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.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla -- a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally -- finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...