Last month, a television station in Córdoba aired an interview in which a man by the name of Juan “el Francés” Viarnes admitted to working for years as part of a clandestine network of protection between drug traffickers and members of the anti-narcotics police.
In a matter of days, this revelation of police protection of drug traffickers led to the resignation of Córdoba’s security minister, Alejo Paredes, and the province’s head of police, Ramón Frías. Before the week was over, five anti-narcotics officers were behind bars and a sixth was dead from an apparent suicide.
The case in Córdoba has put the spotlight on police corruption within Argentina’s anti-narcotics operations, but it was a similar scandal exposed earlier this year in Rosario, Santa Fe, that revealed the extent of police protection of drug traffickers in Argentina.
On 8th September 2012, Martín “El Fantasma” Paz was driving in his brand new BMW coup, accompanied by his wife and two-year-old son. While the family was stopped at an intersection in central Rosario, the driver of a Yamaha motorbike parked nearby and approached the young family. The man then shot Paz in his chest, back, stomach, and arms with a nine-millimetre pistol.
Afterwards, the killer jumped on the motorbike and drove off. Once shot, Paz continued to drive until crashing into three cars ahead of him. Witnesses recalled a car behind Paz’ following the assailant on bike.
While Paz’ father told reporters that he believed the murder to be a failed robbery attempt, with no connection to the drug trade, his son’s killing had the clear markings of a mafia-style assassination – a gruesome, public act intended to send a message.
As investigators began the process to find Paz’ killer, their investigation became more and more focused on Rosario’s infamous Cantero family. Claudio “Pájaro” Cantero led Rosario’s most powerful drug cartel, ‘Los Monos’.
Claudio was also married to Martín Paz’ sister, Mercedes.
But if Los Monos were responsible for Paz’ death, what was it that put the man known as El Fantasma in the disgrace of Rosario’s most duplicitous drug cartel?
The path to answering this question and finding Paz’ assassin would be a long one, but along the way would reveal a larger web of cooperation between members of the Santa Fe police force and members of Los Monos.
Who are Los Monos?
The story of Los Monos is reminiscent to those of drug cartels in Colombia or Mexico, which, in conflict with other cartels over the control of regional drug flows, have left communities in shambles. This is particularly true in the poor shantytowns (villas) on the outskirts of Rosario.
In 2003, for example, a clash between the Cantero family and rival drug lords known as “Los Garompas” left 30 people dead. A report from the National University of Rosario (UNR) last July found that drug-related deaths are on the rise in Argentina’s third-largest city, fuelled by revenge murders between rival drug cartels. In the past nine years, 1,000 homicides in Rosario have been linked to what is being described by some as a ‘narco war’.
However, the victims of these murders tend to be poor youths offered more money to work for drug retailers than they could make anywhere else or innocent bystanders at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“What legal job can a young man hope for where he will make $10,000 a month?” asks Fernando Irigaray, the coordinator of the project at UNR.
As poor young men lose their lives fighting their battles, mafia drug lords in Rosario, like Pájaro and his brother Máximo “Guille” Cantero, make off with millions.
In June, officials in the small town of Perez, just outside of Rosario, discovered a compound that had belonged to Pájaro Cantero and his family in recent years. Surrounded by thick walls of trees for protection, the three-hectare compound featured a seven-bedroom mansion and a heated swimming pool.
Rosario’s strategic location was ideal for the Canteros to build their empire. Cocaine travels out of Bolivia on route 34, which ends in Rosario. Additionally, Rosario’s location on the banks of the Paraná River makes it a point through which drugs pass on their way from Bolivia and Paraguay to Europe.
The past decade has seen the Canteros’ profits soar, bolstered by a high domestic demand for cocaine. Demand increased significantly after the 2001 economic crisis, particularly through the spike in consumption of paco, a cheap drug made from the by-products of cocaine production. The United Nations World Drug Report in 2011 put cocaine use in Argentina at 25% of the continent’s total users, second to Brazil.
