Argentina’s Corrupt Federal Police: A Few Bad Apples?

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The arrest of the federal police chief in Argentina’s strategically located province of Santa Fe on drug trafficking charges has forced authorities to once again deny that corruption is endemic among security forces, blaming only a “few bad apples.”

Marcelo Lepwalts was arrested on May 9 along with five other officers, Argentina’s Police Commissioner Néstor Roncaglia told journalists.

The officers are facing drug trafficking charges after investigators found nearly 100 small bags of cocaine in their offices and large sums of cash in their homes.

According to the official investigation, the police officers had kept the drugs after confiscating them from a local drug dealer.

“We have confirmed the relationship between members of the force and drug traffickers in a number of illegal operations,” Roncaglia said.

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This is not the first time federal police officers have been accused of corruption.

Earlier this year, six officers were sentenced to prison for stealing and reselling confiscated contraband goods in the northern province of Salta.

In 2017, an investigation was opened against the former chief of federal police in Buenos Aires. He was questioned on corruption charges and accused of running an extortion racket that demanded payments from local businesses in exchange for security, Perfil reported.

A year earlier, five officers working in Buenos Aires were arrested on corruption charges, reported TN. They were also accused of extorting local business owners.

Authorities claim corruption in the Federal Police is unusual.

Argentina’s Police Commissioner Néstor Roncaglia said in a recent interview that “we are not all the same, (corruption) is not institutional.”

Argentina’s federal police is the most important security force in the country. With nearly 30,000 members, it has a presence in all provinces. Its main task is to police federal crimes, including drug and people trafficking and money laundering.

InSight Crime Analysis

Accusations of corruption against Argentina’s security forces are hardly new. But as opposed to the case of the Buenos Aires police force which is often in the public eye, stories about federal agents are not as publicized.

Does this mean they are less corrupt? Analysts say no.

For many years, experts have said criminal organizations cannot operate without some degree of collusion with the security forces, particularly when it comes to transporting drugs and other illegal goods through areas with police presence.

“The higher cost for drug traffickers is transportation because they have to pay off corrupt security forces. There’s no drug trafficking without security forces,” said Daniel Otero, an investigative journalist who has written extensively about the issue.

“The difference between the police of Buenos Aires and Argentina’s Federal Police is that the first force interacts with small-time drug traffickers and the second force deals with the larger organizations, the most powerful ones,” he explained.

Otero says the federal police is more “sophisticated” in the ways it involves itself with criminal organizations, explaining why few public scandals affect the force.

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Officials from the administration of President Mauricio Macri, which came to power on a strong anti-corruption platform and vowing to prioritize the fight against organized crime, say they are taking more steps than ever to identify and punish these cases.

In April 2018, for example, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich announced increased protections for officers willing to provide information about corruption and cases of collusion with criminal organizations within the force.

Under the system, whistleblowers will receive more protection when reporting abuses and crimes.

“We receive an average of between three to four anonymous reports each day and every day more officers trust the system,” an official in charge of the security forces’ anti-corruption department told Infobae.

These official programs are a positive step but tend to focus on individual cases of corruption and wrongdoing. Although this would be a titanic undertaking, unless the structures that allow corruption within the security forces are effectively dismantled, criminal organizations will continue to benefit.

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