In late January this year, at little more than a month after he took office, Argentine President Mauricio Marci issued a presidential decree declaring a "state of emergency" in South America's second-largest country.
One of the things asserted in the decree was that trafficking of illegal drugs posed a "threat to national sovereignty."
In the months since, Argentina has pursued muscular law-enforcement practices in its anti-narcotics efforts.
And while the country has not seen the high-levels of drug-related violence witnessed elsewhere in the region, this new trend in the drug fight, and recent violence that appears tied to it, have sparked worry at home.
As part of the decree issued in January, Macri also authorized the shoot-down of suspected drug planes, a policy recently reinstated by countries in the region that has worried human-rights advocates.
Both drug trafficking and consumption are issues in Argentina.
An August report indicated that there were at least 1,500 clandestine airstrips in the country, providing entry points for shipments of marijuana, cocaine, and coca base, produced in other parts of Latin America. Drugs also enter by land and water — Bolivian cocaine by road and Paraguayan marijuana by river.
The Macri government has gone after precursor chemicals, used in the production of cocaine and synthetic drugs and for which Argentina has become known as a hub. In the first seven months of this year, Argentine authorities seized 700 tons, exceeding the previous annual national average by about seven times.
Drug-related violence has also grown prevalent in some parts of the country.
In the city of Rosario, in northern Santa Fe province, the homicide rate is nearly three times the national average due in part to the growth of gangs involved in the drug trade there. The trade is fed by the province's 32 ports, which are used heavily by traffickers and has challenged local and federal authorities.
Elsewhere in the country, drug traffickers have set up what are basically fiefdoms in sections of major cities, funneling drugs into local drug labs and then shunting the finished product to consumers abroad and at home.
Macri's predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been criticized for her government's lack of action on the country's drug issues, and her administration left few tools to combat them. But Macri's conservative government has been seen as willing to treat anti-narcotics efforts as a security matter, rather than as a social or political one.
"Argentine politicians, not just this government, like to take a combative stance against narcotrafficking, as they think it produces good electoral results," Alejandro Corda, a lawyer specializing in drug policy, told the FT, referring to midterm elections in 2017.
"It sells much better to be belligerent than innovative," Corda said.
'It is ironic and tragic'
Argentina — which has explored defense deals with the US, Israel, Spain, and Brazil, rolled out joint police-military operations in border areas, and deployed federal police to crime-ridden areas like Rosario — is not the only country that has expanded the role of the military in domestic security issues.
Mexico has deployed the military and federal police to combat organized crime and drug cartels since the late 2000s.
Venezuela, too, has deployed its national guard on anti-crime operations in major cities.
"Direct intervention by the armed forces in actions against drug trafficking or other forms of crime has grave consequences in terms of increased violence, massive human rights violations, and the de-professionalization and corruption of military structures," Manuel Tufró and Paula Litvachky of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human-rights group, wrote early in Macri's term, referencing the examples of Mexico and Colombia.
"At the same time, progress toward the dismantling of markets and criminal organizations has been little to none," they added.
A particular concern is that a focus on the drug trade as a security issue is a poor way to address problems like addiction and does little to fight problems like corruption.
In Argentina, as in Mexico and elsewhere, there are allegations that the vibrancy of the drug trade is partly the result of official complicity. "There is no drug trafficker that can operate without the endorsement of the police anywhere in Argentina," Marcelo Sain, former vice minister for security in Buenos Aires province, told the FT.
In the city of Rosario, the local police force is thought to be close to local gangs, and about 200 members of the police force are under federal investigation, according to The Economist. In October, the provincial chief of police was sentenced to six years in jail for ties to drug trafficking.
An intensified drug war with an emphasis on punitive measures can also overburden criminal-justice systems. Harsh anti-drug measures rolled out in the mid-2000s have boosted Argentina's prison population exponentially — with many of those prisoners only minor offenders — while having minimal impact on organized crime.
An El País report in October found that prisons in Buenos Aires province, Argentina's largest, had 33,000 prisoners in a space built for 26,000.
In Sante Fe province, home to the city of Rosario, 20% of the province's 5,000 prisoners are held in police stations, as the prisons are too full to house them.
Overcrowded prisons have become breeding grounds for further instability.
In Argentina, as in other countries in the region, harsh anti-crime and anti-drug measures maintain public support, as they fit with the popular conviction that force is the best response to insecurity and with politicians' desire to be seen as doing something.
"It is ironic and tragic that Argentina has not learnt from this regional and international debate, and is now reverting back to [militarised] policies that have failed,” Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America in Washington, DC, told the Financial Times.
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