In July Argentina’s Financial Information Unit announced that it had disrupted a Hiz’ballah fundraising network operating in the tri-border area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The authorities arrested 14 suspects, and siezed nearly $10 million in assets, which had been acquired through smuggling, counterfeiting, falsifying documents, extortion, drug trafficking, and money laundering. The move reflected a a more assertive approach. In February 2018, the US and Argentina announced they would be cooperating to cut off the Hiz’ballah funding networks in South America.
Militarization ‘tough but necessary’
This raid occurred in the context of what some consider to be radical reforms of the country’s defense doctrine, passed by the executive decree by Argentinian president, Mauricio Macri. In July, Macri removed the ban on military involvement in fighting crime, terrorist threats, and other internal security issues. The current defense minister, Oscar Aguad, a strong supporter of the reform, stated that the new doctrine will give more logistical support to security forces, especially those battling drug trafficking in the border regions.
Macri’s reforms are inspired by the threat of foreign and domestic terrorism. His government has intensified a crackdown on Mapuche activists, struggling to gain control of their ancestral lands. Despite the controversy over recent protester arrests, the Ancestral Mapuche Resistance (RAM), which primarily operates in Chile and Argentina, has been designated a terrorist group. In addition, Hizb’allah has been operating in the region since the 1970s. Since its alleged 1994 attack on a Jewish cultural center in Argentina, there have been no reported regional terrorist activities by Hizb’allah. Nevertheless, analysts repeatedly highlight its coordination with criminal organizations and drug trafficking cartels to fund its operations.
Opponents push back
However, despite the president and defense minister’s support, many human rights groups have critiqued the reforms, saying they could allow for military repression. The country’s 1976 coup evokes negative feeling across Argentina, for the seven year dictatorship it ushered into power. Between 1976 and 1983, 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured, or killed by government forces. Argentina’s previous defense doctrine was adopted following country’s return to civilian rule, and many see any change as having broader implications. Commenting on the changes, Carlos Pisoni, a member of Hijos, an organization made up of children and grandchildren kidnapped by the military dictatorship, stated, “it’s a decision that takes us back to [those times] because it was the last time that the armed forces intervened in internal security”. The country’s former president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, echoed concerns about the reforms, citing Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico as cases where the involvement of the armed forces in fighting drug trafficking has failed.
Two days after Macri announced his executive order, the Argentinian congress presented a new measure to repeal it. The bill was presented by members of the Peronist bloc and the Front for Victory-Justice Party, including Agustin Rossi who was the defense minister for the former president. The motion denounced the presidential decree 683/18 as unconstitutional, on the basis of the modifications it makes to the ‘three pillars’ of Argentina’s civil-military relations: the Defense bill, the Interior Security bill, and Intelligence Services bill. The legislators demanded in their measure that Macri’s security reforms go through Congress. That same week, protesters took to the streets by the thousands in Buenos Aires on the day that Macri was supposed to sign his order into law.
With the new reforms and increased partnership with the US, Argentina hopes to overcome its core security problems. Macri has admitted that the transformation won’t be easy, but has stated that the measure is a “first step to build the modern, professional and equipped armed forces that Argentina needs.” Argentina is not the only country in the region to have considered military as a solution to domestic criminal issues. Military operations in the favelas of Brazil have been common place, and the Brazilian Army currently oversees Rio de Janeiro’s police force. In 2006, Mexico’s former president Felipe Calderon employed the country’s armed forces against its own violent criminal organizations. For decades, Colombia employed its military against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) due to their ties with illegal smugglers and drug traffickers.
Yet critics are right to note that a militarized response often invites more problems. 27 percent of Argentines report being victimized by a crime in 2017, and transnational crime is still rampant in its frontier regions. Yet Argentina has relatively a low homicide rate, with less than 7 murders per 100,000, and homicide rates in Latin America have not shown improvement with the involvement of the military in domestic criminal affairs. Latin America accounts for 8 percent of the world population, but 33 percent of global homicides, standing at 21.5 per 100,000 citizens; three times the global average. Brazil’s homicide rate reached a record high at 31 per 100,000 with Colombia at 27. Such figures call into question the potential efficacy of Argentina’s military reforms, and suggest that greater financial intelligence and improved law enforcement might prove more effective.