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Brazil & Southern Cone - February 2020

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Wrestling with organised crime in Santa Fe

Rosario, Argentina’s third most populous city, in the province of Santa Fe, is no stranger to upticks in violence. A strategic point in the Argentine drug trade and the home turf of the infamous Los Monos family-run criminal organisation, Rosario has long been one of the country’s more violent cities and frequently sees surges in violent crime linked to drug trafficking activities and attempts to dismantle the organisations behind them.

The start of this year has been particularly violent. In the first 20 days of 2020, the city had seen 20 homicides, an average of one a day. Other cities in Santa Fe province, including the eponymous provincial capital, have also reported unusually high levels of violent crime. In contrast, in 2018, the most recent year available for official data, the entire province of Santa Fe (which has the highest homicide rate in the country) registered below one homicide a day on average, with a total of 332 homicides.            

Homicide rate in Argentina's provinces

* per 100,000 inhabitants, 2018

Source: Observatorio de Seguridad Ciudadana

One of the more notable murders was that of a man identified as Enrique Encine, manager of the local branch of the Banco Nación bank in the city of Las Parejas, at the Rosario City Center casino on 11 January, a Saturday evening. Encine was shot in the head by two men on a motorbike who opened fire from the street on the smokers on the casino’s balcony. The City Center casino is in a Rosario neighbourhood understood to be controlled by Los Monos and had never before been the target of a shooting. Investigators believe Los Monos were behind the attack, and that it was ordered by Ariel Cantero ‘Guille’, a Los Monos leader who is currently behind bars in the Marcos Paz prison in Buenos Aires, serving sentences which run to over 50 years.

The situation is causing a headache for the province’s new government. Governor Omar Perotti, from the Partido Justicialista (PJ, Peronists) took over last December after winning an election in which he promised “peace and order”. One of his first moves as governor was to carry out an overhaul of the police force, dismissing 29 high ranking officers and replacing 19 heads of regional police units, part of efforts to root out members of the force working for the province’s drug trafficking organisations (DTOs).

Although the reasons for the surge in violence remain unclear, there is no doubt that it is linked to organised crime. The Santa Fe chief of police, Víctor Sarnaglia, said the spate of attacks is an attempt by DTOs to cause panic and fear. The provincial security minister, Marcelo Saín, told national daily La Nación that not all the murders reflect the same phenomenon, but that some (such as the attack on the casino) are retaliation for the government’s efforts “to break the historical link between the police and crime”. He said that he sees a “criminal process of political destabilisation and a sort of exercise of urban terrorism”.

Perotti’s administration has been forced to turn to the national government of President Alberto Fernández, a political ally from the PJ, for help. Saín said that over 2,000 officers from the national gendarmerie had been sent in reinforcement to Santa Fe. Provincial representatives met with federal government members on 16 January and signed an agreement on security cooperation. Saín and national security minister Sabina Frederic have agreed to closer cooperation on the exchange of information and monitoring of the security situation. The effect of this is yet to be felt, but in a column for a local news site, journalist Germán de los Santos, who is the author of a book on Los Monos, notes that these efforts to address the violence in Santa Fe appear different to previous attempts – despite the reinforcements from the gendarmerie, already used on multiple occasions with little visible impact.