drug trade.