Has Argentina entered the ‘War on Drugs’?

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One of the dangers of the new Argentine government’s anti-drugs measures is that they enable military intervention in matters of domestic security, a path that once taken, is hard to reverse, according to this analysis published by openDemocracy in advance of the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drug Policy.

December 2015 brought a change of government to Argentina. Since the election campaign, the new authorities have declared drug trafficking to be the most severe problem affecting the country. They have stirred up arguments rooted in fear – the dangers of becoming another ‘Colombia’ or ‘Mexico’ – but without offering any definite diagnosis as to the forms of drug trafficking or the magnitude of its impact on Argentine society.

This article originally appeared in openDemocracy in a collaboration with Argentine human rights organization CELS. It was edited for clarity and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version here.

Upon taking power, the current government carried on with its escalating discourse, referring to a ‘paradigm shift’ in drug policy. The measures announced show a realignment of the country on the map of world debate with regard to drug-related problems and drug trafficking. The previous government had implemented vacillating policies, which combined support for progressive-minded positions in international arenas with erratic measures on the domestic front. The new administration seems to have begun to address these inconsistencies in the worst way, marking Argentina’s entry into the ‘War on Drugs’.

Internationally, the economic, institutional and humanitarian consequences of this ‘war’ have mobilized an increasingly important bloc of actors who assert the need to abandon this paradigm and explore new forms of state regulation of these markets, along with policies that apply the perspective of harm reduction when it comes to problems of violence, instead of inciting yet more of it through the criminal justice system and militarization.

In regional and international debates before 2015, Argentina stood by the countries that advocated further discussion of the effectiveness of the ‘War on Drugs’ paradigm. The new government has begun to abandon that position, through regulatory decisions and an ever more explicit rapprochement with the United States, the main proponent of the war-like approach to drugs. At the same time, domestically, a fear campaign built around the growing problem of drug trafficking over the past two years has silenced incipient debates on the decriminalization of consumption.

SEE ALSO: Drug Policy

Argentine academics and experts on drugs, members of the “Grupo Convergencia”, published a document in 2015, “Drugs: a debate initiative” (Drogas: una initiative para el debate), in which they point out: “At present, Argentina does not have a comprehensive diagnosis of the drug phenomenon. By comprehensive diagnosis, we mean the existence and availability at all state levels of exhaustive, systematic and updated institutional knowledge of the drug phenomenon. This is not the case in our country where, unfortunately, presumption, intuition and improvisation have prevailed.”

But what is known for certain is that in recent years, the policies deployed against drug trafficking, by way of action or omission, have conspired to strengthen two of the most negative aspects associated with criminal networks, and not exclusively in the case of drug trafficking: institutional penetration, or the collusion or involvement of public, judicial and police officials in these networks; and the cycle of violence in poor neighborhoods. The new authorities have not included these issues among their priorities.

‘New threats’ as justification for military intervention

One of the main risks of the new approach being adopted in Argentina is that it opens the door to military intervention in matters of domestic security, a path that once taken, is hard to reverse.

The examples of Mexico and Colombia are extreme cases that nevertheless highlight the fact that direct intervention by the armed forces in actions against drug trafficking or other forms of crime has grave consequences in terms of increased violence, massive human rights violations, and the de-professionalization and corruption of military structures. At the same time, progress toward the dismantling of markets and criminal organizations has been little to none.

In contrast to various other countries in the region, in Argentina, the distinction between domestic security and foreign defense has been upheld since the return of democracy in 1983, although during the 1990s there were attempts to involve the armed forces in the fight against drug trafficking. Military resources were mobilized as of 2013 to provide logistical support to border control.

SEE ALSO: Legalization – the Gorilla in the Room

The new government took a qualitative leap in this same direction: on 22 January 2016, a presidential decree declared a “security emergency” for the entire country. Among other things, the decree characterizes drug trafficking as a “threat to national sovereignty” in that it is a crime that may have transnational connections, even when other transnational crimes do not receive the same treatment. This places drug trafficking in a grey area somewhere between the police function of domestic security and the armed forces’ function of defense. The decree thus brings about a substantive change in that it authorizes direct intervention by the military to shoot down planes that resist identification or cannot be identified.

