Messi's Hometown of Rosario Epicenter of Argentina's Drug Trade

At just 300 km northwest of Buenos Aires, Rosario - birthplace of the football star Lionel Messi - has always been considered by locals of Argentina’s capital an ideal location for a weekend away. In the last few years, however, Rosario’s reputation has been tarnished with a discomforting reality: it is now the center of Argentina's drug trade

In a recent interview with La Nacion newspaper, Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli identified drug trafficking as "public enemy number one" following increased violence and local drug consumption in the country. At the heart of this lays Argentina's third-largest city and drug trade capital; Rosario.

A major industrial center, Rosario offers traffickers key transport links to the country's northwest border with Bolivia - a major cocaine producer - along with access to departure points on the Atlantic coast for shipping narcotics to Europe and beyond. In addition, the Parana River which flows through the city is known to have been exploited by traffickers. These highly prized routes, combined with pressure on drug gangs in other parts of the country such as Buenos Aires, has meant many trafficking networks have moved to set up shop in Rosario, according to Scioli.

These, Scioli insists, are not developed enough to be considered comparable to Colombian and Mexican transnational trafficking organizations - some of which have a presence in the country - but nevertheless present a significant challenge to Rosario. One only needs to study the city's homicide figures to understand the enormity of the task; in 2013, 257 homicides were recorded, a 40 percent jump on 2012's figure. This put Rosario's rate at well over triple the national average of 5-6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. 

Along with shipping narcotics through the city, many local gangs - among them groups known as Los Monos and Los Garompas - have a focus on the domestic drug scene where demand is strong. In January, Rosario’s Health Secretary Leonardo Caruana highlighted that drug addiction was becoming an increasing concern and was now affecting children as young as 13 years old. Caruana added that while drug addiction affected all social classes, it is more prominent among "excluded" classes.

Those "excluded" are typically residents of what are known as the villas de miseria, or misery slums, shanty towns among Argentina's urban areas. In recent years, drugs like paco - a lethal combination of cocaine paste residue, cut glass and in some cases rat poison - have become more popular in these communities thanks to their incredibly low cost; one hit can cost less than $1. Without access to basic public goods like health and education, these sectors of society are particularly vulnerable to cheaply available drugs like paco, and the concomitant expansion of influence of drug trafficking groups.

Among these impoverished communities, gangs not only prey on addicts but also seek recruits among the youth. A 2013 documentary by the group "Calles Perdidas" sheds light on the phenomenon of "soldaditos" (little soldiers) in Rosario, adolescents as young as 12 who are tempted by the power gangs offer them with guns and money. Criminals also pay these adolescents in drugs, encouraging addiction and forcing them to continue working to feed their habit. Work can range from street selling, drug production, or even employment as a "sicario" (hitman.) The youth help comprise the foot soldiers which contribute to the city's violence, fighting for territory, and assassinating rival gang members or local whistle-blowers. 

In an effort to tackle the spiraling problem, Argentina's security secretary, Sergio Berni, launched what he declared to be the "biggest operation in Argentine history," sending in more than 3,000 of the federal Gendarmerie to target "bunkers," sites where narcotics are produced and sold. The results of the offensive to date have been controversial; while Berni has hailed the success of dismantling over 90 bunkers, murders have continued apace with reports of 10 homicides in the six days following entry of the Gendarmerie.

One possible hindrance to success is Argentina's long struggle with police corruption. Local newspapers have suggested that in spite of Berni's congratulations to federal forces, the low number of detentions and drug seizures is evidence that drug gangs were ready for the offensive. Indeed, Rosario has experienced recent high-profile corruption cases, with 13 local police prosecuted in February for working with Los Monos. 

At the moment, there are few promising signs that addiction, trafficking and violence will abate in Rosario's foreseeable future. A potent mix of valuable trafficking routes, embedded gangs, endemic poverty and corrupt police will provide enormous obstacles to success. As Security Secretary Berni has admitted: "The battle has just begun."