Despite Argentina’s prominent role as a money laundering center and as a drug transit and consumption point, the country does not suffer from the high levels of violence that affect other Latin American nations. Still, deep-rooted corruption in various branches of government has helped fuel persistent criminality in South America’s second-largest country.
Argentina does not appear to have many homegrown crime groups with international reach, but transnational criminal organizations have long conducted various types of illicit activities in the country. Moreover, there are indications that domestic crime groups — though still relatively small-scale — have developed ties with transnational actors, and may be increasing in sophistication and capacity for violence.
Argentina is the second-largest country in South America after Brazil. Its borders are poorly patrolled, allowing drugs, arms and other illicit goods to move into and through the country with relative ease.
Cocaine is trafficked from Argentina’s northern neighbor, Bolivia, by air and by land. Marijuana and cocaine are trafficked over the northeastern border with Paraguay primarily by river and to a lesser extent by air. Argentina’s roughly 1,000-kilometer eastern border with Brazil is also quite porous and has been associated with arms trafficking. Smuggling of people and illicit goods occurs in both directions over Argentina’s 10,000-kilometer western border with Chile.
More than 5,300 kilometers of Atlantic coastline to the southeast is home to numerous important ports, like that of the capital Buenos Aires, through which significant amounts of illicit goods flow both to and from international markets.
In the century after gaining independence from Spain in 1816, Argentina rose to become one of the world’s wealthiest and most highly developed countries.
During much of the early 20th century, Argentina paid little attention to organized crime, as the country was beset by a series of coups, military dictatorships and recurrent outbreaks of political violence that dominated the security agenda.
A 1976 coup led to Argentina’s last period of military dictatorship, which ended in 1983. The dictatorship-era government focused security resources on repressing political opposition, leaving space for organized crime to quietly take root in various forms.
Argentina’s domestic market for drugs began to expand in the 1970s, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, police in urban areas colluded with organized crime by establishing “liberated zones” — areas where law enforcement allowed crime groups to operate in exchange for a cut of their illicit profits. This practice reportedly continues to this day, and facilitates the growth of retail drug distribution networks.
Argentina passed a law in 1989 penalizing the use and sale of drugs, and the issue of drug trafficking took on greater significance in the eyes of the public and the state during the 1990s. In 1997, authorities in Buenos Aires seized 2.2 metric tons of cocaine that Colombia’s Cali Cartel was poised to ship through the country to the German port of Hamburg. Two years later, Argentines were rocked by news that the late Pablo Escobar’s wife and his children had been secretly residing in their country and were suspected of laundering part of the drug lord’s criminal proceeds there. Also in 1999, Argentina produced its first official drug consumption survey, which showed considerably high usage rates for cocaine and marijuana.
Concerns about the drug trade continued to grow during the 2000s. Cocaine production in Colombia reached levels high enough to sustain US demand, meaning cocaine produced in Peru and Bolivia began to be increasingly diverted to the European market. Due to its geographic location and strong trade ties with European countries, Argentina became one of the key transit and launching points for Andean drugs headed across the Atlantic.
With more cocaine flowing through Argentina, authorities began to also uncover drug processing laboratories for the first time. The introduction of partially refined cocaine paste into Argentina, combined with economic factors including Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, contributed throughout the 2000s to the increased consumption of “paco,” a highly addictive and harmful derivative of cocaine paste.
One factor that made Argentina an attractive location for processing drugs was its chemical industry, which supported robust petroleum and pharmaceutical sectors. Relatively inexpensive gasoline — a key ingredient in processing cocaine — and the availability of restricted precursor chemicals began to spawn not only cocaine processing labs but also illicit operations aimed at producing synthetic drugs. However, demand for such drugs in Argentina grew beyond the ability of domestic producers to meet it, and European suppliers have stepped in to fill the gap.
Criminal networks in the early 2000s also capitalized on Argentina’s chemical industry to siphon off precursor products for sale in the regional black market — in particular ephedrine and pseudoephedrine used in the production of methamphetamine in Mexico, and imported from Asia under the cover of Argentina’s pharmaceutical industry needs. Between 2004 and 2008, Argentina imported some 48 metric tons of ephedrine, 41 tons of which are thought to have been diverted to the illegal drug production market. Although precursor trafficking from Argentina has dropped considerably since 2008 due to tightened regulations and decreased demand, it has not entirely disappeared.
The 2000s also saw Argentina’s role as a money laundering center continue to develop. A leaked 2009 cable from the US State Department described Argentina as being “ripe for exploitation” by criminal interests due to what it described as “near complete absence of enforcement coupled with a culture of impunity and corruption.” In 2010, the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering group, strongly criticized Argentina’s anti-money laundering regime and added it to a “gray list” as a warning to make improvements. The task force removed Argentina from the gray list in 2014 after it bolstered its efforts on money laundering, and the issue remains a priority for officials today.
Due to the combination of poorly policed borders and a relatively high standard of living, during the late 2000s, Argentina also became a regional hub for human smuggling and trafficking. The country passed a law against human trafficking in 2008, and saw a sharp jump in the number of victims rescued and charges filed against traffickers in subsequent years. But despite these efforts, the problem is far from eradicated.
