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Why Some Argentines Are Suspicious of Macri's 'War on Drugs'

The specter of an armed forces-led “war on drugs” worries some critics – and evokes troubling historical memories.
Policía Nacional de los colombianos (Flickr) CC by 2.0

“We have to win this war.”

President Mauricio Macri’s blunt words in August announcing a new approach to combating Argentina’s burgeoning drug problem set off alarm bells with critics worried over a Mexico-style crackdown.

Now, one of the country’s leading human rights organizations is warning that the armed forces’ increased role in fighting drug traffickers could muddy well-established norms – not to mention laws –  against military involvement in domestic security matters.

In a report released in October, the Buenos Aires-based Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) cited several steps taken by the Macri administration that promise to give the military a more prominent role cracking down on the country’s drug trade. Those included a decree Macri issued in January declaring a national security emergency and authorizing the armed forces to shoot down planes suspected of carrying drugs over Argentine territory. In an OpenDemocracy editorial, experts from CELS wrote at the time that the decree “places drug trafficking in a grey area somewhere between domestic security (the field of action of police and security forces) and defense (within the scope of the armed forces).”

Macri’s approach may not sit well with Argentines who recall their country’s previous experiences with military rule, said Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, a professor of international relations at the University of Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires and the author of several books on drug policy in Latin America. “The inclusion of the armed forces in domestic questions is perceived by several segments of the population with hesitation because of the past, because of the military government, because of the cold war,” Tokatlian told AQ, noting that for the same reasons the armed forces may be “hesitant to intervene” in what could be a “complex, foggy war” on drugs.

A key component of Argentina’s transition to democracy in the 1980s, the military’s separation from domestic issues was established through a series of laws enacted in the wake of the country’s last military dictatorship. Citing this historical precedent, the CELS report implies that Macri’s efforts to involve the military in drug policy are, in a word, illegal. “The return of the armed forces to internal security duties violates the existing framework and breaks the multiparty consensus that established it,” the report reads.

Macri’s administration, for its part, has argued that the measures are justified in the midst of what he deems a national crisis. Indeed, few argue that Argentina’s burgeoning drug trade doesn’t constitute a legitimate threat. With traffickers increasingly shifting their routes south through Argentina, the country has become the fifth largest transit point in the world for cocaine to Asia and Europe. Insecurity has replaced inflation as the top concern of Argentines.

Still, statistics don’t support popular perceptions of a national crime crisis, which Macri has alluded to while making his case for a hardline drug policy. According to data from country’s ministry of security, armed robberies, theft, rape, and intentional homicides in Argentina all fell in 2015 from the previous year, while each hovered close to the same levels measured in 2008, the year former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took office.

In light of this, observers argue that Macri’s strategy – and in particular his vocal embrace of a “war” on drugs – is out of step with the rest of the region. His rhetoric sends a troubling message, according to Cecilia González, a Mexican journalist who lives and works in Buenos Aires and is the author of “Narcosur: The Shadow of Mexican Drug Trafficking in Argentina.”

Macri’s “Argentina without Drug Trafficking” plan, which he announced in August, “picks back up the dangerous, warlike discourse that in Mexico, for example, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, disappearances and displacements,” González wrote in an editorial for online news site Cosecha Roja.

Indeed, Macri has spoken directly – and frequently – about involving the military more in the drug fight throughout his first year in office. At an event marking Argentine Army day in May, Macri called for the support of the armed forces in “confronting drug trafficking, which has become a plague to our families.” Three months later, in a speech to top military brass, he made his point clearer still: “We’re focused on three courses of action: becoming an Argentina with zero poverty, confronting and defeating drug trafficking, and uniting Argentines. In each of these, we need the armed forces,” he said.

“I don’t believe that any of the people around Macri have a grasp of the current situation of drugs worldwide and specifically in Latin America," said Tokatlian. "Many countries are thinking of alternative measures and questioning the merits of the war on drugs.”

Of course, few countries, if any, have figured out the right equation to tackle the drug trade, prioritize public health and eliminate organized crime. The government’s anti-drug plan includes programs aimed at limiting the demand for drugs, and Macri himself has spoken on the need to focus public health efforts on prevention if his plan is to be successful. Macri may be wise to get ahead of Argentina’s drug problem before it gets worse, but if history is any guide, an outright embrace of the “war on drugs” could have unintended consequences.

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O’Boyle is an editor for AQ

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.