Establishing the “Arreglo”
Establishing the “Arreglo”
Abstract and Keywords
How do clandestine relationships emerge between police agents and drug dealers? Drawing on documentary evidence, this chapter examines the “foundational negotiations” of these arrangements or “arreglos.” It then reconstructs the case of Los Vagones, an organization that sells drugs in the slums outside Buenos Aires, detailing how it not only pays its police contacts for protection but also engages in the regular exchange of goods and information to evade prosecution. Through a rich description of these clandestine interactions, it shows how relationships of collusion evolve and power dynamics shift over time.
In 2016, eleven people were indicted for a series of drug-related charges in Arquitecto Tucci. This case included nine civilians (three women and six men) and two members of the Buenos Aires State Police who were working with a group that we call “Los Vagones” (The Train Cars). Court documents confirm that at least five more people were likely involved (but not indicted) and that this small group had just two contacts in the State Police. The group’s illicit activities were well documented, providing insights into not only the organization’s internal operations and clandestine relationships but also the link between collusion and the violence that plagues residents of the neighborhood.1
The case of Paola and Yaolín with which we opened the previous chapter provided evidence about police misconduct beyond residents’ hearsay.2 In this chapter, we examine additional court cases that offer a direct window into the actual exchanges between drug dealers and police officers, showing how participants establish such arrangements or “arreglos” and how they impact interpersonal violence in the neighborhood. The subsequent chapters extend from our field site to locations across Argentina in order to unpack the relational dynamics of police-criminal collusion. Beyond paying police to turn a blind eye and cease to enforce the law for certain actors or in certain places, we will show that relationships of collusion are highly patterned and they have important effects on those involved, changing the way they access goods and information and how they navigate their social worlds.
It is not uncommon to suspect an overall “master plan” behind the relations of collusion we describe here. But as we will learn in (p.90) the pages that follow, relationships between police and drug dealers are made and unmade through incessant, oftentimes last-minute improvisations marked by constant mistakes and corrections. Together, the forthcoming chapters offer a view of a world of ongoing and joint maneuvering that helps us better understand what collusion is and does.
One warning is in order: All the testimonies, wiretapped conversations, informants’ accounts, and investigative reports that we analyze contain a plethora of information that is not necessarily central to our substantive focus. Instead of presenting all the aspects of the cases, the upcoming chapters provide analytic reconstructions that highlight the different interactions, meanings, and consequences of the clandestine connections between members of the state’s repressive apparatus and drug market participants.
Most of the court proceedings we accessed document the operation of drug market organizations and their ongoing connections with police agents as they are already fully functioning. They typically do not capture the early stages of those relationships. Before presenting the case of Los Vagones in Arquitecto Tucci, let us first describe another case, which was brought to trial in Máximo Paz (in the state of Buenos Aires) that illuminates the initial activation of clandestine connections.3 The details extracted from this case provide evidence of what we call “foundational negotiation,” the initial moments in which relationships of collusion are born and police officers have the upper hand.
One early evening in May 2016, police agents in a neighborhood of Máximo Paz raided the home of Alcira Mazzeo.4 Around 8:30 p.m., as the police agents were searching for drugs in her house, Alcira called Mariano and told him that to avoid being arrested, “the cops (p.91) want 500,000 pesos.” Mariano told Alcira that he only had 200,000 pesos available (less than half of the US$33,000 requested).5 “No,” she replied. “He [the police agent] wants 500,000.” In what could have been a scene from a movie, a male voice, presumably that of the police officer standing with Alcira, added: “[You have] one hour.”
Over the next two hours, Mariano and this police officer negotiated the amount of money to be paid to prevent Alcira’s arrest and how they would exchange the funds. “Listen,” Mariano told the officer, “I was able to gather [rescatar] 300,000 pesos [US$20,000]. . . . I couldn’t get more. Please, the woman [Alcira] has children, don’t wreck her life [la mina tiene hijos, no la arruines, porfa].” “Okay,” the police officer responded. Mariano asked for forty minutes to get the money. An hour later, Mariano and the officer talked again. The officer told Mariano that he was doing him a “big favor” (una mano grandísima). Without the money, the officer implied, he would have to arrest Alcira and also detain her daughter.
