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Narco-related violence now epidemic in drug capital of Argentina

Mafia-style murders are on the rise in Rosario, the country’s third-largest city, which has grown into a major manufacturer and consumer of narcotics.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — The intensification of narco-violence in the Argentine city of Rosario is reaching critical levels, according to city authorities, as the region registers 90 drug-related murders this year so far. 

Amid the surge in shootings and Mafia-style murders, the Rosario mayor Pablo Javkin met with President Alberto Fernández, the Security Minister Aníbal Fernández and the Head of the Supreme Court Horacio Rosatti.  

In a plea to the two branches of power, the mayor demanded “institutional responses at all levels” to combat the escalation of drug-related organized crime in Rosario, the largest city in the province of Santa Fe.

In the most recent cases, the bullet-riddled body of a middle-aged man was found blindfolded and bound hand and foot. Next to the body was a message on a piece of paper that read “Que peleen, sino que corran, “Fight back or run."

Days before, four men exited a car and shot up a parked vehicle, instantly killing a 26-year-old man and a 1-year-old baby.

The escalation of Mafia-style murders in Rosario is “linked to territorial disputes between drug-trafficking gangs,” according to the Santa Fe Province Prosecutor-General Jorge Baclini. He told Rosario’s Radio 2 station that the number of murders now exceeds the number of cases assigned to prosecutors.

With the proliferation of corruption, embedded narco networks, and high-crime rates, the Windy City is often invoked when analyzing Rosario, which has developed the nickname of the Argentine Chicago. After three decades of declining murder rates, violence is flaring up again in Chicago. The city murder rate last year was 28.7 per 100,000 and has already registered 56 murders this year. 

Rosario’s murder rate during 2021 was 18.57 per 100,000, the highest level since 2014, the year after the murder of Claudio Ariel Cantero — known as el Pájaro, the Bird. El Pájaro was a top leader of Argentina’s most powerful organized crime group los Monos, the Monkeys, which was born in the poor southern neighborhoods of Rosario. The city’s most violent year on record is 2013 when it registered 261 murders — 23 killings per 100,000.

Rosario has grown to become the epicenter of drug trafficking and violence in Argentina, with the drug capital perched on the Paraná River and centered between the two largest cities in the country, Córdoba — a four-hour drive northwest — and the country’s capital Buenos Aires three hours southeast.

Geography has encouraged the rise of Rosario as a core industrial region, home to the country’s largest ports that feed the export-focused agriculture economy. And it’s this fertile ground that led to the outbreak and growth of organized crime and drug trafficking.

Route 34, nicknamed Ruta Blanca or the White Route serves as a key entry point for cocaine smuggled from across the border in Bolivia as well as from Peru and Colombia. Route 11 serves the same role for trafficking marijuana from neighboring Paraguay. While narcotics enter the country through its road network, its waterways forward their onward journey.

“The presence of a large, export-oriented market has facilitated the transformation of Rosario into a transshipment hub for large volumes of illicit drugs,” said Sebastián Cutrona, a political scientist on organized crime, drugs and security in Latin America.

As the leading export hub for grain crops, including soy and corn, “the ports of Greater Rosario are the largest in the country,” added Cutrona, “which facilitates the movement of drugs to Buenos Aires as well as internationally.”

In the late 1990s, China’s insatiable appetite for soy encouraged Argentina to grow enormous supplies of the grain. Soy exports from Rosario rapidly increased while greater amounts of narcotics were moving in the opposite direction.

In the same decade, key international and domestic events unfolded that transformed Argentina from serving as a transit hub for illicit drugs to a producer, consumer, and exporter of narcotics smuggled to Europe and Western Africa.

The militarization of the war on drugs in the 1990s forced cartels from Mexico and Colombia to move their operations further south, including to Argentina. “Large amounts of drugs began to circulate domestically both for consumption and export, increasing Rosario’s exposure to the drug trade,” added Cutrona.

The greater presence of drugs meant international cartels outsourcing business to local partners, establishing deeper networks of narcotrafficking with Argentine criminal groups.

Although Argentina’s climate isn’t suitable for harvesting drug crops, the country has evolved into one of the continent’s largest providers of chemical precursors needed to produce cocaine (namely anhydrous ammonia) that functions through a national network of clandestine cocaine kitchens. 

With their focus on international trade, drug cartels do not involve themselves with the domestic market for illicit drugs in Argentina, which had been consolidated by los Monos 30 years ago.

The surge of drug smuggling into Argentina in the 1990s led to power struggles in Rosario, a bloody decade that saw rival gangs defeated in gruesome drug wars. Organized around family ties, los Monos operates a network of "little soldiers," typically teenage boys who sell cocaine, cannabis, and paco — a cheap and low-quality base paste of repackaged leftovers from cocaine kitchens and commonly consumed among the inhabitants of urban slums. The network also includes hitmen, money launderers and "barras bravas," organized soccer hooligan groups.

The patterns of drug consumption diverged and became polarized during the deep economic crisis in 2001. “While the population living in the urban margins began using cheap drugs such as cocaine base paste and glue, the upper classes tended to use synthetic drugs, including poppers, ketamine, and amphetamines,” said Cutrona.

Los Monos mostly function as a retailer in Rosario, selling drugs to local users, with diversified business in money laundering, protection, extortion and the operation of a fleet of taxis. The cocaine trafficked to Europe and Western Africa is left to the international cartels.

Around half of the cocaine produced in Argentina leaves the country, with the other half sold domestically. Organized criminal groups can make up to $1 million a month, with around $250,000 spent on bribes, according to Cutrona. State corruption is crucial for the survival and growth of organized crime and in particular los Monos. When 19 family members were arrested in 2018, the investigations found that the local police was a core part of the organization.

“A total of nine police officers were detained as a result of the trials, accused of providing information and protection to the group,” said Cutrona. “A few years before, even Santa Fe’s police commissioner Hugo Tognoli and the head of the former Drogas Peligrosas (Dangerous Drugs) division, Diego Comini, were sentenced for helping drug trafficking organizations perform their illicit operations.”

In response to the rise in crime, local groups have emerged to fight against deteriorating social conditions. One of these is the Association of Families and Victims of Insecurity, which often stages protest marches. “Nobody came down from the government to talk to us,” said Darío Urrejola during a recent protest in front of the government building in Santa Fe. “They don’t offer us security. They don’t offer us any solutions. The big problem in Santa Fe is the lack of laws.”

Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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