Argentina and the Drug Trade

The nation most known for its meat and tango is facing the possibility of adding something more to the notoriety list: a haven for drug smuggling. Within the last two weeks, Argentine customs officials and police have seized over 1000 kilos of cocaine in the port of Buenos Aires, destined for Spain for distribution in the European market.

Traditionally, cocaine has been moved north from producer countries for distribution to the world’s largest market, the United States. The violence that has engulfed Mexico over the past year is due in large part to the Mexican government’s crackdown on the powerful Mexican cartels’ ability to control shipping, supply lines, and distribution to and within the United States. This violence has since spread to Argentina, with a 12 October slaying of three men tied to a Mexican-Chinese-Argentine trafficking ring in a Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

According to a special report by Latin News, although the United States remains the world’s largest cocaine market, its decline has led to an increase in cocaine destined for other markets, including Western Europe. This suggests that the seizures of cocaine in the port of Buenos Aires will become increasingly more common in the future. Argentina’s vast coastline, porous land borders, large shipping ports along the Paraná, South America’s second largest river (Rosario) and mouth of the River Plate (Buenos Aires), and corrupt customs officials make it an ideal target for long-distance trafficking into and out of the continent.

While demand for cocaine in the US may be waning, it remains strong for a cheaper but equally lethal replacement: Methamphetamine. In spite of being located thousands of miles away, Argentina is playing an increasingly active role in methamphetamine production and use in the United States.  The answer partly rests in the import of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are the two key ingredients used in meth labs for the production of homemade methamphetamines. The ingredients primarily come from China and are legally imported to many countries throughout the world. Argentina currently allows 37 tons of ephedrine to be imported legally, and announced in September they would be restricting its import to laboratories only in an effort to stem the tide of illegal ephedrine and pseudoephedrine imports. In contrast, Mexico has completely outlawed the import of any ephedrine to curb production of methamphetamines in Mexico for distribution in the United States.

As a result, production of crystal meth in Mexico has decreased. Seizures of methamphetamines at the US-Mexico border fell by 48% between 2006 and 2007. Yet consumption has not decreased, suggesting that Mexican DTOs (drug trafficking organizations) have moved their production operations to within the United States. And because import is illegal in Mexico, DTOs must look to other nations to bring in large quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from halfway around the world in order to make the finished product.

Enter Argentina. Ephedrine-smuggling rings have already been revealed throughout the country, including Buenos Aires and Rosario. On 25 November, Argentine authorities arrested Mario Roberto Segovia, accused of trafficking 9 tons of ephedrine, valued at $35 million dollars, between September 2006 and November 2008. The news shook Argentina, making headlines in major daily publications there, surely due in part to fears of violence related to drug smuggling.

That Mexican-based DTOs can use Argentina as an entry (ephedrine/pseudoephedrine) and exit (cocaine) point suggest there is a fairly well-coordinated smuggling ring capable of transporting large quantities of illicit merchandise across South America. Argentine authorities will have their hands full trying to deal with an increase in outgoing and incoming cocaine/ephedrine that are increasingly filling wooden panels and hidden compartments of ships in their ports. In the meantime, the nation is at risk to experience more events like the 12 October slaying and increased foreign involvement from criminal organizations.

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