Argentina and the Stages of Drug Tracking

The issue of illegal drugs is now inescapable in Argentina: the deaths - the carnage? - caused by the sale and consumption of adulterated cocaine is perhaps the most recent and forceful expression of the expansion of this problem in the country.

In 2014, I wrote the article below. At that time, I had an implicit expectation that, in fact, was not even considered in almost a decade, irrespective of the governments in office.  The underlying principles that led me to write on the subject eight years ago were:

a) to engage in a debate on the issue, since avoiding deliberation on the matter is dysfunctional and favors the consolidation of the drug trafficking phases
b) to strengthen civilian state powers to prevent the state at its various level from being partially or totally controlled by organized crime
c) to protect the most vulnerable population and the victims instead of embarking on a whirlwind of announcements of sanctions and drastic measures that are barely effective and merely have a symbolic impact
d) to curb organized crime rather than insisting on the unattainable miracle of a complete and immediate elimination of drugs
e) to pursue cohesion, equity, and citizen solidarity as a better antidote to reverse the consolidation of the narcotics business
f) to focus on the people rather than primarily on the substances, in the belief that more drug seizures, the dismantling of laboratories, and police-media operations can move forward in solving a complex, dynamic and resilient problem
g) to reconsider the policies implemented to learn about what is effective and what is ineffective.
h) to understand the global geopolitical dimension of the drug business and, therefore, to seek greater cooperation and coordination with like-minded countries, avoiding the failed logic of the "war on drugs".

The remaining question is: what stage of drug trafficking is Argentina in today?

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(*) Criminologist Klaus von Lampe has identified at least 150 definitions of organized crime. Authors, countries, national entities, and multilateral institutions define this phenomenon in different ways. The concept is therefore open to debate. However, there is relative consensus on the stages in the evolution of organized crime

In this regard, an influential paper written in 1987 by Edwin H. Stier and Peter R. Richards (Strategic Decision Making in Organized Crime Control: The Need for a Broadened Perspective) is a good guide to observe and assess how organized crime unfolds through three distinct stages. If a set of policies and practices to curb organized crime is not addressed at the relevant stage, the next stage will progress. This is key to understanding problems such as drug trafficking.

What are these three stages? There is an initial "predatory" stage. At this stage, territory and its control are essential. There are several reasons for this: one or more illegal products must be handled in a safe physical space; roads for the transportation of those products must be secured; access to markets to sell their products must be available; areas of personal protection must be provided. The dominated territory is critical for defending the illegal business; eliminating competitors; gaining socio-political leverage; and ensuring physical survival.

In those territories there are diverse forms of violence that are sporadic at first and then increase. On the one hand, there is the rivalry between criminal groups, which generates disputes. This form of violence does not seem to be of much interest to either the state or society; the logic of "let them kill each other" prevails. On the other hand, there is the forced co-optation, the suggestive threat or direct execution of certain players who, at the municipal or provincial level, have a certain amount of power: mayors, judges, police officers, among others. This form of violence is disturbing but does not alarm too much; the prevailing logic, both institutional and social, is "not to make waves". And finally, there is the attempt on the life of a public official or political leader: at that moment, the logic of "something must be done" emerges.

All of the above shows a remarkable advance of the private monopoly of force, which highlights the weakening of the state. However, the state is not powerless. With basic state capacities, it is possible to rise to the challenge and prevent it from moving on to the next stage. For example, strengthening the justice, intelligence and police forces is imperative. Regular reform of the security forces is crucial. Well-prepared information and statistics are a prerequisite for a realistic diagnosis. Aiming at the material dismantling - finances and technology - of criminal groups is of the utmost importance.

But if none of this happens, the second stage will come as no surprise: the "parasitic" stage. At this point, the political and economic leverage of criminality increases dramatically. This stage reveals not only the growing presence of organized crime, but also three alarming dynamics: its "legitimization", "proliferation" and "democratization". Legitimization implies a growing level of acceptance and recognition of such criminality by society. For example, the money from drug traffickers is accepted by many social sectors, their lavish lifestyles are not questioned, and their visibility in typical elite circles arouses no rejection. Proliferation refers to the diversification of their investments, particularly in legal undertakings, both in rural and urban areas. Finally, democratization can be interpreted as the multiplication of criminal emporiums, from small to large cartels and from classic mafia-style hierarchical organizations to more sophisticated networks. All these forms involve violence, co-optation, and corruption.

The state must now respond to a major issue. It urgently needs a comprehensive strategy to curb organized crime. But does it have the political will, the resources, and the capacity to do so? If that were the case, it would need to rely on a society willing to delegitimize the advance of illegality, to seek a high degree of international cooperation in the face of a phenomenon that has become transnational, and to implement a long-term policy without expecting miracles.

Unless all of the above were to happen, then the most likely outcome would be the final stage: the "symbiotic" stage. In this phase, criminality becomes entrenched and the political and economic system turns out to be as dependent on the "parasite" - namely, organized crime - as the latter is on the established structure. The border between the legal and the illegal, between the legitimate and the illegitimate is blurred and the rule of law itself is diluted. This stage tends to produce what I call pax mafiosa. Although a country is not fully captured by organized crime, in many regions and provinces the symbiosis allows for the consolidation of a new social class at the local level with the aptitude and determination to establish a new order in that space in the face of the confusion of the ruling elites and the fragility of the state. This is not a model of occupation of the central state, but a type of pax in which a social class maximizes its power at the intersection between the state, society, and the market.

Once the last stage is reached, a complete and immediate reversal through an urgent set of virtuous public policies is unlikely to occur. In the evolution described above, organized crime is not the same in the first and third phases. At the "predatory" stage there are gangs and budding criminal business groups. At the "parasitic" stage there are diverse forms of organized crime increasingly intertwined at an international level. At the "symbiotic" stage, there are clear signs that the emerging gangs are a thing of the past and that there is now a newly consolidated social class whose original support came from illegal businesses, but which is now deeply and inextricably linked to the legal economy and the political system. At the first stage, this was a matter of criminology; at the third, it is a sociological issue.

Argentina needs to be clear about where it stands in this process.

(*) Text originally published by La Nación newspaper in 11/02/2014


Juan Gabriel Tokatlian holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (Washington). He is currently the Vice Rector of the Universidad Di Tella and Full Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Studies of the same university. He lived 18 years in Colombia where he was Associate Professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Bogotá) and Senior Researcher at the Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales (IEPRI). He was co-founder and Vice-Rector of the Centre for International Studies (CEI) of the Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá).

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