As the money came rolling in, the leaders of Los Monos needed a way to cover their tracks. One way they did this was to invest the drug money in luxury cars. The Canteros would loan out money to friends and connections who would then purchase the cars. One of these people was Pájaro’s brother-in-law, Martín “El Fantasma” Paz.
In April, seven months after Paz’ assassination in Rosario, a team of investigators found that Paz’ cell phone, left behind in the BMW, had, curiously, not been properly examined.
Taken with other evidence, Paz’ cell phone was key in tracing his connections and correspondence with key members of Los Monos before his death. Over the course of the investigation, judge Juan Carlos Vienna came to the conclusion that Canteros’ money laundering scheme was the beginning of the end for Paz.
It is believed that the Canteros gave their trusted friend and brother-in-law of Pájaro between $4-10m of Los Monos’ money in order to purchase cars to cover up the cartel’s cash trail. However, Paz kept some of the money with the intention of investing it in his own cocaine venture, which he assumed would provide him with more than enough to pay Pájaro back.
Paz used the money to purchase the raw materials needed to produce cocaine. However, upon entering the country, Paz’ purchases were seized. Left waiting in Rosario without the money he owed his brother-in-law and without the ticket into the drug trade he was hoping for, he panicked.
Paz ignored the Canteros’ phone calls, leaving the drug lords to panic and second-guess Paz’ loyalty. Judge Vienna believes it was actually Pájaro’s brother Guille who gave the orders for Paz’ murder in an effort to keep a tight grasp on the empire he helped build.
While Paz’ cell phone contents helped investigators officially connect Los Monos to the assassination of Martín Paz, it contained even more surprises.
In Paz’ contact list, right along with the names of the Cantero brothers and various Los Monos leaders, were the names of a number of high-ranking police chiefs and anti-narcotics officers. Paz had been in touch with sergeant Juan “Chavo” Maciel and inspecting commissioner Gustavo “Gula Gula” Pereyra.
Paz’ contacts link him with drug traffickers in Rosario as well as in Bolivia, prompting an investigation that revealed a network of police cooperation.
Wiretaps confirmed Maciel and Pereyra’s involvement in protecting drug lords, and the two were later arrested, along with three other police officers. Various other conversations obtained by the wiretaps ordered by judge Vienna show that anti-narcotic officers would warn their connections within Los Monos if a drug raid was planned.Santa Fe police chief, Hugo Tognoli, was also arrested after the Policía de Seguridad Aeroportuaria, a federal investigative body, revealed links his force had with the drug trade. Tognoli was released 15 days after his first arrest but was arrested again in March and charged with serving as an accomplice to the trafficking of drugs.
Tognoli was accused of protecting Carlos Ascaíni, a businessman and alleged drug trafficker, who was also arrested. Ascaíni called their trial a “political circus created by Kirchnerists to defeat socialism [in Santa Fe].”
In light of the Canteros’ exposed complicity in Paz’ murder, head boss Pájaro was assassinated in May outside of a nightclub in Rosario, presumably in retaliation for Paz’ death. His brother Guille is also now behind bars and their father, Ariel Cantero, is on the run.
Los Monos is currently believed to be run by Ramón “Monchi Cantero” Machuca, who is also evading international capture. Nevertheless, Los Monos continue to dominate the Rosario drug trade despite the change in leadership, confirmed by prosecutor Miguel Moreno after a series of raids in Rosario last month.
“We confirmed what we suspected: the Cantero family continues to hold power and continues to manage the zone,” Moreno told reporters at the time.
As the Santa Fe provincial police force continues to recover from the scandal, which has ignited debate over federal versus provincial responsibilities over drug trafficking. It remains to be seen whether or not the revelations in police corruption in Santa Fe will decrease the rate of violence in Rosario or how Argentina’s drug mafias will regain lost ground.