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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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