To slow the spread of the coronavirus, Argentina — a transshipment point and growing consumer market for illegal drugs — has shut down its borders, instituted a mandatory quarantine, and sent authorities into the streets and highways.
But crime organizations, experts say, are already adapting. Here are three ways the coronavirus pandemic is changing the criminal landscape in this South American country, which could serve as a bellwether for the rest of Latin America.
1. Less Drugs Through Closed Borders?
In the past several years, Argentina has increasingly become a hub for cocaine and other drugs. Massive quantities of marijuana enter the country through its long northeastern border with Paraguay — Latin America’s top producer of illegal cannabis. The northern province of Salta serves as a gateway for cocaine.
But with its borders currently shut to most transit and commerce, and national highways dotted with security checkpoints, crime groups have been forced to double down on clandestine crossings, said Carolina Sampó, coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (Centro de Estudios Sobre Crimen Organizado Transnacional — CeCOT) at the University of La Plata, Argentina.
“Crime groups will find it harder to move drugs internally as authorities have stepped up controls everywhere,” Sampó told InSight Crime.
“In terms of international trafficking, this could mean that organizations need to turn to private ports with more frequency, for example, although you are still going to have more controls than before,” Sampó said.
2. Drug Prices Go Up
Argentina is also home to a growing consumer market, particularly for cocaine, marijuana and synthetic drugs.
Fewer drugs moving into the country has led to a surge in street prices. Germán de los Santos, a journalist and investigator, told InSight Crime that police have reported that cocaine prices have increased by 70 percent and marijuana prices have doubled.
“Marijuana is particularly expensive now. I suspect that because of the volume it is harder to transport,” he said.
Local drug gangs must also contend with the quarantine’s transport restrictions.
In Rosario, home to the powerful Los Monos clan, illegal private taxis have been used to move drugs throughout the port city, de los Santos said. At a stash house, the taxis received between 150 and 200 grams of cocaine each a day, which was then distributed to motorcyclists who dropped off the drugs door-to-door, he said.
To skirt authorities, traffickers are also likely relying on food and other delivery services, which are considered essential, Clarín reported.
3. Drug Abuse and Violence
The pandemic has clearly increased anxiety among drug consumers, Carlos Damin, the chief of toxicology at the Fernández Hospital in Buenos Aires told Clarín.
“We know that some people are not using as they have had problems in accessing cocaine or crack. But we also know that some are still consuming, so there is a way drugs are getting to them,” he said.
Violence has dropped in cities like Rosario, which has long seen bloody confrontations over the control of drug movements, including in early 2020. The peace lasting may depend on whether traffickers can still filter drugs into the country.
Recent violence in prisons has occurred after visits were banned and, with them, the flow of drugs.
Poorer neighborhoods are also beginning to see a change, de los Santos said, with social leaders reporting that alcohol consumption has increased. Abuse of substances seldom seen since the 2001 economic crisis, such as glue, has also returned.
“As soon as the drugs that already in Argentina run out, that’s when tensions will arise again,” he said.