In the town of Salvador Mazza, northern Argentina, drug traffickers cross the nearby border with Bolivia with ease, reportedly bringing in between 80 and 90 percent of the country’s cocaine. Clarin investigates how these networks are able to operate.
The authorities in Salvador Mazza, in the state of Salta, are undermanned, to the point that in some cases they have been ambushed and killed by criminal groups. Imported cars are regularly stolen, to be traded across the border in Bolivia for cocaine. The unmanageable flow of people and goods in this border region provides the perfect cover for the many forms of cocaine trafficking, ranging from mules who swallow the drug to larger shipments brought over in lorries.
Argentine newspaper Clarin recently travelled to the region to investigate. The following is InSight Crime’s translation of extracts from Clarin’s report on organized crime in the border region in northern Salta: “Salvador Mazza – Journey to the Entry Point of Argentina’s Cocaine“:
The guide, armed, moves along with all his senses alert. Behind him, Clarin’s reporters walk through the sandy terrain of the land border in Salta, a path between Bolivia and Argentina. If one walks a few steps to the right, it is Argentine territory; if one walks a few steps to the left, it is Bolivian. “In case people with backpacks appear from the mountain, run, because they are traffickers and usually end up shooting at the gendarmes,” informs the local guide, cocking his pistol.
It is the city limit of Salvador Mazza, in Salta, bordering the Bolivian locality of Pocitos [in the city of Yacuiba]: the territory used by drug traffickers to get drugs into the country. Local judicial sources say that through here passes between 80 and 90 percent of the cocaine that circulates through Argentina.
In Salvador Mazza there live about 27,000 people. According to judicial investigations, among them are at least 10 bands dedicated to cocaine trafficking, each one made up of some 40 men. The drug bosses may dictate operations from Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. But those who move [the cocaine] are here.
To a “pasador” — as they call those who bring the drugs across the border, most of them people who are unemployed or under the poverty line — they pay between 200 and 300 pesos [about $45] per kilo of cocaine that enters the country. The trafficking method varies according to quantity. To bring in between one and two kilos, they use “vagineras” (women who place a condom full of cocaine in their vaginas); the “encapsulados” (those who swallow and carry it in their stomachs) and the people who stick it to certain parts of their body in bags. If there are between five and 50 kilos, they put it in backpacks to cross the mountains along the border, either on foot, on donkeys, or on motorcycles. More than 50 kilos they traffic it in cars, in the door panels or seats. When they are dealing with more than 80 kilos, they hide them in vans with fake floors in the back. And for more than 300 kilos, they hide the cocaine in lorries loaded with wood, coal, or furniture. The rest crosses in airplanes.
On occasion, when they move important shipments, they use cars guarded by armed men. They are not afraid of the law, but the “mexicanized” members of rival drug trafficking groups.
To get an idea of the volume, you only need to look at all the drug investigations that arrive at the federal court in the town of Oran, Salta, under Raul Reynoso; in seven and a half years they have opened more than 19,000 cases.
The forty kilometers of land border are controlled by some 350 men from the Gendarmerie’s 54th Squadron. But sources from Salta’s prosecutor’s office say that to properly guard the zone double the manpower is needed.
The work in the area is not easy. Through the border crossing pass some 10,000 people and around 300 trucks a day. There, the controls are lax.
If one crosses on foot, documents are not even required.
Nearby is the most dangerous neighborhood of Salvador Mazza, “Sector Five.” It is accessed via a wooden suspension bridge or a steep slope. The people from the area try to avoid it if they can.
“Sector Five” is literally connected to the Bolivian neighborhood of “Africa,” the most feared place in Pocitos. Drugs cross from backyard to backyard, from hand to hand.
[Sector 5] looks like a deserted city. Once in a while, somebody passes through on a motorcycle, looking around suspiciously. Almost nobody travels by foot.
“Many imported vehicles stolen in Argentina are brought into Bolivia through ‘Sector 5.’ They are traded for drugs, which work like money here. A car that costs about $40,000 dollars on the legal market can be traded in ‘Africa’ for some $7,000,000 in cocaine. For this reason it is dangerous to drive imported trucks in border zones. In just one year 18 Toyota 4×4 pickup trucks were stolen in northern Salta. Some owners ended up getting shot,” a judicial source told Clarin.
On the other side of the border, in Pocitos, the view is very different. Just across from the border crossing are street stalls that sell clothing, CDs, cellular phones, toys, and electronic equipment. Just in front of the local police station are the “trees” that change money. As dollars can be changed for more than seven pesos here [the current exchange rate is one dollar to 4.5 pesos], many Argentines cross there to change money.
During the tour of Pocitos, Clarin tried to enter “Africa.” But just 100 meters from the entrance a man appeared who, in silence, began to follow the reporters. Then, another two youths left from a bar who, with their eyes alone, made it clear that it was time to leave.
From there, Clarin went up to the strip of land that divides Argentina and Bolivia. The journey started at the height of the former Belgrano Cargas railroad tracks and went on to the area of El Chorro, where in 1998 two gendarmes were captured by drug traffickers to later be executed in “Sector 5.” There, many farms back up to the creek and have their own path to cross over to Pocitos. The same happens in Bolivian territory, where there are no security forces to be seen directly guarding the border.
Many drug traffickers pass from the yard of a house in Bolivia to the back of a farm in Argentina in seconds. In the areas where there are no residences, the mountains are very lush and it is very easy to hide oneself to pass from one country to another without being detected. Drugs pass every day, at every hour, to begin their inexorable march toward the great consumption centers.