Aug 09

Chronicling the chaos: Police beat Argentina

by in Argentina

saqueos

Civilians took to arms on the night of December 3, when the Córdoba Police Department went on strike, leaving the streets of Argentina’s second largest city undefended|photo by La Voz del Interior

Twenty-thirteen was a banner year for bad news in Córdoba.

When I arrived in December the local newsstand was plastered with headlines announcing another burst of inflation. A magazine cover featured a photo of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner posing nude (on purpose) and across the street municipal workers were still sweeping up broken glass from a 35-hour strike of the Córdoba Police Department. The December 3 strike had precipitated an evening of violence, looting and vigilante justice that had left more than 1,000 businesses plundered and one man dead.

Months before, members of that same police force were denounced on local television stations for colluding in a widespread drug-trafficking operation – a dangerous racket that allegedly involved confiscating drugs from unaffiliated gangs and selling it back to their rivals.

As the facts trickled out and the federal public prosecutor from Buenos Aires moved in, police quickly lost control of Córdoba’s streets and the police brass lost authority within its own ranks. One of the officers from the Dangerous Drugs Division – the division involved in the drug ring – ended up dead. Five others were arrested and charged with illicit association, qualified robbery and colluding with drug traffickers, among other charges.

The so called narcoescandolo, which began September 14 with the release of hidden camera footage of police colluding with criminals, and los saqueos, or the lootings of December 3 gave Argentines disturbing answers to the deepest questions about their society. It conjured up newspaper editorials on Enlightenment philosophers Hobbes and Rousseau, and gave unanticipated grounding to dystopic Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Purge (2013).

It seemed to confirm that the only social contract in Argentina is everyman for himself.

Police beat Argentina

“There are no good guys in this story,” says Juan Federico, editor of the Sucesos or the Incidents section of Córdoba’s leading newspaper, La Voz del Interior. I sat with him in a glassed-in cubicle at the high-security waiting area of his employer, where he spoke to me for one and a half hours without pause.

Federico, 31, has spent nearly 10 years at La Voz; he publishes in several Argentine magazines; blogs at Cronicas de la Calle; and in January published a book about narcotraficking in Córdoba called Drogas, Cocinas y Fierros. But he is mostly just a police beat reporter with a pony tail.

The police beat is the most romantic of newspaper jobs. It means driving down dangerous streets with a cell phone and notepad to record the names, dates, locations and commentaries surrounding the day’s crimes – the details from the city’s darkest moments. In Córdoba’s case it means going into neighborhoods where ambulances refuse to go because they are afraid they will be robbed.

In 2013, 90 homicides were committed in Córdoba, Argentina’s second largest city (1.3 million people), according to statistics compiled by La Voz. That statistic is relatively low, especially for the region. Nearby Rosario, Argentina’s third largest city, had 264 homicides in 2013, according to local papers. The city of San Antonio, Texas (1.4 million people) had about 90 murders in 2013.

Federico has made his career by earning the trust of the ‘good citizens,’ as he calls them, his unofficial sources in the neighborhoods. When two kids are caught fighting at school because one’s father shot the other in a gang-related shootout the previous night, teachers don’t call the police. They call Federico.

“Why did they adopt me?” he says. “Why do they call me at 3 a.m. when someone has been murdered? Because when they call the police they get punched, they get robbed, detained. And justice never comes.”

Violence against journalists in Argentina is uncommon, especially compared to Mexico and Colombia, he said, but there is still much to be afraid of. He has at least one death threat following him.

“The worst thing a narco could do is murder a journalist, here in Córdoba, where they have everything served to them,” Federico said.

"(The Lootings) weren't made by an army of one desperate socioeconomic class," Federico writes towards the end of his book. "It was a society in its entirety, that let us see its cracks and, above all, its limitations to build a solid social contract."

Juan Federico, editor at La Voz del Interior in Córdoba, Argentina, has followed the drug trade in his city for nearly 10 years|photo by brandon c janes iv

Federico and his colleagues at La Voz follow protocols, which involve constant communication, relaying their locations and who they meet with. He never goes to an interview unless he knows the area well.

After reporting the death threat in 2009, a Córdoba police officer was stationed outside his door for month, which created a deeper fear, he said. Now they know his neighborhood and his daily routine.

“For a long time, at this newspaper, I have written stories about the drug trade,” Federico said. “For me it always attracted too much attention and I had the most intimate conviction that the police were conspiring with the narcos.”

With reliable sources in the neighborhoods, he learned where, who and how drugs were being produced and distributed in Córdoba. Matching his sources in the neighborhoods with the police reports – the official story – he saw a discrepancy in the treatment of certain gangs.

“There were always certain bandas grandes that never went to jail,” Federico said.

Keeping up the appearances, the police chiefs would occasionally make a big bust, hold a press conference and invite the public prosecutor down from Buenos Aires for the photo op, he said.

