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Column 081213 Brewer

Monday, August 12, 2013

South America's Southern Cone Nations and their Narco Problems

By Jerry Brewer

As a region, with an overall total of some 374 million people, South America is home to a population larger than the United States and Canada combined.  In its Southern Cone alone, the figure stands at nearly 250 million inhabitants.

The five countries of the Southern Cone – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay – face and are exposed to a combination of factors that include political instability, internal turmoil and disturbances, as well as natural disturbances that include severe droughts, earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions, among many others. Much of this in densely populated urban areas that aggravate the vulnerabilities of large poor and marginalized populations.

In terms of political geography, the Southern Cone nations in the narrowest sense have traditionally included Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, which are bounded to the north by Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru, to the west by the Pacific Ocean, and south to the confluence of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

A noted characteristic of this Southern Cone region is its relatively high standard of living and quality of life. The human development indices of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are “the highest in Latin America, similar to those of the richest countries in Eastern Europe,” according to the UN Development Program.

Still and all, escalating transnational and local organized crime, violence and drug trafficking are on the upswing and threaten the stability of these nations.

Argentina officials confirm that Mexico's Sinaloa cartel "established a network of bases in the country's north." Reacting to this, Argentina has placed armed forces on their front lines, deploying "6,000 Gendarmerie and Coast Guard personnel, plus 800 Army Special Forces, in Argentina's northwest."  As well, violence in Argentina's northeastern Santa Fe province reveals that organized crime is taking a central role.

Furthermore, Argentina is now a major producer of chemical precursors for cocaine production, a growing drug money laundering haven, and a significant drug transit country.  Plus its drug consumption rates have exploded, and it has become a destination for drug synthesis.

Though it has long been one of the safest countries in Latin America, organized crime and insecurity are on the rise in Uruguay, with 40 percent of the country rating citizen security as the biggest issue facing the nation.  Eighty-four percent said crime has worsened in the last two months. A recent study revealed that residents of the capital, Montevideo, are more likely to rate their country as “highly unsafe.”

Rising gang activity, increased drug use, money laundering, as well as police corruption, have increased in Uruguay. In 2012, 76 police officers were found guilty of corrupt practices that included “receiving kickbacks, arms trafficking and extortion.”  "Transnational Crime" in Uruguay is being described as "foreigners, especially Colombian and Peruvian groups," that use Uruguay as a bridge to the cocaine markets in Europe.

With drug use and crime escalating in Uruguay proper, government legislators in its lower House last week voted to legalize marijuana. Although Uruguay’s citizens oppose the measure it is expected to pass in the Senate in the fall.

Argentina knows all too well what increased drug use is doing to their country. Marijuana, the bulk of which is imported from Paraguay and used for domestic consumption, continues to be the most widely abused illegal drug. However, the prevalence of cocaine use has risen sharply, and the country has the second largest internal cocaine market in South America, after Brazil.

Cocaine remains by far the leading drug for which Argentines seek help at treatment centers, and the use of cocaine base is a growing problem among economically disadvantaged members of society. Cocaine trafficking is the most challenging drug threat faced by authorities. According to the 2011 UNODC World Drug Report, Argentina had the highest prevalence of cocaine use (2.6 percent) in South and Central America among 15 to 64-year olds. Based on UNODC estimates, Argentina is home to 25 percent of the cocaine users in South and Central America (675,000 users), second only to Brazil. 

Chile, experiencing some of the same problems, has increased its counter-narcotics efforts.  Chile also shares a border with top cocaine producers Bolivia and Peru, and it is a transit point for drugs within the Southern Cone, with lucrative overland drug routes and Chilean seaports.

Another major contributing problem, for the Southern Cone nations, has been the suspension of agreements by the leftist regimes in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador with the U.S. DEA, regarding the latter's drug interdiction efforts. Early this year even Argentina's Ministry of Security ordered the DEA to suspend activities in that country until further notice.

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Jerry Brewer is C.E.O. of Criminal Justice International Associates, a global threat mitigation firm headquartered in northern Virginia.  His website is located at www.cjiausa.org.


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