As anti-drug efforts have intensified in their home countries, Mexican and Colombian cartels have shifted parts of their operations, as well as their families, abroad. Last June, U.N. advisor Edgardo Buscaglia travelled to Argentina and confirmed that the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, headed by Chapo Guzman, "the world's most powerful drug trafficker" according to the U.S. Treasury Department, had established a network of bases in the country's north. Other reports suggest Guzman lived in Argentina with his wife and step-daughter until 2011. "Big narcotrafficking organizations are capitalizing on the current characteristics of globalization: the immediacy of transactions, intangible assets, transport, and so on," says Verrier. "Countries with weak institutions, like Argentina, are more exposed to the penetration of these organizations."
The bonds between narco-traffic and terrorism in Argentina also seem to be strengthening. Since 2001, the United States has had intelligence of "terrorist cells in the triborder area (where Argentina meets Paraguay and Brazil), some of which engaged in narcotrafficking," says former FBI director Louis Freeh. In February 2010, President of Argentina Cristina Kirchner expressed concern about the triborder area to a U.S. congressman. A few months later in June, Interpol arrested a suspected Hezbollah financier just across the Argentine border in the lawless Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este. According to a former Obama administration senior security advisor who asked for anonymity, "there has been a big increase in cooperation between organized crime, drug cartels, and terrorist groups" in the triborder area over the past few years.
In reaction to the country's deteriorating drug environment, last July Kirchner announced a new plan called Northern Shield, which will involve the installation of 20 aerial radars and an injection of 6,000 Gendarmerie and Coast Guard personnel, plus 800 Army Special Forces in Argentina's northwest. The Ministry of Security declined an interview request and none of the agencies contacted would comment on the current military presence in Argentina's northwest. Recent announcements by the head of the country's counternarcotics agency SEDRONAR suggest that Argentina might soon decriminalize the possession and consumption of marijuana, allowing the government to redirect its resources away from punishing individual users and towards pursuing drug-trafficking organizations.
Argentina, however, recently lost a key partner in the fight against drug smuggling. In July, Argentina's Ministry of Security ordered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to suspend its activities in the country until further notice, citing the need for an internal review of cooperative international counternarcotics programs. The U.S. State Department, in their 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), suggests that the suspension might have also been related to a February scandal in which the Argentine government accused the United States of smuggling guns and surveillance equipment into Argentina under the guise of supplying a police training course. The DEA and the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires both declined interview requests about the drug situation in Argentina.
Verrier, the U.S. congressional security advisor, believes the split may have been more mutual. "We believe that the suspension of the collaboration with the DEA has to do with the strategy of the government to introduce the de-penalization of personal drug consumption this year -- a strategy the DEA has always been against," he explains.
Whatever the source of the rift, without DEA assistance Argentina's drug interdiction capabilities decreased markedly: cocaine seizures dropped from 12.7 metric tons in 2010 to 5.8 metric tons in 2011."Decreased seizures may be linked to the constraints imposed on DEA activities, as well as the Government of Argentina's limited capabilities to mount complex, long-term counternarcotics investigations," the State Department wrote in their unusually harsh INCSR Argentina section.
Argentine drug experts are equally critical of their government's efforts. "There are not mixed commissions that work. There are not bonds between judges and prosecutors; judges and prosecutors distrust the law enforcement agencies, and the law enforcement agencies in the provinces don't coordinate with the national law enforcement agencies," says the prosecutor Cuñarro. "It is ridiculous that even now we don't have a collaborative program with Colombia ... it's unintelligible from where I see it."
While experts avow that Argentina will not become a narco-state like Colombia or Mexico, they admit that the country is at a crossroads in its anti-drug efforts. Huge judicial backlogs of trafficking subjects and subpar port and ground control have yet to be addressed, while the decentralized nature of international trafficking groups operating in Argentina will make them much more difficult to disable. "Even when Argentine law enforcement agencies make successful busts, it is usually at the lower levels of the operation. It is rare that those apprehended even know who they're working for," explains Gambarro, the congresswoman.
Judge Pastor is less optimistic. In an interview with an Argentinean newspaper this February, he wondered where his country is going. "Are we going to wait until we find a car in Jujuy with five dead people inside, like in Ciudad Juarez, or until we find hanging corpses or they kill a judge to start battling this scourge?"