Narco-futbolista

In the summer of 2009, 1,000 kilos of cocaine were shipped from Córdoba, Argentina to Spain in the legs of two giant wind turbines. It was an international drug smuggling operation that involved Spanish soccer clubs, Serbian drug lords and a transportation industry leader from Córdoba.

When the drug-filled cylinders arrived in Spain, the Spanish authorities were waiting on the beach.

Spanish intelligence had followed the drugs, originally 2,000 kilos of cocaine, from its origin in Bolivia, through a storehouse in Córdoba, where the drugs were repackaged and loaded into the turbines. The containers passed through customs in Buenos Aires undetected and were loaded onto two barges bound for Spain. A transportation mogul from Córdoba named Oscar Alberto Allende directed the Argentine leg of the trip and was sentenced in 2012 to 15 years in prison for the crime.

When his name was released, Federico began touching his sources in the neighbourhood where Allende lived.

“This guy had been caught a thousand times and whenever the police were ready to perform the raid, something happened to stop it,” he said.

When Federico asked why the drugs weren’t stopped in Córdoba, Spanish authorities said that they couldn’t trust the police in his city.

“They had all of the facts and never wanted to give any of it to Argentina,” Federico said. “They didn’t trust the Argentine police, nor the judges.”

For Federico, this seemed enough evidence to warrant an investigation of the Córdoba Police Department by the federal judge. But no inquiries were made.

“Común y corriente”

One day in September 2013 a man called Juan “el Francés” Viarnes walked up to the offices of ADN, a popular TV news program in Córdoba, with a ready-made scandal in his hands.

The official story is that Viarnes was a civilian – común y corriente, as the reports called him. Viarnes came to Córdoba from Buenos Aires and arranged a meeting with the director of the Fight Against Narco-trafficking Division of the Córdoba Police Department, Rafael Sosa. Viarnes’ plan was to establish connections between Córdoba’s gangs and Sosa’s police division to sell drugs and launder money. Everybody would end up millionaires, he promised. And Sosa allegedly agreed to the deal.

The scheme worked. They set up money laundering “caves” downtown, exchanged the drugs for dollars, and invested in properties in the wealthy suburbs, such as Carlos Paz. But, as is usually the case with these things, it worked too well, and Viarnes and his associates were having trouble laundering the money fast enough.

Juan "el Francés" Viarnes said he arranged a meeting with the director of the Fight Against Narco-trafficking Division of the Córdoba Police Department, Rafael Sosa, to sell work with drug dealers in Córdoba|photo La Voz del Interior

Juan “el Francés” Viarnes said he arranged a meeting with the director of the Fight Against Narco-trafficking Division of the Córdoba Police Department, Rafael Sosa, to sell work with drug dealers in Córdoba|photo La Voz del Interior

Viarnes was arrested on July 19, 2013 for attempting to buy three cars with counterfeit dollars, dollars he later said he received from drug traffickers. “Good fakes,” he said. When he went to Sosa for help, the police executive tried to wash his hands of Viarnes, so Viarnes went to the federal judge to make a deal.

‘Let me free and I will tell you everything,’ Viarnes reportedly said.

Out of prison Viarnes – the man once called común y corriente – outfitted himself with hidden cameras and a new scheme to rat-out his former business associates at the Dangerous Drugs Division; to secretly gather proof of their involvement by filming them shaking hands, calling him by name – proving that they all knew each other and had worked together. Viarnes took the footage to ADN and gave a half-hour interview in which he told the complex story, admitting his own guilt. It aired on September 14.

That is the official story, Federico said. But, after investigating “el Francés” for over a year, Federico doesn’t believe he was as común y corriente as the official reports from the federal prosecutor made him out to be. One court document showed that he called himself an “intelligence agent.”

“A person alone like that, it is difficult to believe that he remains alive, with everything he knows, and after putting together this entire scandal himself,” Federico said. “The story of el Francés is a very strange one and one that is still not completely clear.”

Federico said he had the opportunity to interview “el Francés” once but declined because he didn’t feel safe with the location. “I have qualms about the whole thing.”

Last week the federal judge issued a warrant for the arrest of “El Francés” who has missed the last two of his court-ordered monthly check-ins.

The case of Alós

After the “el Francés” interview aired on a Wednesday, the news that Córdoba police were working with the narcos was not a great shock for most Cordobeses – Argentines love to talk conspiracy. Federico, who had studied it for years, was probably the least surprised. But by the following Saturday the gravity of the scandal had realized.

On the morning of September 7 a police officer in the Dangerous Drugs Division, Juan Alós, who was under investigation for his involvement in the drug racket, was found dead in his car. The bullet passed through his head with the trajectory of a handgun placed upside down in his mouth, according to preliminary forensics. It appeared a willful suicide, but no one believed it.

In the newsroom, Federico turned to a colleague and said, “This story is just getting started. This one will have a long life.”

Narcotrafico in Córdoba had been Federico’s baby since the very beginning of his career and his research on a narco-police connection was voluminous.

