Authorities in Argentina successfully interrupted a major extortion ring in the capital Buenos Aires, in an operation that reveals how longstanding police corruption has contributed to illegal activities in the city.
On June 21, Buenos Aires police arrested Jorge Castillo, the so-called "king" of an infamous black market known as La Salada, on charges of "illegal exploitation of public space" and theft, according to a press release from the Buenos Aires Security Ministry.
Police detained 21 individuals, notably including one federal and two provincial police officers, and three of Castillo's family members, La Nación reported. Together the group allegedly controlled three criminal bands within the market: the "Cucos," the "Chaqueños" and the "River." The groups reportedly charged over 8,000 shopkeepers 500 pesos (about $31) a day to rent a space the equivalent of one square meter.
National Security Minister Patricia Bullrich referred to Castillo's criminal network in a tweet as a "parallel state," in which he and an "army" of criminals were able to extort small shopkeepers for exorbitant sums in collusion with local police.
The US Department of Commerce has labeled La Salada one of the "largest black markets in South America," adding that work conditions there can be "slave-like". Originally opened in 1991, the black market is known for the sale of contraband and counterfeit goods at prices up to ten times cheaper than in legal stores.
The Salada enterprise has since escalated into a national phenomenon. Thousands of "saladitas" throughout the country move about $56 billion pesos a year and account for a remarkable 45 percent of domestic trade, according to the Argentine Confederation of Small Businesses (Confederación Argentina de la Mediana Empresa - CAME).
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The fact that Castillo and the criminal networks he headed allegedly worked with police to carry out their extensive extortion operations serves as a reminder of how longstanding corruption in Buenos Aires' law enforcement institutions has facilitated criminal activities in the city.
"There are no mafias that operate in Argentina without police, judicial and political complicity," stated Buenos Aires Security Minister Cristian Ritondo.
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Somewhat ironically, Castillo's networks were extorting businesses that were themselves likely operating on the margins of the law, which could have contributed to the ease with which the extortionists were able to continue bilking shopowners. Rather than shutting down these black market businesses, it appears that police were working hand in hand with criminals to take advantage of them.
The episode is yet another example of the extent of police corruption in Buenos Aires, where the new provincial police chief recently estimated that some 10 percent of the force's roughly 90,000 officers could be corrupt.