The measure also implies explicit alignment with the doctrine of ‘new threats’ and, more generally, with the areas of work envisioned by different US agencies that advocate the armed forces’ participation in internal security. This approach can be observed, for example, in the appointment of a former head of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police’s Drug Division as the new chief for the entire provincial police force, the largest in the country. According to news reports, he was recommended by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It can also be seen in the trip that Security Minister Patricia Bullrich made, along with other officials, to the United States at the end of February. There they met with officials from the US Department of State, the DEA and FBI, among others, for technical advice on interventions and weapons.

(As InSight Crime reported at the time, Argentine and US officials signed series of bilateral security cooperation agreements on March 23 ahead of US President Barack Obama’s two-day visit to the country.)

Other forms of militarization

16-04-15DrugPolicyACLUWEBAnother regional trend indicates that the fight against organized crime has served as an alibi for other forms of militarization of domestic security. The adoption by police and other security forces of military equipment and tactics is one example. This phenomenon has reached the United States, where the federal government equipped police with weapons, vehicles and other items used by the military in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trained their security forces in military tactics. All this hardware has been used in the context of the war on drugs, essentially against the black population, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing”.

This militarization of the police exceeds the matter of the war on drugs and has consequences for fundamental aspects of democratic life, such as the right to protest. The episodes in Ferguson, Missouri showed the world how military uniforms, weapons and vehicles are used as part of extremely aggressive tactics to control and repress public protests and unrest.

In Latin America, this phenomenon builds on historic patterns of police militarization, inherited mainly from the dictatorships, but also combined with seemingly contradictory trends, such as neighborhood or community policing. These forces, at least on paper, should adopt methods of action that insert police into communities and move away from militarized models of territorial control.

Lack of oversight of police and judicial institutions

In the case of Argentina, the militarization of domestic security in any aspect is an ineffective and disproportionate recipe for taking on the key problems associated with the activities of criminal networks, foremost of which is collusion on the part of different state agencies.

Institutional penetration is far below the levels seen in so-called ‘narco-states’; however, it is a phenomenon that allows different criminal networks to persist. Recent cases confirm this, such as the lawsuits brought against judicial officials or the scandals caused by police and politicians’ involvement in drug-trafficking networks.

The measures taken to date by the new government suggest that the official position is that the weaknesses in prosecuting criminal networks are quantitative rather than qualitative. Therefore, more resources have been announced for the judicial branch, and new tribunals opened to alleviate the work of courts clogged with minor cases, but there has been no assessment of the structural problems in the justice system or the police forces that impede effective prosecution of the big players in drug trafficking and other illegal businesses.

Some measures cast doubt on the true intentions of the government’s fight against drug trafficking. For example, lawyers who defend companies and banks accused of laundering funds have been appointed to key positions in the government’s Financial Information Unit (La Unidad de Información Financiera — UIF), in charge of fighter money laundering.

Dangers of the new direction

In the same way that prohibition leaves the market in the hands of drug traffickers, the war on drugs leaves the 16-04-15DrugPolicyReptWEBproblem fundamentally in the hands of violent and corrupt police forces, and opens the possibility of military intervention. The new and announced anti-trafficking policies impact institutional quality and the quality of life of the poorest people just as criminal networks do. These policies are not aimed at the core of institutional collusion that allows these networks to exist. The real problems of violence in some areas thus remain hidden under the guise of an indefinite threat.

In this context, the prohibitionist paradigm is not being discussed, leaving debates to focus rather on how much to intensify punitive interventions against the narcos, minor dealers, traffickers, micro-traffickers and even consumers. This type of focus has proven to be ineffective in its objectives – which are the reduction of consumption and trafficking – whereas its negative impact on the spread of violence and on human rights has been documented throughout the region, as can be seen in this report compiled by 17 organizations, “The Impact of Drug Policy on Human Rights: The Experience in the Americas.” (pdf)

Under a state of emergency and in a climate of fear-mongering, the problems associated with drug trafficking and drugs get muddled. They end up outside of the political debate, as part of a seemingly indisputable consensus that dictates the toughening of the criminal justice system, bolstering of police and, eventually, military intervention. The spaces for other voices to be heard are narrowing, voices that contend that there cannot be effective policies against organized crime without deep reforms of the police and security systems, and that the ‘drug problem’ should be approached from a standpoint of harm and violence reduction that tackles the mafia-like ways of regulating these markets that prohibition merely foments.

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