The exchange that followed clearly illustrates the moment in which a relationship of collusion begins and one way it can proceed. Before delivering the money, Mariano wanted to know if Alcira would be able to “keep working.” The police officer replied that they would arrange that later; all he wanted at that moment was the money and he promised to “disappear” immediately. When Mariano asked him who he should talk to in the future, the police officer was vague, ensuring that they would be in touch to arrange that later.
Paying ransom to avoid arrest is not unique to drug dealers in Buenos Aires.6 Note the similarity of Alcira and Mariano’s predicament with that of drug traffickers in Tubarao, one of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Enrique Desmond Arias (2006a:76) conducted fieldwork in the late 1990s and early 2000s:
One resident, closely tied with traffickers, told the story of how a police officer who showed up for work one day in a bad mood (p.92) shook down a group of minor traffickers. He walked around the favela angrily looking for some low-level drug dealers to bother. Not finding any, he went to the nearby beach where he located the dealers and, finding narcotics, forced them to come up with some money to ransom their own freedom. The traffickers went off and got the money by borrowing or stealing.7
Immediately after they agreed on the amount, Mariano negotiated its delivery. Not wanting to bring the bribe in person, he asked the police officer if he could release Alcira’s daughter to pick up and deliver the money. The officer replied, “I can’t release anybody, it makes too much noise [levanta mucha bandera].” He then added: “You can trust me. I tell you one thing and I deliver. This is a ‘touch and go.’ I won’t even look at your face. Do you understand? I grab what I have to grab and that’s it.” Mariano agreed but, still wary, decided not to deliver the money in person. “Okay, I’ll send someone [with the money],” he replied.
These court documents capture the initial interactions between a police officer and drug dealers in Máximo Paz. But many questions are left unanswered. While we can assume that the money was delivered, what happened between the police officer and Mariano is beyond the scope of the indictment. In fact, investigative documents explicitly note that they did not confirm the identity of the officer on the phone and call for further investigation into the transaction. Moreover, while law enforcement identified Mariano and recommended “pursu[ing] legal action,” to our knowledge, no further steps have been taken.
Despite these gaps, this case clearly illustrates one sequence through which a clandestine relationship begins: When a dealer is detained, a police officer demands money, forcing the dealer to call on their illicit business partners to negotiate their release with the officer. Two previously unrelated actors become linked—forming the kind of new boundaries and connections that constitute the empirical object of this and the next three chapters. This case shows (p.93) that at the moment of inception, police officers use the authority of the state to establish the upper hand. It also indicates how, early on in an illicit relationship, actors mistrust each other and proceed hesitantly. Here, collusion looks more like a version of “racketeering”: Officers produce both “the danger (i.e. an arrest) and, at a price, they shield against it” (Tilly 1985:170). But as we will see in the next cases, a kind of provisional trust develops as clandestine connections evolve and power dynamics become more negotiated and reciprocal.
Back to Arquitecto Tucci
Los Vagones was a drug market organization that operated in the southern province of Buenos Aires. Although it occasionally smuggled marijuana from Paraguay, the organization primarily obtained drugs from larger trafficking groups that operated out of slums in the city of Buenos Aires.8 According to court documents, the organization sold 10 kilos of marijuana and even more paco per day. The organization not only brought marijuana and paco into the Conurbano but also sold those drugs to petty dealers and users from a network of selling points called “bunkers.” The most important ones (and the target of the court case) were in an area of Arquitecto Tucci near a train station known as “the Tracks” (Figure 4.1). Although Los Vagones never operated in the open, members of the organization guarded the streets around these bunkers, surveilling for threats and intimidating residents so that they would not report their activities to the police.
