In early January, three Argentine pilots of a private modern jet were arrested in Barcelona, Spain, for transporting nearly a ton of cocaine. The episode is embarrassing for the Argentinean government since Spanish investigators have proof that the cocaine was loaded onto the plane from an Argentinean military airbase. Moreover, this was the last and biggest of a series of three carefully planned trips. The Spanish authorities chose to watch the first two smaller shipments and wait to seize this larger shipment. They also chose not to reveal any information about the nearly year-long operation to Argentinean authorities.
The lack of Spanish cooperation with the Argentinean authorities reveals an absence of trust and makes an outside observer wonder about the possibility of government complicity. Indeed, there are government connections from previous administrations. Two of those arrested are brothers Gustavo and Eduardo Juliá, sons of Brigadier José Juliá who was head of Argentina’s Airforce when Carlos Menem was president. The third, Matías Miret, is also the son of a former Airforce official in command during the country’s dictatorship (1976-1983). The modern jet plane used in the last flight, a Challenger 604, was supposedly rented from the company Medical Jet based in Miami, which claims it was leased to the Argentines by an outsourced group. Spanish authorities have revealed evidence that the 944 kilos of cocaine confiscated from the jet originated from the Valle Cartel in Colombia and passed through Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, for processing before making its way to Argentina.
The recent episode is not only uncomfortable for the Argentinean government; it highlights the country’s growing role in the international drug trade and the government’s weak control over trafficking. At first, President Cristina Fernández´s administration wouldn’t admit that the drugs were loaded on the Argentinean airbase, but evidence forced the new Security Minister (former Minister of Defense) Nilda Garré to concede that it was possible and that “some controls have relaxed a little.” Accordingly, Ms. Garré has begun calling for increased regulations for private aircrafts. This sounds like a good idea considering the private jet loaded with a ton of cocaine at a military airbase even passed through Argentinean customs before taking off for Spain.
According to a researcher from the University of Buenos Aires, there is significant drug trafficking throughout Argentina, but mostly taking place by sea. This Juliá brother case is unique because of the large quantity of cocaine transported by air. There is also evidence, however, that Argentina is not just a transit point. It is also a drug producing and consuming country. The exponential growth of the use of Paco, a cheap cocaine derivative often made from production leftovers, makes specialists believe that there is significant production taking place in the country. Around the year 2000, the combination of Plan Colombia cracking down on drug producing countries up north and Argentinean’s economic meltdown made sending cocaine paste directly to Argentina for processing a viable, economic alternative. As a result, consumption has risen among the poor and the use of cheap drugs by young slum dwellers is leading to increasing acts of random gun violence in Buenos Aires.
Long gone are the days when residents of Buenos Aires viewed violent crime and drug-trafficking as a malady that affected its poor Latin American brethren further north. Today, drug-related violent crime perpetrated by young thugs and news about confiscation of drugs signed, sealed and delivered by the Colombian cartels—including the FARC—doesn’t wake anyone out of a slumber.
There is a growing acceptance that Buenos Aires City and its outskirts, home to about one-third of the nation’s population, is looking more and more like Caracas. Only the well-off appear to have the short-term answer of living in secure high-rise apartment buildings or gated communities outside the urban area, with some of the latter growing into gated cities. But guarded segregation isn’t fool proof as bandits can infiltrate private security and attack on the streets.
Moreover, there have been a few high-profile homicide cases linked to narco-trafficking and black market pharmaceuticals over the last year that indicate that narcos from other parts of the region, namely Mexico and Colombia, are operating in the city’s shadows. Unfortunately, government accountability appears a distant dream, especially when considering that a few officials are implicated for participating in the growing black market for medications.
The recent cocaine confiscation in Barcelona only confirms what people already know: the Argentinean government is not doing enough to control illegal substances. As the national government turns a blind eye to trafficking, the federal and city police forces continue to bicker about roles, duties, proper training and the definition of human rights. Meanwhile, foreign governments like Spain get on with drug enforcement on their own and Buenos Aires citizens helplessly fall pray to ruthless narco violence.
*Janie Hulse Najenson is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is an analyst based in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the editor and producer of Insights from the Field, a quarterly publication promoting perspectives from within Latin America on politico-economic and security issues affecting the region.