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Ousting of Police Chief Highlights Argentina's Vulnerability to Organized Crime

Former Santa Fe police commissioner Hugo Tognoli Former Santa Fe police commissioner Hugo Tognoli

Evidence of police corruption in northern Argentina illustrates how vulnerable the country is to organized crime, as domestic demand for cocaine rises and the country emerges as a regional trafficking hub, with one of Colombia's biggest capos captured there this week.

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The case of Hugo Tognoli, former police commissioner of the northern Santa Fe province, provides a useful insight into the institutional crisis currently faced by the Argentine police. Tognoli was accused of receiving kickbacks from drug trafficking organizations based in Santa Fe. He resigned on October 19, and briefly went missing before turning himself in to authorities on October 21. Tognoli denies the charges against him.

Public prosecutors accuse Tognoli of organizing a scheme with local drug trafficking networks in which he took monthly payments of 0,000 in exchange for allowing them to operate in his area. The evidence against the police commissioner suggests that such arrangements were a hallmark of his leadership style. Investigators claim to have a record of a text message exchange between one of Tognoli’s subordinates and a brothel owner, in which the latter asked how much the commissioner would charge him to sell cocaine. “30,000 [pesos a month, or about $6,300] directly to Tognoli,” was the response.

As La Nacion notes, the arrest of Tognoli is not the only example of corruption in Santa Fe. The Buenos Aires-based daily claims that the province is a hotbed of drug trafficking, with hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit profits moving through Rosario, its largest city. Police collusion with illicit activity is widespread. Law enforcement sources consulted by La Nacion described an “anarchic” situation among police in Rosario, with lower level officers -- increasingly dissatisfied with their cut of drug profits -- charging traffickers of their own accord to operate in several neighborhoods in the city.

InSight Crime Analysis

Police corruption in Argentina, which has long been an issue, has taken on greater importance in light of the country’s emergence as a hub in the regional cocaine trade. Authorities are seeing a sharp rise in drug seizures, corresponding to a surge in demand for cocaine in the country.  With cocaine consumption -- particularly of a kind of crack cocaine known as “paco” -- taking off in Argentina, it has become the second largest consumer of the drug in Latin America after Brazil, accounting for an estimated 25 percent of cocaine use in the region.

In addition to serving as a major market for cocaine, the country is increasingly used as a transit point for trafficking networks. Argentina serves as a key link to both West Africa and the European cocaine market, which has seen an uptick in demand in recent years.

This surge in cocaine traffic has accompanied growing concern among officials over the presence of powerful transnational criminal organizations in the country. The Sinaloa Cartel’s Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was rumored to have taken refuge in Argentina in mid-2011, and a former lieutenant of Colombian drug kingpin Daniel "El Loco" Barrera was killed in April while hiding out in Buenos Aires.

With police corruption rampant in Argentina, the country may be ill-prepared for the rise of powerful drug trafficking organizations. President Cristina Fernandez created a new security ministry in 2010, partly out of a wish to address the problem, appointing the reform-minded Nilda Garre at its head. Garre has proven to be an innovative figure, overseeing a shake-up of the federal police command and promising to root out police corruption at all levels. Still, as the Tognoli case illustrates, the Argentine government will be hard pressed to tackle corruption without addressing both the culture of abuse and the financial incentives that drive police officials to accept money from criminals.

The country is also used as a hide-out for Colombian traffickers, with Urabeños boss Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias "Mi Sangre,” captured in a Buenos Aires supermarket this week.

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