Los Vagones had a hierarchical structure with clearly differentiated roles. It was led by a man named Pepe, who worked with a handful of other leaders to oversee the illicit operations. Most of these leaders were in their 30s and 40s and had some family connections to each other. The rest of the group consisted of lower-level affiliates in charge of transportation (preparing vehicles and (p.94) moving drugs), storage (of drugs, weapons, and other assets), and sales (to other dealers and consumers). Leaders also controlled a security network made up of lookouts called “spies” or “satellites” (mirillas, satélites, punteros) and guards called “hitmen” (sicarios), who, according to the indictment, primarily threatened and, in two documented cases, even killed their competitors.
This court case relied heavily on wiretapped phone conversations among dealers, many of whom were very explicit about their activities. That said, members of Los Vagones also took precautions against surveillance: They constantly replaced cell phones and SIM cards and sometimes referred to drugs and people with fake names. For example, “Lucho” was the pseudonym used for the male police officer indicted in the case, and “La Morocha” (an informal term for a woman with dark hair and skin) was what dealers called the female police officer. The court case also relied on an informant we call Mateo, who provided information about the group’s (p.95) membership to police in exchange for safety under witness protection. Finally, the indictment against members of Los Vagones drew on videotaped meetings of police and drug dealers, including one that was leaked to a national television station, which we will discuss in more detail below.
The transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations show that members of Los Vagones spent most of their time discussing drug distribution, payments, and security among each other. Pepe and his subordinates regularly talked about securing new suppliers—what they called “lines” (líneas)—when one of them failed to deliver. At the time this group was being surveilled, demand for drugs in and around Arquitecto Tucci was booming, and the group sometimes struggled to keep up with demand unless they constantly added new “lines.” For example, one of the leaders said to another, “See if you can get ten kilograms for tomorrow, or five. If not, I can go to Flores [where a slum is located in the city of Buenos Aires] and get some more.” In another conversation, a dealer shared information about a delivery: “La Tía just left with the burgers [patys].” In this conversation, the speaker referred to drugs as patys, a brand name–turned-slang term for hamburgers in Argentina. The dealer continued, “[G]et the people ready so that they can receive her. She is bringing 251 patys. Organize where to put them.” In addition to these orders to prepare for La Tía’s arrival, the dealer also gave directions about what to do with the delivery: “Take 51 and leave them on the soccer field, and keep 200 for tonight.”
In addition to drugs, dealers regularly discussed money over the phone, including how much they made and what they spent it on. According to court documents, the group made between ARS $50,000 (US$3,000) and ARS $100,000 (US$6,000) per day. But rather than document such totals, these mundane interactions usually detailed the organization’s everyday expenses. For example, in one conversation, a dealer called a leader to report on the previous night’s work. He said, “[We gave] 300 pesos [gambas] to each of the seven lookouts [mirillas], 1,000 pesos to Shrek and Tati, and I kept (p.96) 2,000.” In addition to distributing profits and paying for labor, the organization also regularly paid for supplies like the baggies used to pack drugs and snacks for its members (“la picada de los muchachos”).
The case involving Los Vagones also highlights the important connection between narco-trafficking activities and what analysts call the “systemic violence” generated within drug markets.9 In what follows, we will describe this connection in three important respects. First, the case clearly documents the violent tactics used by Pepe and his hitmen to acquire and maintain control over a particular neighborhood by forcibly eliminating competition. Second, it shows how the police engage in and facilitate this violence. Finally, it exposes an important limit of collusion: When business is compromised, fluctuating profits impact dealers’ ability to pay for protection.