The same qualities that made Argentina a human trafficking hub also made it an attractive hideout for foreign criminals. (Opportunities for laundering money and buying protection from crooked local officials also served as an incentive). For example, crime boss Henry de Jesús López, alias “Mi Sangre,” was arrested in 2012 in Buenos Aires, where authorities said he had been living for two years, traveling throughout the region frequently and posing as a Venezuelan businessman.
In addition to using Argentina as a refuge, foreign crime groups began deepening their presence there during the 2010s. Authorities uncovered operations of Mexican, Colombian and other foreign groups, which were linked to growing violence surrounding Argentina’s drug trade at that time.
During the early 2010s, domestic criminal organizations also grew bolder, more sophisticated and more violent. One of the groups most emblematic of this new generation of Argentine organized crime was the Monos, a gang based in the drug thoroughfare of Rosario. An internal feud in the family-based group started in 2012, sparking a years-long bloodbath that turned the city into the poster child for rising drug trade-related violence across the country.
Under heavy public pressure, authorities resisted resorting to militarized policies but sent mixed messages about how they planned to deal with the growing problem. Violence by drug gangs was on the rise, and domestic crime groups were diversifying their portfolios and branching out into activities like kidnapping. On top of this, corruption continued to plague many levels of government, the judicial system and law enforcement.
Data collection was spotty under the governments of Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who served consecutively as president from 2003 to 2007 and from 2007 to 2015, respectively. But despite — or perhaps because of — a lack of hard data, broad perceptions of rising violence and drug addiction associated with organized crime helped law-and-order candidate Mauricio Macri win Argentina’s 2015 presidential election.
Macri’s inauguration signaled important changes in Argentina’s security and drug policies, as the new administration moved swiftly to implement toughened security policies — some of which were criticized for their militarized tint.
In its first months in office, Macri’s government launched operations against Chinese mafia groups, soccer gangs known as “barras bravas” and key players in the domestic drug trade. The administration also put more emphasis on gathering data and intelligence to inform policymaking in the security realm, and took some initial steps to start treating drug use as a public health issue rather than as a criminal one.
However, the Macri administration’s victories so far have been short-term, and there is plentiful evidence that both international and domestic crime groups have adapted to continue to operate sophisticated and lucrative criminal schemes of various kinds.
A major reason for the persistence of organized crime in Argentina is deeply embedded corruption. Criminal organizations throughout the country have built strong relationships with top local officials, and inefficiency and corruption in the judicial system have contributed to impunity in many cases. There are some encouraging early signs that authorities are beginning to address this problem more seriously, but Macri’s administration has failed to fulfill a number of its more progressive promises on this front. Moreover, given previous experiences with militarization in the region, as well as Argentina’s dark history of police abuse, legitimate concerns remain as to Macri’s more heavy-handed policy preferences.
There is little evidence of domestic criminal groups in Argentina with a national or international reach. However, there are some powerful local crime groups like the Rosario-based Monos, which are often structured around family ties. Such groups have succeeded in infiltrating various security and political institutions, thwarting justice for long periods of time while yielding strong control over certain neighborhoods.
Soccer gangs known as barras bravas are known to engage in a variety of criminal activities, and certain powerful trade unions have also developed criminal portfolios. Organized crime groups described as “Chinese mafia” have sprung up in Asian immigrant communities in Argentina, and reportedly have ties to larger structures in China.
Transnational crime groups based in other South American countries also operate in Argentina, as do Mexican groups like the Sinaloa Cartel, cooperating in many cases with locally based counterparts. Experts believe Brazil’s biggest gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital -PCC) has set its sights on expanding its presence in Argentina.
Argentina’s police forces have the leading role in combating crime. According to the United Nations, as of 2015, the country had a total of nearly 350,000 police — a rate of more than 800 police per 100,000 citizens, the highest such ratio of any country in the region.
The federal security ministry oversees nationally deployed forces including the Airport Security Police (Policía de Seguridad Aeroportuaria), the Coast Guard (Prefectura Naval), the Federal Police and the Gendarmerie.
Additionally, Argentina’s provinces and municipalities have their own police forces, many of which struggle with deep corruption. For instance, the Buenos Aires provincial police, known as the “bonaerense,” is often described as a “mafia” associated with abuses of authority and collusion with criminal elements. Police in border regions have also repeatedly been accused of colluding with traffickers and other criminals.
Like its security forces, Argentina’s justice system is divided between federal and provincial entities. The federal Supreme Court is the country’s highest judicial authority. Below it are appellate, district and territorial courts. Each province has its own Supreme Court as well as various lower courts.
The World Economic Forum’s 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Argentina 121 out of 138 countries with regard to the judiciary’s independence. Political interference in judicial proceedings is common, especially in cases involving elite interests.
Argentina’s prison system operates slightly over capacity, and overcrowding is worse in some institutions than in others. More than half of the country’s roughly 69,000 prisoners are held in pretrial detention, meaning they have not been convicted.
Drug laws have been a major driver of sharp increases in Argentina’s prison population in recent years. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that punishing personal drug consumption violated Article 19 of Argentina’s Constitution, which protects people’s privacy. And the anti-drug law was updated in 2016 to soften punishment for personal drug use when it “does not affect other people,” though it did not go as far as decriminalizing personal consumption. Despite a number of legislative proposals regarding this issue, drug crimes remain the second-most common reason for incarceration in Argentina.