Latin America

Why Argentina is keeping its drug problems under wraps

Pope Francis has warned about a possible “Mexicanization” of his country

An image of Pope Francis on a building wall inside the 1-11-14 slum.
An image of Pope Francis on a building wall inside the 1-11-14 slum.ricardo ceppi

Among the grime, burned-out vehicles, drug addicts and dilapidated shanty dwellings, there are signs all over 1-11-14 – the most dangerous slum in Buenos Aires – demanding “justice for Maxi.”

Maximiliano Milesi was an 18-year-old student who was shot dead on February 10. He left behind a four-month-old daughter.

“He was a good kid who was studying. He was mistaken for someone else who had the same type of motorcycle,” say his neighbors.

Drug trafficking has terrorized an area where 70,000 people live, right in the heart of Buenos Aires

Speaking with residents in this slum, it becomes immediately clear how the drug-trafficking trade has terrorized an area where 70,000 people live, right in the heart of the Argentinean capital.

In February, Pope Francis warned about situations like this in his native Argentina. He described it as the “Mexicanization” of the country because of the growing drug trade. His comments have sparked controversy in both Argentina and Mexico.

The pope had just read a report sent to him by La Almeda, a social organization dedicated to fighting child labor, about the problem.

A former guerrilla who spent two years in the slum as a government observer went public with his report

“Hopefully we are in time to avoid Mexicanization,” the pope wrote to Gustavo Vera, a city councilman who directs La Almeda. “I was speaking to some Mexican bishops, and it is a thing of terror.”

Pope Francis had worked with the organization prior to becoming pope in 2013, when he was still Buenos Aires Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. The report was written by a former guerrilla fighter who spent two years in the slum as a government observer.

Jorge Rodríguez, the former insurgent, prepared 174 reports for the Argentinean government describing the poor living conditions and police corruption in 1-11-14. But after the government ignored his warnings, Rodríguez went public and his descriptions caused a media stir.

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“There are 300 Peruvian soldiers inside the slum; a lot of them are former members of the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency and they have all types of weapons, such as FALs and AK47s. They control 10 cocaine laboratories. They bring in technicians from Peru because it is difficult to produce cocaine.

“There are 15 blocks of territory where police have strict orders not to enter. In reality, the police are there so no one bothers those drug men. There are people who haven’t left there in two years,” Rodríguez says.

According to him, the drug trafficking operation is headed by Marcos Antonio Estrada González, an alleged Peruvian drug kingpin who spent some time in jail. Estrada is now free, but is still facing various criminal charges.

The drug trade is reportedly headed by Marcos Antonio Estrada González, an alleged Peruvian drug kingpin

After reading the report, Pope Francis gave an interview to La Cárcova News, a newspaper from another infamous Buenos Aires slum.

“There are countries that have become slaves to the drug trade. There are countries or regions where the drug trade rules. With respect to Argentina, I can say this: 25 years ago it was a transit country, but today it is a consumer country. I am not too sure but I suspect drugs are also being processed there.”

According to the United Nations, Argentina has become the third-largest exporter of illegal narcotics in the continent after Brazil and Colombia.

For many Argentineans who like to say their country is much more peaceful than its neighbors, the facts are hard to swallow. With the exception of Rosario – a city north of Buenos Aires where 1,000 people were killed last year in drug-related crimes – there are no serious public discussions on the issue.

Many cannot believe that there is a situation like this just six kilometers from the Casa Rosada presidential palace and the fashionable La Recoleta neighborhood.

Argentina has become the third largest exporter of illegal narcotics in South America, according to the UN

Vera, the head of La Almeda, has been invited to the Vatican next week to meet with the pope at his Santa Marta residence to discuss the drug problem in Argentina.

One person who doesn’t like how often the 1-11-14 slum is connected to the drug trade is Father Hernán. The Catholic priest has lived there for seven years and runs a school, church, senior center and a drug rehabilitation clinic.

There are thousands of people who are fighting to emerge from misery in 1-11-14, says the priest, who prefers to focus on how conditions are improving bit by bit.

Checkpoints with police carrying heavy weapons are located a few meters from Father Hernán’s school.

“How can we help a boy from here improve his life without being stigmatized if we continue to link the slum to drugs?”

“People say they don’t do anything, but I tell them, look, it was a lot worse when they weren’t here.’ We didn’t have anywhere to file complaints,” he says.

“There have always been murders here but now there’s someone who will get the complaint. If we continue to connect this slum with the drug trade, how are we going to help a boy from here improve his own life without being stigmatized?”

Other residents are more pessimistic. “María” – not her real name – has lived in the slum for 30 years and has nine children. She is desperate.

Last week, one of her daughters stayed over a friend’s house for dinner and came home late. She crossed the slum holding a baby in her arms and someone fired a shot.

“It was meant to scare her, a warning not to pass through there again at night. They control everything. They fight over a block or even kill each other for a few meters of territory. And they don’t want to see anyone walking near there by night,” María explains.

About half-an-hour before the interview with María, a man, high on drugs and out of control, began firing bullets in the air.

“There are weapons everywhere. People live here because they have no other choice. This is the only place where you can find a room for 1,000 pesos [$100] a month. Those who can, leave,” María says.

Despite some dangerous neighborhoods, Argentina continues to be a relatively safe country

Despite some dangerous neighborhoods, Argentina continues to be a relatively safe country. It ranks third among Latin American nations with the lowest crime rates. Only Cuba and Chile are safer than Argentina.

In comparison, there are 5.5 murders committed each year in Argentina for every 100,000 residents. In Venezuela, there are 82 killings for every 100,000 inhabitants while in Colombia there are 27.5 and Mexico 23.7.

But the drug terror is advancing in some areas of Argentina.

“People are worried,” says Vera, “but the real problem is the government. Drugs and money laundering are infiltrating all sectors, including the soccer business.

“This is an opium war and don’t you forget it. The process of Mexicanization doesn’t have to do with a weak society but instead a corrupt government,” he says.

“Even in Mexico, people were upset when 10 years ago people began discussing the Colombianization process. And when serious discussions start taking place in a society, it is usually too late because drug trafficking has infiltrated all sectors. That’s what happened in Mexico and it can happen to us.”

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