Amid Growing Role in Drug Trade, Argentina Sees Spike In Kidnappings

Kidnapping appears to be increasing in Argentina amidst a crime wave that could be a side effect of the country’s growing domestic drug market and role as a drug transit nation. 

According to statistics from the Attorney General’s Office accessed by La Nacion, 696 kidnappings were reported in Argentina between January 1 and September 30 this year. Of these, 201 — just under 29 percent — occurred in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.

 

 

The majority of the kidnapping victims were chosen randomly and held hostage in vehicles rather than in safe houses, reported La Nacion. Express kidnappings in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area often start out as vehicle robberies, then morph into kidnappings if the driver is perceived as being wealthy. In one prominent case in July, the father of professional soccer player Carlos Tevez was kidnapped for five hours after a criminal group attempted to steal his vehicle and realized who he was. According to La Nacion, only a small number of kidnappings involve a criminal group that is deliberately targeting a specific individual.

Some of the kidnapping groups that operate in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area employ sophisticated tactics, such as listening to police radio frequencies and taking precautions to keep their calls from being traced. Groups also transfer victims from one vehicle to another and keep them in constant movement to reduce the probability that security forces will be able to locate them.

In addition to demanding cash ransoms, there have also been reports of kidnapping groups asking for weapons in exchange for a hostage’s release. In some cases, the groups also force the victim to drive to his or her home so they can steal cash and valuables.

Although the majority of the kidnappings reported in the 2014 figures are likely extortive kidnappings, the Attorney General’s Office cautioned  that some may be cases of “virtual” kidnappings — in which a perpetrator calls up a victim and pretends to have kidnapped his or her family member — mistakenly reported as extortive. As of May 2014, police were registering around 200 cases of virtual kidnappings a week in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area. 

There have also been cases of virtual kidnappers using technology to make their claims seem more believable. Perpetrators have hacked into social media accounts or cell phones, and impersonated the “victim” in order to convince family and friends that a kidnapping has actually taken place.

InSight Crime Analysis

The high number of kidnappings in Argentina could be related to the country’s booming domestic drug market and increasing role as a transit nation for drug shipments. Both of these factors have contributed to the rise of local criminal groups. In some cases, these gangs started out in the local drug trade, before moving into other criminal activities like extortion, money laundering, targeted assassinations — and perhaps now kidnappings. 

Elsewhere in Latin America, Mexico has seen a similar pattern emerge. Last year, the country recorded its highest number of kidnappings ever — 1,698 — amid widespread drug war violence. This is partly due to the fragmentation of the larger drug cartels: the resulting splinter groups tend to look to other activities, like kidnapping, to earn funds, if they are no longer able to depend on transnational drug trafficking. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Argentina

Although Argentina’s Attorney General’s Office does not publish kidnapping statistics, the frequency of the crime does appear to be increasing in comparison with recent years. According to La Nacion, Buenos Aires saw 43 kidnappings reported in 2011, 31 in 2012, and 51 in 2013, compared to 70 cases investigated by federal prosecutors in the city and a total of 201 in the metropolitan area in just the first nine months of this year. In addition, a 2013 United Nations report on citizen security identifies Argentina as one of four countries in Latin America with the highest kidnapping rates.

According to the US State Department, long-term kidnappings are rare in Argentina compared to express kidnappings. These are more common in the southern part of the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, while long-term kidnappings with higher ransoms are more typical further north.

There may be other factors besides organized crime dynamics that have led to more kidnappings in Argentina. According to a security consultancy in Buenos Aires, middle-class victims have become more of a target for kidnappers following regulations limiting cash withdrawals, and a widespread distrust of banks that has led to a tendency to store large sums of cash in houses and apartments.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Kidnapping

Unlike in Mexico and Colombia, where kidnappings are often carried out by drug cartels and illegal armed groups, the criminal groups behind kidnappings in Argentina appear to be much smaller and less sophisticated. According to the book Kidnapping in Latin America, many kidnapping groups in Argentina started out in robberies, then moved on to kidnapping in the early 2000s.

These groups often had ties to corrupt security forces, and police were implicated in several prominent kidnapping cases in the early 2000s, including three in which the victim was later found dead. The alleged collusion of security forces with kidnapping gangs eventually prompted former President Nestor Kirchner, who was elected in 2003, to order a review of the police force in the province of Buenos Aires.