Narcops: How Police and Drug Dealers Collude in Argentina

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On April 10, 2018 in the Argentine city of Rosario, a man named Ramón Ezequiel Machuca was sentenced to 37 years in prison. The indictment was hailed by prosecutors as a victory. They had caught one of the leaders of Los Monos, the most powerful drug gang in the city. The murder rate in Rosario — a city of close to a million — has doubled in the last decade, an increase largely attributed to drug-related feuds.

Court proceedings show that Monchi, as Ramón Machuca was known to friends and enemies, was behind the recent killing of more than a dozen people in Rosario. Fourteen-year-old Lourdes Nerina Canteros was one of his victims.

*The following are edited excerpts from “The Ambivalent State. Police-Criminal Collusion at the Urban Margins,” published by Oxford University Press, November 2019. 

Lourdes lived in a modest brick house in a poor neighborhood of La Carne. Not far from her home, Los Monos had a complex of facilities where they produced, stored and sold illegal drugs. To make ends meet, her older brother, Nicolás, was attempting the impossible: to sell drugs out of the family’s backyard apartment without the blessing of Los Monos.

It wasn’t long before Monchi learned that Nicolás was selling on his turf in La Carne. “You have competition,” an associate told him on a wiretapped phone. “They are working really well…”

Likely unaware that his phone had been wiretapped, Monchi then called one of his contacts in the local police force and asked him if Nicolás’ operation was protected by the police.

On the wiretapped phone, Monchi was clear about his intent: “If [the drug selling spot] is not [protected], we are going to send someone to shut it down.” The police officer replied, “You can go ahead and take it down.” Monchi then called his associate to green light the attack.

In countries around the globe, police officers and sometimes whole police departments participate in drug markets. They often do so by providing protection in exchange for cash. These formal exchanges, however, are just the tip of the complex relationships of collusion that facilitate illegal drug markets and even fuel the violence associated with the illicit trade.

Around 10 p.m. that night, two men working for Monchi drove by Nicolás’ house and opened fired. One bullet went through the exterior wall and hit Lourdes in the chest. She died on her way to the hospital.

Wiretapped conversations between drug dealers and police officers abound in the 600 page indictment that sent 19 men to prison, nine of whom were law enforcement officers, all of whom were associated with Los Monos.

The case made national headlines and exposed what is an open secret in poor neighborhoods Argentina: Police are complicit with drug traffickers. This is so common that there is a name for officers who are in the business: “polinarcos,” or “narcops.”

***

Over the last three decades, Argentina has become increasingly involved in the illegal drug industry. Argentina was originally a country of transit. Cocaine from Bolivia and Peru was transported south to the port of Buenos Aires, where it was destined for European markets.

But in recent years, more and more drugs have stayed in the country. In addition to cheap marijuana smuggled from neighboring Paraguay, cocaine and its byproducts are also being sold for local use. One such drug is paco, a cheap and highly addictive cocaine base paste that is readily accessible in poor urban areas across Latin America.

Drug market organizations in Argentina are different from large gangs and international cartels that dominate the popular imagination. In Argentina, drug are sold by small groups, often with family ties, that are based in poor and marginalized urban areas, like Barrio La Carne in Rosario where Lourdes was murdered.

Police officers have played a critical role in the growth of Argentina’s domestic drug market. According to Marcelo Saín, an expert on public safety in the country, “There is no criminal undertaking devoted to drug trafficking in Argentina that does not have at least some degree of protection or police coverage, or in which the police do not participate as a central actor.”

While police are actively involved in illegal markets, the state has also been prosecuting its officers for corruption. In recent years, thousands of officers from the state and federal police forces have been arrested for drug related crimes. In Buenos Aires since 2015, 13,000 police agents were removed from the state police (in a force of approximately 100,000 agents) and 35,000 internal investigations were opened to weed out corruption. These cases not only involve police officers complicit in drug trafficking networks, but also those active in extortion, car thefts, and human trafficking.

