Has Argentina entered the 'war on drugs'?

One of the dangers of the new government's anti-drugs measures is that they enable military intervention in matters of domestic security, a path that once taken, is hard to reverse. Español

Manuel Tufró Paula Litvachky
18 March 2016

A federal prison in Argentina. CELS / Nicolas Rapetti. All rights reserved.

A federal prison in Argentina. CELS / Nicolas Rapetti. All rights reserved.December 2015 brought a change of government to Argentina. Since the election campaign, the new authorities have declared drug trafficking to be the most severe problem affecting the country. They have stirred up arguments rooted in fear – the dangers of becoming another ‘Colombia’ or ‘Mexico’ – but without offering any definite diagnosis as to the forms of drug trafficking or the magnitude of its impact on Argentine society.

Upon taking power, the current government carried on with its escalating discourse, referring to a ‘paradigm shift’ in drug policy. The measures announced show a realignment of the country on the map of world debate with regard to drug-related problems and drug trafficking. The previous government had implemented vacillating policies, which combined support for progressive-minded positions in international arenas with erratic measures on the domestic front. The new administration seems to have begun to address these inconsistencies in the worst way, marking Argentina’s entry into the ‘war on drugs’.

Internationally, the economic, institutional and humanitarian consequences of this ‘war’ have mobilised an increasingly important bloc of actors who assert the need to abandon this paradigm and explore new forms of state regulation of these markets, along with policies that apply the perspective of harm reduction when it comes to problems of violence, instead of inciting yet more of it through the criminal justice system and militarisation.

In regional and international debates before 2015, Argentina stood by the countries that advocated further discussion of the effectiveness of the ‘war on drugs’ paradigm. The new government has begun to abandon that position, through regulatory decisions and an ever more explicit rapprochement with the United States, the main proponent of the war-like approach to drugs. At the same time, domestically, a fear campaign built around the growing problem of drug trafficking over the past two years has silenced incipient debates on the decriminalisation of consumption.

Argentine academics and experts on drugs, members of the “Grupo Convergencia”, published a document in 2015, “Drogas: una initiative para el debate” (Drugs: a debate initiative), in which they point out: “At present, Argentina does not have a comprehensive diagnosis of the drug phenomenon. By comprehensive diagnosis, we mean the existence and availability at all state levels of exhaustive, systematic and updated institutional knowledge of the drug phenomenon. This is not the case in our country where, unfortunately, presumption, intuition and improvisation have prevailed."

But what is known for certain is that in recent years, the policies deployed against drug trafficking, by way of action or omission, have conspired to strengthen two of the most negative aspects associated with criminal networks, and not exclusively in the case of drug trafficking: institutional penetration, or the collusion or involvement of public, judicial and police officials in these networks; and the cycle of violence in poor neighbourhoods. The new authorities have not included these issues among their priorities.

‘New threats’ as justification for military intervention

One of the main risks of the new approach being adopted in Argentina is that it opens the door to military intervention in matters of domestic security, a path that once taken, is hard to reverse.

The examples of Mexico and Colombia are extreme cases that nevertheless highlight the fact that direct intervention by the armed forces in actions against drug trafficking or other forms of crime has grave consequences in terms of increased violence, massive human rights violations, and the de-professionalisation and corruption of military structures. At the same time, progress toward the dismantling of markets and criminal organisations has been little to none.

In contrast to various other countries in the region, in Argentina, the distinction between domestic security and foreign defence has been upheld since the return of democracy in 1983, although during the 1990s there were attempts to involve the armed forces in the fight against drug trafficking. Military resources were mobilised as of 2013 to provide logistical support to border control, with the ‘advance of drug trafficking’ as the underlying argument.

The new government took a qualitative leap in this same direction: on 22 January 2016, a presidential decree declared a “security emergency” for the entire country. Among other things, the decree characterises drug trafficking as a “threat to national sovereignty” in that it is a crime that may have transnational connections, even when other transnational crimes do not receive the same treatment. Characterising drug trafficking as a “threat to national sovereignty” places it in a grey area somewhere between domestic security (the field of action of police and security forces) and defence (within the scope of the armed forces). The decree thus brings about a substantive change in that it authorises direct intervention by the military – in this case the air force – to shoot down planes that resist identification (or cannot be identified).

The measure also implies explicit alignment with the doctrine of ‘new threats’ and, more generally, with the areas of work envisioned by different US agencies that advocate the armed forces' participation in internal security. This approach can be observed, for example, in the appointment of a former head of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police's Drug Division as the new chief for the entire provincial police force (which is the largest in the country); according to news reports, he was recommended by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It can also be seen in the trip that security minister Patricia Bullrich made, along with other officials, to the United States at the end of February, where they met with officials from the US Department of State, the DEA and FBI, among others, for technical advice on interventions and weapons.

Other forms of militarisation

Another regional trend indicates that the fight against organised crime has served as an alibi for other forms of militarisation of domestic security. For instance, the adoption by police and other security forces of military equipment and tactics. This phenomenon has reached the United States, where the federal government equipped police with weapons, vehicles and other items used by the military in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trained their security forces in military tactics. All of this has been used in the context of the war on drugs, essentially against the black population, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing”.

