Credit to Politica Argentina

According to a United Nations report entitled The Transatlantic Cocaine Market, Argentina has the highest per-capita cocaine usage in Latin America, and we’re one of the largest hubs for the drug’s export to Europe and Asia. Oops?

This particular fact has not escaped Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who last week spoke to El Pais about the nation’s new war on drugs and all that cocaine that’s being exported from Argentina.

“Argentina has a robust drug trade,” she said. “Here, there’s fabrication, production, laboratories and kitchens; consumption has gone up in all social classes. There’s a lot of dealing, you see it everywhere. It’s a very serious problem. Argentina is an exit point for drugs destined for Europe and certain Asian countries. We’re exporting a very large quantity of cocaine.” 

Strict drug control measures in other countries have been a major part in the migration of cocaine production and export over the last decade or two. While South American coca is mainly cultivated in Peru and Bolivia, the refinement process and actual trafficking of the drug has long been a cross-border operation. When Colombia, for example, imposed stricter airspace controls to thwart trafficking, Bolivia lost one of its major export markets for unrefined coca paste. Bolivian producers had little experience with the refinement process. Brazilian traffickers were more than happy to pick up the slack, and the market for unrefined coca paste began to grow in Brazil and Argentina.

In 2013 alone, it was reported that over six tons of cocaine were confiscated in Argentina, though the government itself did not release official statistics (shocker). What many regard as a relatively laissez-faire attitude under the former Kirchner administration also rendered Argentina prime real estate for displaced cartels, driven further into the Southern Cone by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Mexico and Colombia amping up their domestic drug control. Argentina’s 1,500 illegal airstrips, nearly 5,000 kilometers of Atlantic coastline and porous borders didn’t hurt logistics, either.

“Have you asked the US for help? The DEA?” enquired Bullrich’s interviewer. She responded that “until now, the help has been almost non-existent. We’ll be working with France, Italy, and the US now, and we’ll be traveling there. We’re also working closely with Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil.” At the end of February, Bullrich had her first visit with Chuck Rosenberg, head of the US DEA. The two agreed to “learn” from one another and talked about “opening doors,” but whether more concrete collaborative measures were agreed upon is yet unclear. 

Exporting To Europe

Argentina’s most prevalent drug problem, domestically as well as internationally, is with cocaine and its nasty cousins, crack and paco. And Latin American cartels, in their infinite business savvy, realized that where the US market was already saturated and demand for cocaine decreasing, there was a wealth of opportunity in Europe and Asia’s growing markets. According to the UN’s 2015 World Drug Report, Argentina was cited as the transport country in 2,101 individual seizure cases (confiscation of over 100 grams of cocaine) in 45 different countries. And here in Argentina, traffickers are beginning to find increasingly creative ways to transport their product overseas: in September, drug-sniffing dogs in Rosario discovered 20kg of cocaine hiding in a 50kg sack of rice; it had literally been cooked into the grains. The shipment was destined first for Africa, after which it is suspected that it would have been smuggled into Europe. 

paco

Hubs in Spain and the Netherlands, as well as in West Africa, receive the lion’s share of shipments, but from there it’s a logistical piece of cake to traffic throughout the Schengen Area, which comprises 26 countries and virtually all of continental Western Europe. According to a 2015 study by France’s National Institute for High Studies in Security and Justice (INHESJ), cocaine represents a full 38 percent of that nation’s drug economy, placing it only 10 percent behind good old-fashioned marijuana. If France is one example, the trends in cocaine consumption resonate throughout Europe, with London being dubbed the region’s Cocaine Capital (even if the product is also the least pure). 

Problems At Home

If Bullrich and the new administration seem particularly concerned about Argentina’s role in foreign drug markets, paco is cause for far greater domestic concern. Made from raw base paste, the smokeable drug is even more impure than crack cocaine. In fact, it’s said that besides the dab of bonafide cocaine that users are ingesting when they smoke the drug, the lion’s share of what they’re consuming are chemical agents like kerosene. Paco’s quantity and popularity coincide with Argentina’s increasing popularity as an export hub. When a large quantity of the drug was seized in the Capital’s Ciudad Oculta in December, Bullrich stated that “these confiscated doses of paco represent 6,800 fewer problems for our youth’s health.” While that’s all well and good, it seems like pennies when it’s estimated that, in the Capital alone, over 400,000 doses are consumed daily.

The Council of the European Union’s (CEU) 2014 Argentina report states that officials believe paco usage is largely confined to Argentina’s villas, but “its consumption is associated with growing social exclusion, early school leaving, unemployment, poverty and immune deficiency diseases,” and notes that “the economic recession in 2014 seems to have worsen the situation” (sic).

Since its appearance in Argentina’s villas around the same time as the 2001 economic crisis, paco has only gained popularity, especially with Argentina’s at-risk youth. According to the Council of the European Union’s 2014 Argentina Report, prevalence of actual cocaine use in secondary school students jumped from 3 to 8 percent between 2002 and 2009. The last government statistics available on the problem date back to 2008. But even then, in certain addiction centers, as many as 64.9 percent of the minors in treatment were there for paco. The CEU’s 2014 report states that 80 percent of addiction treatment in Argentina is cocaine-related. While more domestic statistical information is essential to understanding and solving the endemic social problem that is cocaine and paco addiction, it’s been over five years since new data was released.

Implications

While Bullrich and the new administration haven’t necessarily been forthcoming about what their international collaborations will produce policy-wise, January’s declaration of a public security emergency may be a small hint. In an effort to clamp down on trafficking, the government now reserves the right to “identify, warn, intimidate and use force (as a last resort) against intruders in the Argentina airspace.” Basically, the administration is letting us know that – by Presidential decree – they reserve the right to shoot down an aircraft suspected of transporting narcotics. It’s de facto capital punishment for a crime that merits jail time in an actual court of law; it’s also been one of the more effective measures in combating trafficking in nations like Colombia. 

If the new administration has a number of tenuous political relationships that need mending, maintaining our place as a foremost international narcotics supplier isn’t likely to help. With the economic and social issues long present in Argentina, easy and cheap access to narcotics is producing devastating consequences that are not limited to Argentina’s “hidden cities.” As embarrassing as it may be for us to be supplying some of the world’s wealthiest nations and their businessmen with their coke, its domestic effects are also cause for enormous concern. In the weeks following the meeting with the DEA, we await new policy rollouts with equal parts interest and trepidation.