Evading Authorities, Targeting Competitors
For members of Los Vagones, evading police and federal security agents was a main concern, forcing them to suddenly suspend their activities on certain days, at certain times, and in certain areas due to state presence. In a wiretapped conversation, a drug dealer told a supplier that he could not reach the bunker because the National Guard was on the highway. Because of the state’s presence, he temporarily suspended his delivery. In addition to sharing information among themselves, dealers also attempted to infiltrate official communication. For example, one dealer had a radio that picked up police frequencies, which he used to track where they were going and then pass the information to members of Los Vagones. Finally, dealers discussed more quotidian ways to avoid detection; for example, the need to change phones and numbers to avoid surveillance. Even when dealers suspected police surveillance, they discussed plans to quickly move drugs in and out of specific bunkers in great detail.
(p.97) Using these sources of information, members of Los Vagones carefully monitored their territory and sometimes intimidated local residents in an effort to keep them from talking to authorities. In one phone conversation, a dealer threatened a man (who would later be called to testify against the group) who he suspected had passed information to the police. The dealer said, “We don’t want to have any problems with you.” He then offered him a job in the organization, making clear he would eventually find out the identity of the suspected snitch.
Overall, members of Los Vagones operated in a constant state of high alert. For example, one afternoon, state police officers raided Pepe’s house for drugs and information about the group. Although he was not home, they arrested his wife and brother-in-law. After the raid, Pepe went into hiding and transferred leadership of the organization to his second-in-command, Chato. This raid could have been part of an anti-drug-trafficking effort to catch the leaders of Los Vagones. But wiretapped phone conversations suggest that regardless of the original intent of the raid, it was being used to extort Pepe, not rid Arquitecto Tucci of drugs. In a conversation on a wiretapped phone a few days later, Pepe assured his lawyer that the police wanted to “reach an agreement [llegar a un arreglo].” He then instructed the lawyer to deliver half a million pesos (US$300,000) to a police officer named Saborido to ensure his family would be released and the manhunt would be suspended. The court case does not establish whether the money was transferred to Saborido or if Pepe’s family members were released from jail. What it does show is the operational and financial capacity of a group that can successfully evade the police and mobilize large sums of money to avoid being caught.
Interestingly, Los Vagones worked incessantly to evade not only police officers but also other illicit actors who targeted their small but profitable business. This case documents the presence of what Randol Contreras (2012) calls “stick-up kids,” or groups of young people who attempt to rob dealers. Because of this additional (p.98) threat, dealers devoted significant time to ensuring the safe movement of drugs and money. For example, late one night, a dealer in Tucci decided not to deliver drugs because he didn’t feel safe: “I’m scared because it’s late,” he admitted on the phone.
Drug dealers also discussed nearby competitors and the need to eliminate them. One street seller informed Fifi, a leader of the group, that Raulito was selling drugs in their area. Fifi instructed, “Go to him and tell him I said that he has 15 minutes to go somewhere else, otherwise his legs will be broken. Tell him Tío and I said that. Call me back in 15 to let me know he left.” As this conversation suggests, leaders of Los Vagones did not hesitate to threaten the use of violence to maintain control over the drug market in the neighborhood.
Los Vagones not only verbally threatened competitors but also armed its members, attacked rival bunkers, and even killed members of other drug market groups. Wiretapped phone conversations confirm that members of Los Vagones were regularly armed with lethal weapons. For example, one dealer informed Chato: “At the train station there’s a group [un junta]. I think they are selling.” Chato agreed to send Saverio, a hitman, with a .38 caliber handgun, and if needed, to let two other hitmen called “Japonés” and “Tigre” know so that they could “do what they gotta do.”
In another conversation, a dealer told Tío about his plan to confront a competitor: “They are there until 11 p.m. We’ll visit him around 9 or 10.” Tío replied, “Yes, that’s good. . . . [F]ire some shots [mandenle cohete], break his knees.” The dealer informed him that he also planned to loot the bunker: “They are in the house. We’ll get in and take whatever they have.” Tío was adamant that he use physical force, reiterating, “Yes, but break his knees. If not, tomorrow he will be back doing the same thing” (our emphasis).
