Four years after coming to power, Argentina President Mauricio Macri exits with mixed reviews on his security policies and efforts against organized crime.
The Macri administration scored some wins: improving data collection, lowering homicide rates, increasing seizures of drugs and illegal assets, and taking steps to tackle corruption within the security forces. But the expansion of Argentina’s domestic drug markets, and the mass arrests aimed at curbing them, raise some important questions.
Data, Drugs and Prisons
Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015 on an anti-corruption platform and made the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking one of his top priorities.
Among the most notable improvements over the last few years is the systematic collection of data, something previous administrations were criticized for neglecting.
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In 2017, the Secretariat for Integrative Drug Policies (Secretaría de Políticas Integrales sobre Drogas – SEDRONAR) published, for the first time in nearly a decade, a detailed report on drug consumption across the country.
The study revealed a steep rise in the consumption of cocaine and marijuana, particularly among young people. Data from SEDRONAR also pointed to the rise in local synthetic drug markets, with ecstasy consumption increasing by 200 percent over the last decade.
With data confirming long-held theories of Argentina going from being a transshipment country to one of internal consumption and production, authorities focused their energy and resources on carrying out arrests and drug seizures.
By its third year, the Macri administration touted its arrest and seizure records.
Between 2015 and 2018, federal security forces arrested more than 64,000 people in nearly 60,000 counter-narcotics operations, according to official figures published by Perfil.
Authorities also reported that the amount of cocaine seized doubled between 2015 and 2018. During the same period, marijuana seizures increased 26 percent. Synthetic drug seizures shot up 144 percent.
Government officials told InSight Crime that the vast majority of drugs taken in by authorities were destined for the domestic market.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich told Congress in October 2018 that one third of Argentina’s drug arrests in 2017 were linked to personal use.
Drug-related crimes, including consumption and trafficking on a small and large scale, are the second most common cause of incarceration across Argentina, according to official data. These crimes, usually nonviolent, have increased at a higher rate than any other since Macri took office.
Women have been particularly affected by the spike in drug arrests. The female prison population in Argentina has doubled over the last decade, growing at a faster rate than men, according to the Prison Ombudsman’s National Office (Procuraduría Nacional de Prisiones). The vast majority of women are being held for nonviolent drug-related crimes.
Martín Verrier, an anti-narcotics official in the country’s National Security Ministry, told InSight Crime in June that the strategy was to work “from the bottom up.”
“Look at who provides drugs to the small-time seller, and that way, get to the larger organizations,” he explained.
Mariano Fusero, President of Reset, an organization that studies drug policies in Argentina, told InSight Crime that the increase in seizures and arrests does not provide an accurate measure of how effectively the government has fought organized crime.
“The number of seizures can illustrate many things: the rise in drug production in other countries in the region, more permeable borders, the fact that drugs are more easily accessible and a growing consumer market. If there’s more demand, there’s more chance of carrying out more seizures,” Fusero explained.
He argues that the government failed to tackle the reasons behind the expansion of the consumer market.
“The government invested most of the budget in trying to reduce the supply instead of tackling demand. The programs focusing on treatment and prevention of addictions don’t have enough resources.”
Corruption: Elites and Security forces
The Macri administration also prioritized the fight against elite corruption, another one of the president’s campaign promises.
Authorities opened investigations against officials from the previous administrations of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. However, corruption allegations have also been leveled at Macri administration officials, and even at Macri himself.
Businessmen and local politicians have been found to have links with crime organizations, particularly in the municipalities of Itatí, and Paraná, both of which are strategically located on drug trafficking routes.
Members of the federal and provincial police forces across Argentina have for decades faced accusations of collusion with crime organizations.
Experts consulted by InSight Crime said drug trafficking organizations, large and small, could not operate without the active participation of members of local and federal security forcers. The prisons also operate as “logistic centers” for powerful crime groups.
In a bid to tackle this, the Macri administration set up a program to protect officers willing to provide information about corruption within the force and put together a database of corrupt officers.
Since 2015, nearly 1,400 police officers from the Buenos Aires provincial force have been dismissed and more than 27,000 are under investigation.
These measures placed the focus on individual officers but the conditions that allowed corruption to flourish were not addressed – including difficult working conditions and poor salaries that make working with crime organizations an appealing proposition to many.
Argentina faces many challenges on the organized crime front, including its strategic position as a commercial air and sea exit point for drugs to Europe, its own growing consumer market, and its homegrown drug clans that control areas governed by corrupt officials.
And with the country immersed in a deep economic crisis, which has spurred crime, the new administration of president-elect Alberto Fernández will have its work cut out for it.