“It was as if all that work we had done, all those years, we were now seeing come together at once,” Federico said.

Alós’ case still makes headlines today in Córdoba. WIDOW OF ALÓS INSISTS HIS MURDER WASN’T SUICIDE, a recent headline read. Forced suicide is the most common theory; and public outcry has caused federal investigators to reopen the case.

“What is most important with the case of Alós is the context in which he died,” Federico said. “Whether it was murder, or forced suicide, those are really similar. But he looks like a man who didn’t want to die.” Alós never met his son who was born two months after his death.

Shockwaves were spreading across the country now. Córdoba’s criminal underground also was making headlines in Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile. In Córdoba Capital police officers endured daily verbal abuse, taunting and slander of “murderer,” “narco.” The spray-painted words “narcopolicia” went up on a thousand walls in the city. People were angry, unready to admit that the drug war had finally reached their town.

“It hit hard,” Federico said. “It made everybody afraid. Now we were talking about a police mafia, with drugs, like the tradition of the mafia in Mexico, Brazil; a mafia that has no scruples.”

New leaves turn like old ones

Arrests came. Security executives and ministers announced retirements. Spin jobs were hashed. Federal agents raided police buildings and found marijuana and cocaine lying around undocumented. By the end about 40 police officers from the Dangerous Drugs Division were fired.

“The government had a nervous collapse,” said Federico. The Cordoba Police Department Dangerous Drug Division had acted like a structured criminal organization but, along with their fall, many good police officers in other divisions were taking the blame, especially low-ranking officers working on the streets in public view.

“They were pinning the blame on good people. Good police,” Federico said. “Police who were plugging leaks all over town – that we also reported.”

At that time an entry level policeman was earning just $2,500 pesos a month – about $350 U.S. dollars.

“The police were destroyed internally,” Federico said. “How can you reprimand an officer for using his cell phone, having his hat placed poorly, or his shirt unironed. They’ll just say, ‘The bosses are selling drugs, and you are going to punish me for this?'”

The crackdown also closed many illegal businesses that had provided members of the upper echelon of the police force with much of their income. Black-markets, money laundering schemes, gambling, illegal prostitution had provided bribes for police officials that had long been worked into their family budgets.

Organized police unions began asking the provincial government to raise base salaries to $6,000 pesos, which would have been political suicide for the governor on an election year and after the biggest scandal in decades (the salaries were eventually raised to $8,000 pesos).

Every link in the chain was breaking. A general insubordination ensued and that led directly to the lootings of December, Federico said.

An estimated 21,300 families in Córdoba live in 132 separate informal settlements, or villas miseries, many without running water or electricity|photo by La Voz del Interior

An estimated 21,300 families in Córdoba live in 132 separate informal settlements, or villas miseries, many without running water or electricity|photo by La Voz del Interior

Deep divides

Argentina is country of deep class divisions. Squatter villages or villas miserias spring up in the pockets of land between luxury high-rise apartment buildings and shopping malls. According to La Voz, an estimated 21,300 families in Córdoba live in 132 of these informal settlements, many without running water or electricity

The criminals behind the lootings of December 2013 appeared to come from one social-economic order – the poor and uneducated. However, just as disturbing as the images of the lootings, are the images of the violent backlashes taken by residents of wealthy neighborhoods fighting to defend their homes.

At around 10 p.m. a warning went out on What’sApp and Twitter networks saying the motorcycle thugs would strike at exactly 3 a.m. in the residential areas of town. Residents, mostly college students, of the fashionable Nueva Córdoba neighborhood organized vigilante militias, arming themselves with clubs and building barricades across the entrances of their apartment buildings and streets to stop the thugs.

In one video, posted to YouTube, a pair of thieves is chased by a group of at least 20 young men armed with clubs. One of the criminals trips on a curb and falls to the sidewalk. The video shows the rabble catch-up to the boy, beat and kick him until he appears dead.

Carlos Ferri del Castillo, a student who lives in Nueva Córdoba, said he confronted about ten different thugs the night of the lootings and helped apprehend four.

“We defended the streets like soldiers,” Del Castillo said. “The night was out of control. There were some of us that wanted only to defend ourselves, others that wanted to really hurt someone.”

Córdoba had its night of purge. The next day police went back to work and troops were brought in from Buenos Aires to help secure the streets, but Cordobeses are still working to build back the trust in their communities.

“The lootings weren’t made by an army of one desperate socioeconomic class,” Federico writes towards the end of his book. “It was a society in its entirety, that let us see its cracks and, above all, its limitations to build a solid social contract.”

"Drogas, Cocinas y Fierros," "Drugs, Kitchens and Guns," is a book of reportage by Juan Federico, police reporter at La Voz del Interior, the leading newspaper in Córdoba Argentina

“Drogas, Cocinas y Fierros,” “Drugs, Kitchens and Guns,” is a book of reportage by Juan Federico, police reporter at La Voz del Interior, the leading newspaper in Córdoba Argentina|photo by brandon c janes iv

 

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