High society: 350kg drug seizure in Salta reflects Argentina’s growing cocaine use

Rosario and the River Plate are now firm fixtures on the “Southern Cone route”

The discovery of nearly 350 kilos of cocaine in a tanker in Salta province earlier this week is a symptom of a drug trade that is becoming more prolific and violent as Argentina’s domestic cocaine consumption grows, specialists have told the Herald.

Anti-narcotics agents and national gendarmerie officers seized the drugs as they were being transported inside a tanker towed by a pick-up truck on provincial route 5, in Salta. Investigators arrested four people accused of being part of a drug trafficking organization. Their vehicles were seized, along with over AR$80 million (US$357,142 at the official rate, US$179,371 at the MEP rate), believed to be proceeds from drug sales.

The men detained during the operation are believed to be the head of the group, his son, and two others who are brothers. They have had an indictment hearing and officials asked for them to remain in custody for at least 90 days, according to judicial and national gendarmerie sources.

The sources added that the bust was the result of a months-long investigation which found that a gang was trying to transport cocaine by vehicle along provincial routes to Buenos Aires. In this context, last Saturday, prosecutors asked the gendarmerie to carry out an operation on kilometer 105 of provincial route 5, in Salta.

There, the gendarmes stopped a Toyota Hilux pick-up truck towing a green tanker.

During the inspection of the trailer, the gendarmes noticed a double bottom created in the floor of the cargo area and, after opening it, they found 326 rectangular packages, characteristic of cocaine bricks packaged for transport, which contained a whitish substance.

According to the sources, the substance tested positive for cocaine hydrochloride, and weighed in at 347 kilos 405 grams.

Two other vans were also detained and seized by the security forces. Their occupants were acting as pointmen, warning the group with the main load about routine controls along the road.

Counter-narcotics agents then conducted four raids in the Salta towns of Colonia Santa Rosa, Orán, and Tartagal, after which the fourth suspect —the son of the alleged leader of the gang— was arrested. Four vehicles were also seized along with AR$ 2.3 million, US$ 173,000, 559 Bolivianos, electronic devices, and documentation of interest for the case, said the spokespersons.

Photo: Télam

Shipping routes

Argentina is drawing the interest of drug traffickers because it is growing both as a shipping route and as a market for domestic consumption, said Douglas Farah, President of the D.C.-based security consultancy IBI Consultants, which focuses on security issues in Latin America. Farah published a report on transnational crime and the drug trade in Santiago del Estero province in late 2022.  

Drugs are increasingly moved to Rosario via land routes and then transported onwards via river, although land routes to Buenos Aires and crossing into Paraguay are also common. In its most recent Global Cocaine Report, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) describes this as the “Southern Cone route”, saying that it is “a channel which has recently gained importance”.

The report also called the provinces of Jujuy and Salta, where the latest haul was found, a “hotspot for contraband.”

Argentina is the fourteenth largest cocaine-consuming country by percentage of population, with 1.7% of the population using the drug, according to the UNODC. Uruguay is eighth, at 2.1%. Often, the quality in South America is poor, according to Farah.

The most visible — and tragic — recent illustration of this was in February 2022, when 24 people died and more than 80 were hospitalized in Greater Buenos Aires after consuming adulterated cocaine. As news of the mass poisoning broke, authorities urged anyone who had bought cocaine recently to throw it away.

“When socio-economic conditions are worse, the quality [of the drug] gets worse,” said Valentina Novick, former Undersecretary of Criminal Investigations and Judicial Co-operation at the Security Ministry and co-ordinator of security policy institute IPPSEJU. She highlighted that cocaine tends to be used more by the middle and upper classes, but poor or marginalized groups are more likely to run into serious problems because of bad-quality product. 

The advantage of pushing local consumption for organized crime groups is that, while profits are lower in South America, it also carries less risk than shipping the product to the US, Europe, or elsewhere, according to Farah. He said prices for a kilo of cocaine are around US$17,000-18,000 in the US, US$35,000-40,000 in Europe, and US$250,000 in Australia.

Payment in product

In some cases, gangs have started to pay their workers in product, rather than in cash, encouraging consumption to create a local market. 

“This is not generalized, but we’re starting to see it,” said Novick. “Payment in the substance is an alternative currency.”

Farah said he expects the pattern to spread to the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

This shifting pattern carries a devastating toll: as the cocaine trade becomes more profitable, it sparks battles for control. According to Novick, there’s reason to believe the spike in killings over the drug trade in the port city of Rosario is linked to the splintering of local crime gang Los Monos, as well as the group led by drug kingpin Esteban Alvarado. This conclusion has been echoed in analyses by InsightCrime, a think tank on drug trafficking and organized crime in Latin America.

“The leaders of those gangs went to jail,” Novick said. “There was a phenomenon of atomization with a lot of small groups that fight between themselves.” 

She pointed out that this activity is not limited to drug trafficking, but includes other organized crimes such as extortion. 

“You don’t get that phenomenon in Buenos Aires Province.”

“There’s usually an intensely violent period while it sorts itself out,” Farah said of such turf wars, an assessment Novick agreed with. 

“The silver lining is that it usually sorts itself out, It’s not usually permanent,” Farah continued. “But it’s very bad.”

-With information from Télam


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