Argentina’s President Javier Milei has focused most of his security efforts on the city of Rosario during his first six months in office, but his drive to cut public spending may hinder reforms needed to fight organized crime. 

Rosario has long been one of the most violent cities in Argentina, but it has shot to the top of the security agenda in recent months as criminal groups have unleashed a series of dramatic attacks. Gunmen have shot up buses, torched cars, and assassinated a man at a train station, leaving a note on the body threatening the governor of the province of Santa Fe, where Rosario is located. 

Milei and his security minister, Patricia Bullrich, have promised a heavy-handed response.

“We’re going to lock them all up,” Bullrich wrote in April on X, formerly Twitter, after criminals in Rosario hung a banner threatening her.

SEE ALSO: How Rosario Became Argentina’s Drug Violence Capital

As part of the government’s tough-on-crime crackdown, Bullrich announced a new special drug-trafficking unit on May 14, comprised of Argentina’s federal police, gendarme, airport police, and naval prefecture. 

This new unit is the latest in a series of policies aimed at controlling organized crime in Rosario, where schools have closed, transportation has shut down, and people have avoided leaving their houses amid attacks against civilians. 

Milei’s administration has also extended judicial reforms to Rosario, shifting prosecutions to an adversarial system, and he has deployed federal security forces to aid local authorities.

Additionally, Milei proposed a controversial anti-mafia bill, which would apply the most severe sentence received by a member of a criminal organization to all other members. He is also seeking congressional approval for a new security law that would ease restrictions on domestic military deployments established in the wake of abuses committed by military dictatorships during the 20th century.  

Rosario’s position along an international cocaine route has made it a hotbed of crime and violence for over a decade, with killings driven largely by small family clans that focus on extortion and controlling the city’s drug market.

InSight Crime Analysis

Milei’s surge of security resources to Rosario contrasts with his broader efforts to drastically cut public spending across the board.

Corruption is rife in Rosario and other parts of Santa Fe, and cooperation between authorities and organized crime has long allowed the latter to flourish. Reforming Rosario’s police and prison systems will likely require a significant investment from taxpayers, which is antithetical to Milei’s economic ideology.

“There is clearly a need to reform police institutions, which have been reformed before,” Diego Gorgal, a political scientist and security analyst, told InSight Crime. “The thing is, we must design a reform aimed at strengthening police institutions and not degrading them.”

SEE ALSO: Organized Crime Challenges Awaiting Argentina’s New President

What’s more, deploying federal forces to Rosario, as Milei has done, has previously failed to quell violence or disrupt organized crime in the long term.

Ex-President Mauricio Macri, for example, sent military radars and logistical support in 2018 to help the gendarme stop drugs from crossing into Argentina over its northern border. Macri lauded his government’s achievements against drug trafficking, claiming to have arrested a record number of drug traffickers in 2019. However, most of the arrests were not a product of major drug trafficking operations. A report from Argentina’s Prosecutor’s Office found that 73% of drug-related arrests were for possession for personal use. In the case of arrests for cocaine, the average amount seized was only 1.2 grams per person.

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The number of people imprisoned for drug-related crimes spiked in 2016

Number of people imprisoned for drug-related crimes in Argentina’s federal and provincial penitentiaries, 2002-2022

May 2024
Source: National System of Statistics on the Execution of Sentences

The government hopes that adopting an adversarial justice system will speed the judicial process, leading to quicker investigations, arrests, and prosecutions of organized crime groups in Rosario. But Argentina’s northern province of Salta, which adopted this system in 2019, has not made significant progress against organized crime, while its prison population has ballooned out of control. 

Even if the Milei administration is successful in removing members of organized crime groups from Rosario’s streets, funneling more convicts into Argentina’s overcrowded prisons has failed to stop crime bosses’ operations.

Argentina’s prison population has grown continuously, and now exceeds its official capacity

Number of people imprisoned in Argentina’s federal and provincial penitentiaries, 2002-2022

May 2024
Source: National System of Statistics on the Execution of Sentences

In fact, many of Rosario’s criminal leaders are already in prison. Ariel Máximo Cantero, alias “Guille,” the primary leader of the Monos, has been in prison since 2013 and has continued to run his operations from behind bars. The same can be said of Esteban Alvarado, leader of the Alvarado Clan, one of Argentina’s top drug trafficking organizations. 

Featured image: A soldier waves at a helicopter as part of the recent deployment of armed forces in Rosario, Argentina. Credit: CNN Español