To battle drug-traffickers, Argentina takes a risk and uses military

Growing imports and exports of cocaine have increased violence and drug abuse. But militarizing the fight hasn't worked in other Latin American nations.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters/File
Argentine President Mauricio Macri, shown here speaking at a a news conference in Buenos Aires in September, has turned to the military to battle growing cocaine trafficking.

Argentina has a growing troublesome import: cocaine. Although the nation doesn’t produce large amounts of the illegal drug, traffickers bring it in from Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, then ship it to Europe and Asia under less surveillance than in other drug hubs. With the cocaine has come increased local violence and mounting drug use among locals.

So for the first time in Argentine history, drug trafficking has become a major political issue. A year since taking office, President Mauricio Macri has stepped up the government’s fight against illegal drugs as promised. But by involving the military in antidrug efforts, he risks reversing the human rights advances Argentina has made since the 1980s.

Militarized responses to drug trafficking have been catastrophic for human rights in Colombia and Mexico, leading to extrajudicial executions, mass graves, and secret abductions, several drug-trafficking experts say. Local organizations worry a heavy-handed approach would lead Argentina to a human rights crisis that echoes the 1980s, when thousands were forcibly kidnapped, tortured, and killed at the hands of right-wing military regimes in Argentina and elsewhere. In February 2015, Argentine native Pope Francis warned of “Mexicanization,” fearing that the level of violence in Mexico could also reach his home country.

“Drug trafficking cannot be resolved with the participation of the military,” says Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, an international relations professor at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires and an expert on drug trafficking in Latin America. “It is resolved with better intelligence, with reforms to the police, and by separating politics from the business of drug trafficking.”

When smuggling routes are shut down, traffickers seek other paths. Argentina has become a prime choice for its porous border with cocaine producer Bolivia and loosely-regulated ports leading to bigger markets. Traffickers have turned the nation into the fifth-largest transit location for cocaine to Asia and Europe, according to the World Drug Report from the United Nations. Homicides have skyrocketed over the past decade in the port city of Rosario that has been a hub for shipments. Drug use among Argentinians has doubled or tripled since 2000, according to some estimates.

Political minefield

Fighting drug trafficking is a political minefield and President Macri is the latest Latin American politician trying to navigate carefully. If history is any guide, heavy reliance on the military often leads to avoidable deaths, but scaling back the military intensity of the approach means the results are not always immediately and clearly visible.

Faced with this political dilemma, Macri made gestures to critics on both sides when he announced his “Argentina Without Drug Trafficking” plan in August. His rhetoric hinted at a potential pivot from the militarized approaches of Colombia and Mexico as he listed education and youth programs as keys to defeating drug trafficking. He then reverted to old terminology by saying, “There is where we have to win the war.”

The phrase “war on drugs” has slowly disappeared from drug-trafficking discourse as the flaws in a militarized approach have become clearer. Macri has revived the bellicose term, signaling to his constituents that he will follow through with his promised crackdown.

Already, he had continued former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s policy of allowing logistic support from the military for antidrug operations. He has since issued a decree that renewed authorization for military planes to shoot down drug flights and increased communication between departments in charge of domestic and international security. 

The military’s role is less clear in the government’s latest move, deploying approximately 3,000 federal police, coast guard, gendarmerie, and airport security personnel in and around Rosario to keep drug traffickers from using the nation’s grain exports as a conduit for illegal drugs. 

Argentina’s Ministry of Security, the department responsible for the “Argentina Without Drug Trafficking” plan, did not respond to a reporter’s query by the time of publication.

Popular, but risky?

Macri’s moves are popular with many Argentinians who want to see results. 

“Drug trafficking has been increasing in the last decade,” says Guillermo Ceballos, a Buenos Aires resident and a critic of the previous administration’s inaction. “Now you can see that there are some operations that are successful [under Macri] that were not successful in the past.”

But the militarization of the fight against drugs hasn’t worked in other Latin American nations, says Marcelo Fabián Sain, a security expert and political science professor at Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de Quilmes. Colombia’s Plan Colombia and Mexico’s Plan Mérida led to an increase in violence and human rights abuses with no proven reduction in drug trafficking, he adds. What did change was the militarization of these societies and the transfer of control of drug production and transit routes from one set of gangs to another and the emergence of new criminal groups with close ties to the armed forces. 

The issue is particularly sensitive in Argentina. Using the military in drug-trafficking operations threatens a delicate political balance in place since Argentina’s 1983 return to democracy, says Manuel Tufró, coordinator of the Citizen Security and Institutional Violence Team at Buenos Aires-based research group Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS). After the military dictatorship, Argentina relegated the military to matters of international security, a precaution against the rise of the armed forces as a political actor that could lead to human rights abuses. 

For now, Argentina balances on a thin edge, as it strives to keep citizens safe from the dangers of drug trafficking without the state also becoming a perpetrator of violence.

Three months into Macri’s program, nothing has happened that can’t be reversed, says Mr. Tufró of CELS, which recently published a report on the alarming use of the military in Argentina’s anti-drug trafficking plan and its greater implications. “But we are warning the public that these tendencies exist and that there are [political] forces that are pushing the issue to a limit.”

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