BUENOS AIRES — Last September, Argentine Judge Carlos Olivera Pastor emerged from his courthouse in the northwestern province of Jujuy to find a box next to his parked car. Numbered as if it held judicial files, Pastor removed the box's top and found instead a decapitated head, the eyes glassy and open. In October, two men savagely assaulted a penal secretary from the same district, warning that the next time they would murder him. According to officials at SEDRONAR, a government agency that fights addiction and drug trafficking, most of the drugs that enter Argentina pass through the sparsely populated northwest of the country, and the judges, who frequently handle drug-related cases, avowed narco-traffickers were responsible for the incidents.
Long a secondary shipping hub for drugs destined for Europe, international trafficking groups have recently expanded their activities within Argentina, increasing exportation and transforming it from a transit point into a destination for consumption and synthesis. Although Argentina's drug problem is not as dire as Colombia or Mexico's, "things have begun to change a great amount," says Monica Cuñarro, an independent prosecutor who formerly served as executive secretary of the National Commission of Public Policies in Issues of Prevention and Control of the Illicit Traffic of Drugs.
In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, drug traffickers capitalized on the country's poor border control, lack of aerial surveillance, more than 1,500 illegal air strips, and long stretch of Atlantic coast to export more than 70 metric tons of cocaine -- mostly to Europe, which consumes about 123 metric tons every year.
Busts over the past two years suggest that Spain is an especially popular entry point for drugs dispatched from Argentina. In April 2010, Spanish officials seized 800 kilograms of cocaine from a truck disguised as an official support vehicle for the Dakar Rally off-road race, later affirming that the drugs were loaded in Argentina. Last January, an executive jet piloted by two sons of Argentine dictatorship-era air force generals arrived in Barcelona from Argentina laden with 1,000 kilograms of cocaine, with the ties to the military piquing concern about institutional corruption. These busts suggest a clear transit route between the two countries and raise questions as to how such a high volume of drugs are exiting Argentina undetected. According to an official report compiled by Martin Verrier, a security advisor for Argentine congressman Francisco de Narvaez, 95 percent of the cocaine shipped from Argentina safely arrives at its destination."In Argentina, the situation is such that narcotraffickers enter and exit without inconvenience," laments Claudio Izaguirre, president of the Argentine Anti-Drugs Association, a Buenos Aires-based NGO.
As the volume of drugs coursing through Argentina has increased, so too has the amount of drugs available within the country's borders. "Drug mules who move shipments through Argentina are often paid in a mixture of cash and drugs," explains Natalia Gambaro, a congresswoman for the province of Buenos Aires who specializes in security issues. As a result, Argentina's drug consumption rates have exploded.
"Pretty much everyone I know does it," says a 30 year-old Argentine waitress who buys about a gram of cocaine a week. "It's very easy to get hold of and the nightlife here makes it all but necessary. You can work on it and you don't have to sleep." In Argentina, a gram of pure cocaine sells for about 100 pesos, or less than $25, whereas the same amount would cost $120 in the United States. "Buying cocaine in Argentina is like buying coca cola -- it's ridiculously easy," says a 25 year-old American female who lived in Buenos Aires until this April, and enjoyed the ease with which she has been able to buy cocaine, acid, and ecstasy. "I've never felt I had to worry about the law. I've even had friends take bumps as they walk down the street." In 2008, Argentina surpassed its neighbors and the United States: it now has the highest prevalence of cocaine use in the Western Hemisphere: approximately 2.6 percent of the country's population aged 15-64 uses cocaine, a 117 percent increase since 2000. Argentines now consume five times more cocaine than the global average and has one of the highest usage rates in the world.
Equally worrisome is the country's role as a producer of chemical precursors, the substances used to extract and refine drugs such as cocaine, morphine, and heroine. These chemicals are especially hard to police since they are also necessary to produce legal substances such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, cosmetics, and detergents. "This is the gravest problem in our country," claims Cuñarro, the prosecutor and expert in drug-related crime. "Argentina continues to be a place of transit, but because of its chemical capabilities, now it is also part of the production chain."
Smugglers move raw cocaine from Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia to clandestine laboratories in Argentina, where they refine it before shipping it to Europe. Approximately 250 such labs are hidden around Argentina. As chemical import legislation tightens in other countries in the region, the laboratories' narco-chemists are also producing shipments of heroine, ephedrine, and methamphetamines, which are dispatched to Mexico by sea, and then finally trafficked across the border to the United States. While no estimates exist for the total amount of precursor chemicals present in the country, in 2010, authorities seized more ephedrine in Argentina than in any other country except China.