Argentine Drug Dealing: A Local Tour Of Hustlers, Cops And Politicians

Putting the 'organized' in organized crime, necessary for Argentina's efficient distribution of illegal drugs. And of course there are plenty of corrupt politicians and police along the way.

Night falls on Buenos Aires
Night falls on Buenos Aires
Jorge Ossona

BUENOS AIRES — In Argentina's big cities, drug-dealing operates in complex equivalents of distribution "chains." And yet as unstable and chaotic a world as it is, the illicit sale of narcotics may be ordered along two or three basic principles.

Cocaine trafficking constitutes the crux of activities that flow through an established hierarchy, from the top supplier to local-level "tips" (punteros) — your neighborhood dealer. These should not be confused with the classic political "dealer," drug dealers being in a different category even if both types recognize and interact with each other.

The dealer must inevitably have detailed information about everything happening in his or her territory, in order to formulate the widest range of solutions. Politicians usually tolerate local dealers — the "tips" — because they know they are running franchise operations conceded by the police and sections of the communal power structure. At the same time, members of their families or local supporters — indeed themselves — might very well be consumers, which is reason enough for interactive circuits to emerge between these two references of local life.

People merely perceive them differently in the neighborhood. Regardless of his or her style, the politician is considered a positive and universal mediator in the face of individual and collective emergencies, while the drug dealer is both feared and despised, being judged a "merchant of death."

Cracks and soldiers

In all neighborhoods there is a varying number of youth gangs including boys and girls who work and study, and "lazy" types — the familiarly termed "ni-nis" neither working nor studying — always party to a range of offenses. They consume considerable amounts of beer and wine at street parties, or other alcoholic beverages "blended" variously with mind-altering substances that circulate in a little-studied market.

The most compulsive of these, the "cracks" (fisura), are also small-time dealers.

Some of these can become "tips" or neighborhood dealers, for which they will need arms and vehicles — mainly motorbikes — and backers or garantors higher up in the drug hierarchy.

They must also have a parental structure that will give them the rationale they lack, through division of labor and a fixed domicile guarded by "soldiers." These youngsters' temerity is fed by showing off their cars, motorbikes, expensive phones and sophisticated weapons. Their group would eventually need an emblematic name that somehow expresses its "ethics" and the "destiny" it must live out without hypocrisy.

Above neighborhood gangs are the "wholesalers," a more silent level of suppliers who managed at some point to move up the difficult cursus honorum of drug dealing. Personal references are more important at this level than your family or group. The quantities sold here are greater than those of the neighborhood, so the only people arriving at the wholesaler's home are envoys of neighborhood dealers who are customers.

Cocaine is at the heart of the chain, but a dealer at this level can also sell marijuana independently, usually provided by Paraguayan dealers. Wholesalers have a defined jurisdiction and specific subordinates, with exclusive relationships that cannot be bypassed without breaking the professinoal "code."

Drugs and politics

Then there is the large-scale distributor, who confers the "seal" or label to the entire chain, and imposes minimum standards of quality on what neighborhood dealers sell in his or her name. The third-level trafficker's reputation and competitiveness are at stake in the neighborhood. Every week the entire chain pays those monies agreed on, with which they will pay their next-level Peruvian, Bolivian or Colombian suppliers living in luxury districts, but also "taxes" owed to the State in the zone where their franchise operates.

Situated in a comfortable position between the second and third levels is a middleman or "reference" (referente), a strategic figure ensuring that the entire chain functions. The "reference" handles total, gross quantities coming in from the third-level distributor and monies paid in by neighborhood "wholesalers." The middle man is the one who pays off the corrupt police "street chief" with what is referred to as the "toll charge."

This is taken to the commissioner who sends a portion of the booty onto a "communal godfather" who may be at the summit of the political pyramid. This last circuit almost always involves a territory's secretive political "dealers," who also negotiate with police the protection to be given for other crimes committed in their zone of influence.

Drug codes are very rigorous. A street-level dealer need only be late with a sum of money, or have someone complain about the poor quality of "discounted" product, to trigger the mechanism of reprisals. That is when second-tier suppliers and police act.

This is why we also have the occasional drug raids duly covered by the media, in which police "confiscated large quantities of drugs" a "range of different-caliber guns" and "several mobile phones." These are the rules of the game in a malleable system with little stability or paperwork — and fitting the characteristics of Argentine society.

*Jorge Ossona is a historian.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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