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Chaco, Argentina

Chaco is a transit corridor for illicit products. Most drugs or contraband smuggled into Argentina in the Formosa province crosses Chaco to reach the country’s major consumption hubs. One of Argentina’s largest […]

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Chaco is a transit corridor for illicit products. Most drugs or contraband smuggled into Argentina in the Formosa province crosses Chaco to reach the country’s major consumption hubs. One of Argentina’s largest cocaine-trafficking cases to date highlighted Chaco’s role as a transit point for cocaine entering via the Salta province. In addition, there is reportedly a significant flow of illicit products along Chaco’s eastern border with the Paraguay River.

Several clandestine runways have been discovered in the province over the years, suggesting that Chaco is a recipient of aerial cocaine shipments as well.

A minor quantity of tobacco is smuggled into the province from neighboring Paraguay.

Criminal Actors

Castedo Clan: One of northern Argentina’s most powerful cocaine smuggling groups, the Castedo Clan has used Chaco as a through-route for overland narcotics shipments. However, there is little to suggest that the group has a strong territorial presence in the province.

Criminal Economies

Arms Trafficking: There are some criminal groups engaged in drug and human trafficking in the Chaco province, and it is likely that these networks possess illicit firearms to protect and enforce their activities. There have been some small arms seizures during raids in the province, but there is no sign of a significant illicit arms trade.

Cocaine: Chaco is located along a known cocaine smuggling route that starts in Bolivia and passes through Argentina on the way to the country’s urban centers. The existence of numerous clandestine airstrips in the province used to smuggle cocaine into Argentina suggests that well-financed drug trafficking rings operate in the province. There is also a modest market for cocaine consumption. However, there is minimal evidence of large cocaine seizures — only nine kilograms of the drug had been seized in 2019. This data suggests that the province is a less important transit hub when compared to provinces directly bordering Bolivia, such as Salta or Jujuy.

Cannabis: Chaco appears to be an important transit point for cannabis shipments entering Argentina from Paraguay. Drug traffickers take advantage of porous borders to move cannabis into Argentina using overland smuggling routes, or alternatively they use small motorboats to transport drug shipments along the rivers that divide Chaco and neighboring Paraguay. As of December 2019, police in Chaco had seized 1.4 metric tons of cannabis throughout the year. At an estimated price of $10,000 per kilogram of cannabis, these seizures would be worth $13.9 million. The real value of the criminal economy is likely several times higher, as seizures usually represent just a small portion of the total amount of drugs in circulation. In addition, authorities have detected numerous clandestine airstrips in the region — a sign of the high level of sophistication and wealth of the groups trafficking cannabis through the province. There is little indication of a prominent cannabis consumption market in Chaco, reinforcing the idea that it is mainly a route for marijuana shipments destined for other parts of Argentina with more lucrative drug markets. There is also evidence of cannabis cultivation within the province, though the main supply seems to come from Paraguay.

Environmental Crime: Chaco is a hotspot for illegal logging and deforestation. Valuable wood species such as Palo Santo are extracted in the province and sold domestically, or in Europe and China. According to deforestation data, a total of 9,709 hectares of timber were deforested in the Chaco province in 2019. Based on deforestation data from 2016-2018, around 43 to 56 percent of this timber is razed in legally protected areas. However, these figures refer to forest clearing for agricultural use, rather than timber trafficking for commercial ends, so it is hard to estimate the size of the illicit market.

Human Trafficking: The Chaco province is a recruitment and exploitation center for various types of human trafficking. Women and girls are recruited from all over the province by trafficking rings who lure victims with the false promise of work and then force them into sex work. The provincial capital, Resistencia, is a human trafficking hub. Local, national and foreign individuals are all victimized. Human trafficking victims recruited in Chaco are also taken to other parts of Argentina or to nearby foreign countries, namely Paraguay and Brazil, where they are subjected to forced sexual exploitation. Individual sex trafficking victims are forced to have sex an average of 20 times per day, and criminal groups will pay around $450 just to establish contact with potential victims. Chaco’s indigenous population is particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking. In addition, there is evidence that Chaco residents are taken to work on farmland in the province without pay. Foreign labor trafficking victims from Haiti and Senegal are purportedly forced into selling merchandise on the province’s streets. The numerous types of human trafficking taking place in the province suggest that this criminal economy generates significant revenues for the involved groups.

Human Smuggling: There is no evidence of a significant human smuggling industry in the Chaco province. There are some signs that people are smuggled into Argentina from Bolivia and may pass through Chaco on their way to different parts of the country. Chinese migrants may also pay to be smuggled into the province from Paraguay. However, there is no information to suggest that sophisticated networks of smugglers operate in the province.

Extortion: In November 2019, Chaco police broke up a criminal network that included over 50 people — including Colombians and Venezuelans — suspected of loan sharking, known locally as “gota a gota” (drip-by-drip) and money laundering. Police conducted twelve raids in Resistencia, Fontana and Barranqueras, as part of the operation. The circumstances for its revival persist.

Contraband: Contraband smuggled from Paraguay into Formosa also transits through Chaco. The province’s contraband market is smaller than in Misiones, Corrientes and Formosa.

Sources: This profile is based on three field investigations in Buenos Aires and remote interviews with local actors in Chaco where InSight Crime spoke to officials from the Ministry of Security, the Secretariat for Comprehensive Drug Policies of Argentina (Secretaría de Políticas Integrales sobre Drogas de la Nación Argentina – Sedronar), the provincial antinarcotics office, a federal attorney, non-governmental organizations working on human trafficking, environmental crime and social initiatives, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the Ministry of Education, the National Geographic Institute, the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses, the Citizen Security Observatory, and local press. 

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