Argentina has long been considered a safe haven from the violence of the drug trade in Latin America, but the assassination of a former henchman of Colombian crime boss "Loco" Barrera in Buenos Aires last week indicates it may no longer be the refuge it once was.
Argentina police said that a man killed April 17 in northern Buenos Aires is Jairo Saldarriaga, alias "Mojarro," a former associate of one of Colombia's most prolific drug traffickers, Daniel Barrera, alias "El Loco."
The irony is that Saldarriaga, a former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who was recruited by Barrera to run a network of assassins in Colombia's Eastern Plains, had killed in Buenos Aires on Barrera's behalf, according to reports. He is believed to have coordinated the assassination of two of Barrera's rivals in an affluent Buenos Aires mall in 2008, in a shoot-out which shocked the country.
It appears that when Saldarriaga fell out of Barrera's favor in 2011, he also sought refuge in the Argentine capital. The Friday before his death, he spoke with a lawyer in Buenos Aires, saying that he wanted to live permanently in the country and that he feared for his safety.
Saldarriaga had reason to be afraid. In 2011, he stole a cocaine shipment which belong to Barrera, reportedly as large as 500 kilos, and tried to sell it for his own gain. Barrera responded by ordering Saldarriaga's assassination. Gunmen opened fire on a soccer pitch in Villavicencio, the largest city of Colombia's Eastern Plains, leaving six people dead, but Saldarriaga escaped.
If Saldarriaga thought that he could live in relative safety in Argentina, it is another indication of the country's increased importance as a refuge for Colombian drug traffickers looking to lie low, especially those with connections to Barrera's network. Just last week, Argentine police arrested Barrera's ex-wife in a gated community in Buenos Aires province. Another one of Barrera's associates, Luis Agustin Caicedo Velandia, alias "Lucho," was arrested in Buenos Aires in 2010.
Various Colombian criminal groups are known to use Argentina as an area for rest and recreation. This includes former members of the Norte del Valle Cartel, as well as a former beauty queen who caused a media frenzy when she was arrested in Buenos Aires in 2010, charged with running a massive drug smuggling network.
Part of the reason why Colombian groups have found it expedient to set up shop in Argentina is the country's increased importance as a transit nation for the cocaine trade. Argentina is the jumping-off point for traffickers looking to ship their product to Europe, either through Spain or their West Africa connections.
But Argentina plays another important role in the drug economy: according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), has the highest prevelance of cocaine use among adults In South America. Foreign drug cartels may be attracted to Argentina as a convenient transit point to Europe, but the country's domestic maket also brings in big profits. With more cocaine passing through Argentina, international drug traffickers often pay Argentine drug mules in product rather than cash, allowing them to sell locally. As in Central America, this has caused domestic consumption of cocaine and by-products like crack to rise rapidly.
Argentina's increased prominence in the drug trade led Foreign Policy to describe the country in a recent article as "the new narco state." The headline is sensational and inaccurate, since the term "narco state" is usually used to refer to a government that has been overwhelmingly infiltrated by drug traffickers. But as the case of Saldarriaga shows, there are plenty of Colombian traffickers for whom Argentina represents a safe and comfortable place to operate. Ultimately, however, Saldarriaga could not escape from Barrera: just one hour after he met with a lawyer to discuss setting up a new identity in Argentina, he was gunned down by his former boss.