Steel coils were used to hide two metric tons of cocaine in Argentina

Authorities believe that the second-largest cocaine seizure in Argentina's history is linked to a Mexican cartel that exploited an unusual trafficking route, suggesting that Argentina's transshipment role is continuing to grow, most likely due to both domestic and international drug-related developments.

Argentina's Federal Police seized two metric tons of cocaine -- the second-largest cocaine seizure in the country's history, worth an estimated $60 million -- in the Bahía Blanca port city of Buenos Aires province on June 19. Another 500 kilograms were seized in the Luján de Cuyo city of Mendoza province close to the Chilean border, according to a Security Ministry press release.

Authorities believe the drugs were smuggled from Chile to the province of Mendoza and on to Buenos Aires. In Bahía Blanca's port, the cocaine -- reportedly destined for Spain and Canada -- was hidden in steel coils to block customs scanners.

Cocaine has traditionally entered Argentina through the country's northern provinces bordering Bolivia, and more recently those along the border with Paraguay.

When asked about this unusual trafficking route, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said, "The hypothesis is that they selected this route because the north is heavily controlled."

Seventeen individuals were arrested as part of the operation, including four Mexican nationals, according to Bullrich. Two others remain at large, reported Clarín. All of the Mexican suspects were reportedly from the state of Michoacán. Three customs officers were also arrested.

"It is possible that the foreigners detained are part of the cartel of Michoacán. We're waiting for Mexico to give us that information," Bullrich said, without specifying which Michoacán-based crime group she was referring to.

InSight Crime Analysis

In recent decades, Argentina has developed from a retirement home for Mexican and Colombian capos to a strategic transit point that offers strong incentives for transcontinental cocaine trafficking. The latest seizure suggests this role is growing, most likely spurred by a combination of the boom in Andean cocaine production in addition to domestic factors.

Argentina's attractiveness as a pleasant retirement home for ex-drug lords may be best illustrated by the spate of Colombian capos captured on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in Nordelta, one of South America's most exclusive neighborhoods, according to Semana. Among them was Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias "Mi Sangre," who in April 2017 described Argentina to Infobae as a "detour corridor" for drugs and a country where government policies facilitate money laundering.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration

However, mounting evidence suggests that Argentina is becoming a primary rather than secondary corridor for cocaine destined to Europe. Argentina's commercial ties with Europe and Asia fuel busy maritime trade activities, which create opportunities to traffic drugs out of the country while also importing precursor chemicals that have long supplied Mexican and Colombian criminal groups making synthetic drugs.

Several factors have contributed to Argentina's growing importance in the international drug trade. First, corruption is widespread, facilitating illicit products' safe transit. Second, laundering drug profits remains relatively easy. Third, Argentina's domestic drug consumption has grown in recent years; local consumption fuels microtrafficking and allows traffickers to pay local contractors with product rather than cash.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

In addition, President Mauricio Macri's economic and security policies may have had undesired consequences. Measures aimed at enhancing exports have increased the flux of goods through ports, making it more difficult to detect illicit cargos, while authorities have focused anti-narcotic efforts on the domestic market, reducing the resources available for dealing with the drug trade's transnational linkages.

"Argentina decided to change its policies against drug trafficking," Lucas Manjon, the director of the investigative unit of the Argentine non-profit Alameda Foundation, told InSight Crime. "If you look at the statistics of illicit products seized [under Macri], there was a considerable increase in decommissions of marijuana and cocaine of very low quality destined for distribution in the country, [but] seizures of cocaine of maximum purity decreased a lot due to nonexistent control in ports and airports," Manjon argued.

Investigations

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