***

Forty-seven-year-old Mario (name has been changed) used to work as a drug dealer in Ingeniero Budge, a poor neighborhood on the southern outskirts of the city of Buenos Aires. Since 2007, the murder rate in the neighborhood has quadrupled. It is now roughly 30 per 100,000 residents — four times that of the state of Buenos Aires.

As a drug dealer, Mario paid the local police a weekly bribe so he could do business undisturbed. “When we first started dealing, we had an arrangement with the police. Every weekend they would come to pick up the envelope [of cash]. The cops knew we were selling drugs, but they didn’t bother us. They would release the area for us. Now, if you don’t pay them every weekend, you are in trouble. You’ll end up in jail.”

When Mario decided to expand his drug selling operations to a different neighborhood, he had to build ties with a different security agency while carefully avoiding others. On moving to a different neighborhood, Mario recalled, “We were selling cocaine, lots of it, there. But there, the National Guard protected us. The [local] cops worked with a dealer from a different neighborhood. We were with the National Guard. See… it’s all about [different] territories, some for the cops, others for the National Guard.”

Mario’s description of the involvement of the police in drug markets was not unique. Other confirmed his claims: “Everybody knows where the dealers live, and everybody knows that the police are in cahoots with them…and we are afraid that if we report the dealers, we’ll suffer the consequences.”

Residents of Ingeniero Budge even described their neighborhood as a “liberated zone” where the police wouldn’t interfere. The term conveyed both widespread local knowledge of police complicity in the drug market and a generalized feeling of living in an unprotected space, a “no man’s land,” where narcops set the rules – and the exceptions.

***

Just a few blocks from Mario in Ingeniero Budge, a woman named Carolina lived with her husband and three sons. As is typical of the working class houses in the area, Carolina’s modest home was made of exposed brick with a shingled roof and an unfinished concrete floor. Her street was not paved and at night, two dim streetlights provided very little visibility.

In addition to keeping house and raising her sons, Carolina worked part time as a maid. In exchange for meager wages, she traveled for nearly two hours to and from her employer in the city of Buenos Aires to help support her family.

What worried her the most was not her long commute, her struggle to make ends meet, her precarious house, or even the failing schools in her neighborhood. Carolina’s attention was focused on her eldest son’s struggle with addiction.

“My son, Damián, started smoking weed a few years ago, and then he began doing paco. I have seen him all drugged up many times, and I know it’s not good for him. It is as if he is on high alert, as if he is somewhere else, his eyes are somewhere else. He doesn’t understand you, he doesn’t listen to you…”

Carolina’s description of her son on paco is characteristic of the drug’s effects. Cheap, accessible, and highly addictive, paco is a mixture of cocaine byproducts and a medley of other toxic fillers, which produces an intense but short-lived high. After its effects rapidly wear off, users are left depressed, paranoid, and in search of the next hit.

Carolina then pointed to what constitutes common knowledge in Ingeniero Budge. “The cops are all drug dealers,” Carolina asserted without a pause. For her and many parents, drugs, crime, and the police are enmeshed in a downward cycle that traps the young people in the neighborhood. “[K]ids steal so that they can get money to buy drugs…. And the cops don’t do anything. They are with them. The cops are all dealers. They catch a dealer on this street and they let him out on the next corner… If they removed drugs from Tucci, the kids would change…”

From his family home, Carolina’s son Damián had to walk just five blocks towards the local train station to find a reliable source of paco. He likely bought his paco from members of Los Vagones, or “the Train Cars,” a small drug gang operating in the neighborhood that sold about ten kilos of marijuana and thousands of doses of paco each day.

Los Vagones was led by three men, Pepe, Fifí, and Chato. Although the group occasionally smuggled marijuana from Paraguay, they more frequently obtained drugs from nearby slums to distribute to youth like Damián. Once consumers were hooked on paco, many ended up working as “soldiers” and “lookouts.” While some low-level dealers transported, stored, and sold the drugs, others specialized in the business of violence: threatening, injuring, or eliminating competitors.

Like Los Monos, Los Vagones counted on the police to help conduct their business. And like Los Monos, these clandestine ties became clear when a court indicted of nine civilians and two members of the Buenos Aires State Police force for engaging in corruption.

