Once Just a Stopover for Drug Traffickers, Argentina Has Now Become a Destination

By EMILY SCHMALL
Published: July 7, 2012
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BUENOS AIRES — Héctor Jairo Saldarriaga, alias the Dagger, changed his address here three times in the weeks before his killer finally caught up with him in April in front of a family-run cafe in the middle-class neighborhood of Barrio Norte.

Alejandro Andam/Telam, via Associated Press

Angie Sanclemente Valencia, center, a Colombian beauty pageant winner, in Buenos Aires in 2010. She is serving time for a drug-smuggling conviction.

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While investigating his death, the police discovered that he had three Argentine passports under false names but was really a Colombian who had once worked as an assassin for a prominent Colombian drug trafficker.

As the trafficking of illegal drugs picks up in Argentina, residents are growing accustomed to front-page news of drug raids, shootouts and the grim reality that the country is no longer simply a transit point for the world’s most-wanted drug traffickers from places like Mexico and Colombia. For many of these outlaws, Argentina has become home base, a comfortable refuge where many of them lie low while keeping a hand in the industry.

Mr. Saldarriaga, 39, who was living in an unassuming area of Buenos Aires, had been among the most feared assassins working for Daniel Barrera Barrera, a second-generation Colombian drug lord nicknamed the Crazy One, the authorities here said.

A former fighter for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Mr. Saldarriaga was believed to have coordinated the assassination of two former members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia — a right-wing paramilitary group that acts as security for traffickers — in the parking garage of a Buenos Aires shopping mall in June 2008, the Argentine authorities said.

But then, the police said, Mr. Saldarriaga may have betrayed his boss by losing or stealing half a ton of cocaine. Another theory is that Mr. Saldarriaga had tried to branch out as a trafficker in his own right in an area of Argentina controlled by Mexico’s Sinaloa drug gang and was punished for trespassing.

Mr. Saldarriaga is by no means the only notorious foreigner involved in the drug trade to make the news. Days before Mr. Saldarriaga was killed, Ruth Martínez Rodríguez, a Colombian who was once married to Mr. Barrera, was arrested in an upscale suburban home outside Buenos Aires, accused of fronting a business that tried to export 280 kilograms, or about 617 pounds, of cocaine to the United States, Europe and Asia hidden in Louis XV-style furniture. From Nordelta, a gated community with a private golf course, Ms. Martínez was said to have laundered money through real estate and a furniture business.

Because she was pregnant, she was sentenced to house arrest.

In another episode, in 2010, Argentine security officials arrested Angie Sanclemente Valencia, a onetime Colombian beauty pageant winner, on suspicion of running a ring of drug-smuggling models, including a 21-year-old Argentine woman who was caught trying to fly to Cancún, Mexico, from Buenos Aires with 55 kilograms, or about 121 pounds, of cocaine in her checked luggage. The young woman gave up information on Ms. Sanclemente, who was tracked down, with the assistance of Interpol, five months later at a Buenos Aires youth hostel and is currently serving a prison term of six years, eight months.

With drug gangs looking to expand their operations, Argentina, which was a transit point in the 1990s, has turned into a profitable marketplace. There is a huge local demand for drugs. And unlike governments in some other countries in the region that are engaged in aggressive drug wars, the government here has not yet aimed the full might of its military on traffickers.

“They haven’t come up against any problems with the courts — there is no war on narcos in Argentina — so they operate here with total ease,” said Claudio Izaguirre, the president of the Antidrug Association of the Argentine Republic.

Argentina’s Security Ministry, in an effort to show its resolve in taking on traffickers, makes near daily announcements of its latest cocaine or marijuana raid, or discovery of a synthetic-drug laboratory.

In recent weeks, the authorities have found seven tons of marijuana in a house in Posadas, just across the Paraná River from Paraguay; arrested a corporal of Argentina’s gendarmerie for carrying 110 kilograms, or about 243 pounds, of cocaine in his car; and apprehended a government ambulance, its sirens blaring and a patient in the back, with 25 kilograms, or about 55 pounds, of cocaine.

“Drug trafficking responds to the logic of globalization. It doesn’t recognize boundaries,” said Nilda Garré, Argentina’s security minister.

“The growth and rate of domestic consumption sustained in Argentina since 2003 may be attracting money with an illicit origin,” Ms. Garré said in a statement. “The situation is being carefully monitored by Justice Ministry authorities. Nevertheless, I must emphasize that Argentina, a country of 40 million, is a market of marginal interest for drug traffickers intent upon reaching areas of mass consumption in the United States and Europe.”

In June, the police seized 20,000 doses of paco, a highly addictive, smokable cocaine residue, and arrested seven Peruvians with ties to the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group, on suspicion of running a home-delivery service in Buenos Aires. Buoyed by global commodity prices, Argentina’s economy grew at an average rate of 7.7 percent from 2004 to 2010, lifting millions out of poverty after the 2002 economic collapse.

Lately, though, the economy has cooled, which has made the fast money of drug dealing more appealing. Some of the drugs on the streets are imported, but others are local, including synthetic products created with the cheap, pirated pharmaceuticals that are widely available here.

In many pockets of this sprawling country, government officials and services are largely absent. Drug gangs have moved in to provide services to marginalized areas in exchange for silence, said Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor in Mexico and a former United Nations official who completed a research mission in Argentina last year.

“This is a place where the probability of indictment is extremely low, where the authorities in the provinces don’t have any capacity to investigate complex crimes, and which doesn’t cooperate much internationally,” Mr. Buscaglia said.

The Sinaloa drug gang has infiltrated poor communities in the densely tropical area that borders Paraguay and Brazil in the north, where, with the complicity of local authorities, it can act with impunity.

Police officials say that Colombian and Mexican traffickers live quietly with their families in some of the most exclusive areas of Argentina, which they consider safer than their home countries. They appoint local intermediaries to run their drug operations.

With large quantities of dollars nearly impossible to obtain legally in Argentina, traffickers frequently pay retailers in drugs, contributing to a growing problem of domestic consumption, the police and prosecutors say. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Argentina had the highest prevalence of cocaine use in South and Central America among 15- to 64-year-olds, with 25 percent of the region’s users — second only to Brazil.

“In terms of accessibility, you have it on every street corner,” said Martín Iribarne, an addiction specialist and the director of the San Camilo Foundation, which operates a residential drug rehabilitation center in Buenos Aires Province. “In the beginning, we accepted that the cartels came here on their way to other places. Afterward, it was our market.”

A version of this article appeared in print on July 8, 2012, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Once Just a Stopover for Drug Traffickers, Argentina Is Now Their Destination.

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