A provincial Argentine police chief accused of ties to drug trafficking was released from prison by a judge, in a case now feeding into a wider political battle over who bears responsibility for the country’s increased struggles with organized crime.
Hugo Tognoli, the former police commissioner of Argentina’s central province of Santa Fe — about 400 kilometers from Buenos Aires — was set free after a federal judge ruled there was “insufficient evidence” to continue holding him in prison. However, the judge did not drop the criminal charges against Tognoli.
As previously reported by InSight Crime, Tognoli is accused of taking bribes from local drug traffickers in the province, in exchange for allowing them to operate with impunity. Prosecutors say there are two central pieces of evidence in the case against Tognoli, both dating from 2009. One was the alleged record of a text message, in which a local police officer wrote that in order to be granted permission to sell cocaine in a brothel, 30,000 pesos per month (about $6,300) had to be paid directly to Tognoli. Federal prosecutors also said they had evidence that Tognoli consulted the government registry of motorized vehicles, in order to give a local drug trafficker the license plate numbers of the undercover police vehicles secretly following him.
The defense argued that Tognoli did not have the password needed to consult the government registry, and that the alleged text message was invalid circumstantial evidence. The federal judge handling the case in Rosario appeared to agree, and ordered that Tognoli be released November 6.
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As Clarin reports, the case is already becoming less about alleged ties between the drug trade and the security forces, and more about political tensions between the government and opposition party the Socialist Party, which governs Santa Fe. Tognoli has denied the charges against him and has also made reference to this wider political battle, calling himself a “political prisoner.”
Part of the debate appears linked to who is doing more to stem the growth of drug trafficking and organized crime in Argentina: federal or provincial forces. The governor of Santa Fe complained publicly that federal forces never informed provincial authorities that the investigation was taking place to which the government’s deputy minister of security responded that the case against Tognoli needed to be kept secret, and that it was the responsibility of the federal forces to take the lead in the fight against drug trafficking.
The governor of Santa Fe has said that during the first nine months of 2012, provincial police carried out 1,100 operations against drug trafficking in the province, resulting in 104 arrests, compared to federal forces who carried out 10 operations with 20 arrests int he province.
The other larger issue is the apparent growth of the cocaine trade inside Argentina, and the increased risk that public officials may be corrupted by the industry. Customs officials have reported seizing 40 percent more cocaine inside the country compared to the same period last year, pointing to Argentina’s growing profile as a drug trafficking hub. Colombian drug traffickers are also reportedly increasingly using the Southern Cone nation as a refuge: one drug lord, Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias “Mi Sangre,” head of Colombian gang the Urabeños, was arrested in Buenos Aires last week.