This militarisation of the police exceeds the matter of the war on drugs and has consequences for fundamental aspects of democratic life, such as the right to protest. The episodes in Ferguson, Missouri showed the world how military uniforms, weapons and vehicles are used as part of extremely aggressive tactics to control and repress public protests.

In Latin America, this phenomenon builds on historic patterns of police militarisation, inherited mainly from the dictatorships, but also combined with seemingly contradictory trends, such as neighbourhood or community policing. These forces, at least on paper, should adopt methods of action that insert police into communities and move away from militarised models of territorial control. A clear example of these opposing trends are the Police Pacification Units (UPP) used in Rio de Janeiro since 2008, a policy aimed at regaining control of some favelas, or shantytowns. The neighbourhoods are invaded by heavily armed elite corps or, in some cases, by the armed forces, to then install police forces supposedly trained in community techniques. The apparent initial success of the programme has been tainted, however, by the serious claims of police violence toward shantytown inhabitants in recent months.

In Argentina, although levels of police militarisation are lower, the trend in recent years has not been wholly absent. The province of Córdoba has a heavily armed police force called the Department of Territorial Occupation that, since its creation, has used deployment tactics that reflect a military indoctrination which envisions poor neighbourhoods as enemy territory to be occupied and controlled. During the previous government, this trend gained ground through the use of the national gendarmerie, an intermediate militarised force, to patrol zones of urban conflict. And while interventions by the gendarmerie have proven less lethal than those of the actual police forces, this highlights other problematic aspects of the use of militarised forces in urban settings, such as the difficulties of coexisting with the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods, especially the young men, who the gendarmerie see as subjects to be disciplined.

Lack of oversight of police and judicial institutions

In the case of Argentina, the militarisation of domestic security in any aspect is an ineffective and disproportionate recipe for taking on the key problems associated with the activities of criminal networks, foremost of which is collusion on the part of different state agencies.

Institutional penetration is far below the levels seen in so-called ‘narco-states’; however, it is a phenomenon that allows different criminal networks to persist. Recent cases confirm this, such as the lawsuits brought against judicial officials or the scandals caused by police and politicians’ involvement in drug-trafficking networks.

The measures taken to date by the new government suggest that the official position is that the weaknesses in prosecuting criminal networks are quantitative rather than qualitative. Therefore, more resources have been announced for the judicial branch, and new tribunals opened to alleviate the work of courts clogged with minor cases, but there has been no assessment of the structural problems in the justice system or the police forces that impede effective prosecution of the big players in drug trafficking and other illegal businesses.

The justice ministry recently announced a legislative package intended to facilitate the fight against organised crime. It is still too soon to know if these bills will be passed and implemented, or what impact they might have. Some seem to be aimed at intervention in the complex structures of criminality. However, there were no announcements as to underlying reforms to deal with the problem of police and judicial powers that function as key mechanisms in illegal markets.

At the same time, other troubling measures have been taken that cast doubt on the true intentions of the government’s fight against drug trafficking, such as the appointment to key positions in the anti-money laundering office (Financial Information Unit, or UIF) of lawyers who defend companies and banks accused of laundering funds.

Dangers of the new direction

Since the previous administration, drug policy and the pursuit of drug traffickers have been erratic, with a pronounced toughening of the criminal justice system in the last years of president Cristina Fernández's second term (2011 to 2015). The new government has announced its alignment with the ‘war on drugs’ paradigm, the inefficacy of which has been demonstrated in several other countries. If this new direction gains strength, adverse effects can be expected in terms of violence, human rights violations and institutional functioning.

In the same way that prohibition leaves the market in the hands of drug traffickers, the war on drugs leaves the problem fundamentally in the hands of violent and corrupt police forces, and opens the possibility of military intervention. While criminal networks have an impact on institutional quality and on the quality of life of the poorest people, so do the anti-trafficking policies adopted and announced, because they are not aimed at the core of institutional collusion that allows these networks to exist. The real problems of violence in some areas thus remain hidden under the guise of an indefinite threat.

In this context, the prohibitionist paradigm is not being discussed, leaving debates to focus rather on how much to intensify punitive interventions against the narcos, minor dealers, traffickers, micro-traffickers and even consumers. This type of focus has proven to be ineffective in its objectives – which are the reduction of consumption and trafficking – whereas its negative impact on the spread of violence and on human rights has been documented throughout the region, as can be seen in this report compiled by 17 organizations, "The Impact of Drug Policy on Human Rights: The Experience in the Americas."

Under a state of emergency and in a climate of fear-mongering, the problems associated with drug trafficking and drugs get muddled. They end up outside of the political debate, as part of a seemingly indisputable consensus that dictates the toughening of the criminal justice system, bolstering of police and, eventually, military intervention. The spaces for other voices to be heard are narrowing, voices that contend that there cannot be effective policies against organised crime without deep reforms of the police and security systems, and that the ‘drug problem’ should be approached from a standpoint of harm and violence reduction that tackles the mafia-like ways of regulating these markets that prohibition merely foments.   

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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