Wiretapped conversations show that members of Los Vagones spent significant time monitoring their competition, evading state security agents and, at the same time, making secret arrangements with them.

One night, a lookout informed Fifi that someone was selling drugs in their area. Fifi instructed, “Go to him and tell him I said that he has 15 minutes to go somewhere else, otherwise his legs will be broken. Tell him we said that. Call me back in 15 to let me know he left.”

Los Vagones not only verbally threatened competitors, but also armed its members, attacked rival “bunkers” where drugs were stored, and even killed rival dealers. Wiretapped phone conversations attest to the fact that members of Los Vagones were regularly armed with lethal weapons.

When Chato got word that there was a new group selling at the train station, he sent his hitmen to “do what they gotta do.”

When Fifi found out that there was a competitor nearby, he told his hitman, “go and…fire some shots, break his knees… If not, tomorrow he will be back doing the same thing…”

In a country were weapons are highly regulated, drug dealers illegally buy guns (called “toys,” “tools,” or “girls”) and ammunition from members of the police force. But law enforcement agents offer much more than material support of the drug business. Drug dealers like Pepe, Fifi and Chato also rely on information from police officers.

On a wiretapped phone, a police officer called Lucho warned Fifi, “You guys are being marked [surveilled] by the street patrol in Centinela (a nearby neighborhood).” He gave Fifi more details: “Write down the plate number of the car… XL5-C94. It’s a white Nissan. They were told that people were bringing stuff around where you are.”

As this and many other conversations attest, protective information is regularly passed between police officers and drug dealers. This information exchange does not flow one way. Police officers also rely on information from their illicit contacts about other drug dealers in the area. A little after noon one day, Fifi called Officer Lucho.

Lucho: What’s up?

Fifi: The same as usual…those fucking smurfs (police officers) have been bothering us for a while.

Lucho: Okay, let me explain. It [the problem] is not going to be for long, you see? They opened a new police station …and they sent them to put on a show. But they aren’t going to fuck around…for long.

Fifi: Okay, we can wait. Hopefully that happens so we can get back to work. But there is also competition…

Lucho: Leave that to me…I’ll deal with them. I’ll go fuck with them a bit.”

Fifi: It would be a huge win if you can mess with them.

When Lucho mentioned he was unfamiliar with the area, Fifi went on to provide specific details on where competitors were doing business.

***

In May 2017, Guillermo, a forty year old resident of Ingeniero Budge, complained to the local police chief that their block had become a “very busy” drug selling area. A few weeks later, drug dealers fired machine guns at the entrance of Guillermo’s home, filmed the event, and then sent him the video via WhatsApp. The clip was later broadcast on national television. In a public statement about the attack, María Eugenia Vidal, then governor of Buenos Aires, pointed to the “connivance” between authorities and participants in the drug trade: “Gangs feel the impunity.”

“Turning a blind eye,” or looking the other way has a price, and it is known in Ingeniero Budge as “la prote” — short for “la protección,” or “the protection,” that is, the bribe that dealers pay to the local police.

Instances of police corruption are not only shared through social networks and published in the news but also vocalized in community meetings. Alicia was one of the leaders of the grassroots organization, Mothers Against Paco, a group she founded after her son, Emanuel, was killed in a drug-related incident.

During one of their meetings in Ingeniero Budge, Alicia brought up the issue of police complicity with dealers: “Cops know where dealers are but they don’t do anything.”

Elisa, another resident whose son had recently been murdered, elaborated the crucible residents face: “My son was killed because of a fight between two trafficker groups that wanted to control the area. We all know who killed him, but the state prosecutor wants witnesses. And who is going to be a witness? The kids are afraid because they know that police officers are complicit with the dealers. Nobody wants to talk. Nobody wants to report. Everybody knows who killed my son, but nobody talks.”

*Javier Auyero is a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Katherine Sobering is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. Their book, “The Ambivalent State. Police-Criminal Collusion at the Urban Margins,” was published by Oxford University Press in November 2019. 

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