Argentina Reporting — 19 January 2014

thumbnail photo of Father Gregorio López courtesy of El Univeral 

Argentina is debating whether to send the military into the northern part of the country to fight growing drug trafficking violence there.  The Argentine constitution prohibits that.  (In the USA, that too is prevented by a 1878 law with a fancy Latin name: Posse Comitatus.)  The plan to strengthen the northern border and address the violence in Argentina is called Operation Fortín II.

Today, Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper reported that the Argentine Defense minister firmly opposes that, asking why should Argentina battle domestic gangs with the military when such strategy has failed miserably in Mexico.  Some politicians in the opposition and even the church are calling for the military to join the fighting and regain control of the region.

That Argentine is seeking a solution was made apparent when a few weeks ago Argentina asked the United States to sell them armored Humvee vehicles.  This is surprising, given that relations between the two nations are not exactly cordial.

El Mercurio reports that Argentina has become the third largest exporter of cocaine in the world. Formerly the country was just a transit point; now it has become a production center as coca leaves grown and coca paste is smuggled to Argentina where it is refined into the finished product.  The cocaine is then shipped to Europe.

The minister of defense is correct when he says that the Mexico strategy is a disaster.  In case you have not been following the news, the southwest corner of that country has fallen into anarchy recently.  There, a very brave Catholic priest named Gregorio López is outspoken in his criticism of the drug cartels, consequently he wears a bulletproof vest and travels with a full-time body guard.  This week in an interview with the Mexican newspaper El Universal, the priest challenged the President of Mexico to do something about the lawlessness in the state of Michoacán.   The Mexican President has been quite successful in delivering on his campaign promises to make structural changes to the economy by breaking up telecommunication monopoly and allow foreign investment in the oil industry there.  However, he has not directed enough attention to the security situation, and the people are losing patience.

In Michoacán, the dominate mafia is the Knights Templar.  They have expanded beyond drug trafficking to extortion, kidnapping, and even, believe it or not, exporting iron ore to China, by bribing the customs officials to look the other way.  The priest says that the local police and regional government are corrupt and support the Knights Templar as they terrorize the people.  Civilian militias, formed a year ago, recently evicted the police and have taken over several towns, including displacing the Knights Templar from some of their properties.  They have done what the federal government and police have not been able to do, which is to impact the business of the cartel.  Their leader is a surgeon who was kidnapped by the Knights Templar.  His family had to sell land to raise $150,000 to secure his release.

The federal government has responded by sending in the troops and taking over the port where the Knights Templar ship iron ore to China.  The people are glad to have the the civilian paramilitaries step into the vacuum of leadership and have blocked highways to prevent the federal troops from disarming the militias.  This has resulted in a three-way armed conflict in which the paramilitaries are fighting both the federal government and the cartels.  By any definition of the world, that is civil war.

Critics point out that there are dangers to having civil militia step in where the government will not or cannot.  One has only to look at the history of Colombia to see what could be the worse possible outcome.  There, paramilitaries rose up to fight the FARC communist guerrillas, because the Colombian military could not protects ranchers and farmers in rural areas.  Soon the paramilitaries became an outlaw organization itself, killing, kidnapping, and extorting funds from the people in the manner of the FARC who they had hoped to displace.   Now, the paramilitaries have been disbanded in Colombia and Colombia is very close to negotiating peace with the FARC.

The Argentine minister of defense is right when he says that Argentina should not follow the Mexican model.  What should Argentina do?  There are several options.  The first is do nothing, in which drug gangs there will continue to kill each other as they battle for turf.  There second is to bring in the military, which could make the situation worse, as it has done in Mexico.  The third option is to do what Mexico did prior to to the presidency of former president Carlos Salinas, who kicked off the war with the cartels.  That was to let the cartels agree on who will operate where, so they can peacefully agree on how to carve up the territory. That was not the open policy of the Mexican government, rather it was the de facto policy, built upon the Mexican system of patronage and bribery.  Patronage and bribery is already the de facto standard in Argentina.  To secretly arrange peace between the warring factions, based on the Mexican model under previous governments, has been the only strategy that have been shown to work.  If Argentina did that, at least there would be less violence.


UPDATE 2/25/14:

Sergio Alejandro Berni, Argentina’s National Security Minister, says he is in favor of legalizing the sale and production of marijuana.  This would suggest any effort to go to battle with the drug mafias is less likely.



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