Argentina hosts at least 1,500 clandestine landing strips for traffickers flying drugs into the country, recent research show, providing further fodder for the government's reinvigorated campaign against drug trafficking and organized crime.
The strips are being used by regional trafficking organizations to bring in cocaine, marijuana, coca base and other substances, according to the Anti-Drug Association of Argentina (Asociación Antidrogas de la República Argentina). The resulting air bridges provide an alternative to overland routes, such as the country’s heavily trafficked Ruta 34 highway.
There isn’t a northern province in Argentina that doesn’t have at least 60 landing strips, the association's Claudio Izaguirre, told el Liberal. He referred to the number of clandestine airstrips as “horrifying” and said their users “seem untouchable.”
The country’s security forces claim about 80 percent of illicit drugs coming into Argentina arrive by air on approximately 120 flights that arrive and depart each day. Izaguirre said transnational organized crime (TOC) is taking advantage of the fact that the country isn’t doing enough to control its airspace, with not enough radar coverage to detect these flights.
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Argentina is one of the biggest markets for cocaine in South America, as well as one of the departure points for cocaine headed to Europe. Regional neighbors Peru, Colombia and Bolivia are the region’s major coca-producing countries, and Argentina shares a border with Bolivia and Peru, which are also littered with landing strips.
Nearby Colombia and Paraguay are also two of the most important source countries for marijuana for sale in international markets -- South America accounted for 24 percent of seizures of the herb in 2014, according to the most recent World Drug Report (pdf) from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Argentina has made efforts in the past to tackle illegal landing strips in its territory following concerns over aerial drug traffic.
President Mauricio Macri has introduced a number of new measures to strengthen the country's security policy against organized crime since he assumed office in 2015, on both a national and regional level. One of his most controversial decisions has been a government decree authorizing the shooting down of suspected drug-trafficking flights, effective at least for the remainder of 2016.
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Polls suggest that such policies will win him popularity due to a perceived increase in drug trafficking in Argentina. But critics say he has fed that perception, and that the president has gone too far in what some are calling the nation’s entry into the “War on Drugs” -- something his Kirchner presidential predecessors had stepped away from.
Although this number of illegal landing strips is considerable, and it’s likely the Macri government will continue to target them, their existence suggests past and present eradication efforts may not be working. New strips spring up quickly following the destruction of old ones, and drug packages can be dropped out of passing planes without them having to land.
At least some of Argentina's anti-drug resources might be better spent on strategies developed within regional security partnerships with other South American countries.