In the most extreme example included in the court case, Mateo, the informant in witness protection, provided information about members’ involvement in a double homicide. According to his testimony, Pepe sent four hitmen to kill members of another drug (p.99) market group they had learned were planning to do business in the area. That night, they attacked a new bunker run by what Pepe called “addicts” (fisuras). Two men were killed and Pepe forcibly took over the bunker, expanding his business to the new selling points by violently eliminating the competition.10
Collusion and Violence
In addition to documenting the tactics of this organization, court documents provide clear evidence that violence was intricately linked with collusive relationships. First, as we will see in other cases, dealers obtained their guns (called “toys,” “tools,” and “girls”) and ammunition from members of the police force. While we may assume that illicit actors use these weapons to commit crimes, this case provides direct evidence of the link between clandestine connections and violence. In the double homicide described above, guns registered with the police department were used by members of Los Vagones to commit the murders.
Los Vagones also bought inaction and information from the police. In addition to non-enforcement, police officers provided the group with specific news about other officers surveilling them. On a wiretapped cell phone, Lucho (the police officer indicted in the case) spoke with Fifi, one of the leaders of Los Vagones. Lucho asked, “Are they [police] bothering you?” Fifi replied: “Yes, [they were] the other day but not yesterday or today.” Lucho promised to help Fifi with the problem: “They are someone else’s,” he promised, indicating that the officers were from another agency. “They are on the other side of the train tracks. I will find out who they are.”
In a subsequent conversation, Officer Lucho warned Fifi, “You guys are being marked [surveilled] by the street patrol in Centinela [a nearby neighborhood].” He gave Fifi more details: “Write down the plate number of the car . . . XL5-C94. It’s a white Nissan. They were told that people were bringing stuff around where you are.”
(p.100) Information was regularly exchanged between police officers and drug dealers. Police officers passed information to dealers (as we saw above) and also received information from dealers about other illicit actors in the area. For example, a little after noon one day, Fifi called Lucho. “What’s up?” Lucho said when he answered the phone. Fifi replied, “The same as usual . . . those fucking smurfs [pitufos de mierda, referring to policemen] have been bothering us for a while.” To appease Fifi, Lucho explained what he thought was happening: “Okay, let me explain. It [the problem] is not going to be for long, you see? What happened is that they opened a new police station [habilitaron ahí la base] . . . and they sent them to put on a show [hacer un poco de espamento]. But they aren’t going to fuck around . . . for long.” Fifi responded, “Okay, we can wait. Hopefully that happens so we can get back to work. But there is also competition” (our emphasis). “Leave that to me,” Lucho assured him. “I’ll deal with them. I’ll go fuck with them a bit.” Fifi emphasized the importance of Lucho’s intervention: “It will be a huge win [un golazo] if you can mess with them.” When Lucho mentioned he was unfamiliar with the area, Fifi went on to provide specific details of where the competing dealers were doing business.
As this conversation shows, drug dealers not only used violence to eliminate competition, but they also relied on their contacts in the police to take out competitors and maintain their market position. Put another way, dealers paid not only for goods and information but also for direct police intervention on their behalf, in this case, to maintain economic control of their territory with police help.
Paying for Protection
The case involving Los Vagones also provides detailed information about how the group paid for protection. Many conversations included detailed descriptions of money exchanged as bribes. For (p.101) example, in one phone conversation, a dealer documented all his expenses to a leader: “I have 43,150 pesos [left] because I used 400 yesterday . . . for the cops [cobanis].” In another conversation, a dealer told a leader, “I need to take 10,000 pesos and send Cesar and Gorda to the place where we give the thing to the cops. I’ll send them now because they are waiting.”
While many conversations were retrospective like those above, on other occasions, drug dealers discussed future amounts to pay. For example, in a conversation between two leaders, Tío told Chato that “the cops called” and wanted to know if they could “do it today,” referring to receiving their bribe money. He then asked Chato about the amount: “Do I give them ten pesos [referring to 10,000 pesos]?” Chato said yes. Tío then told him to meet La Morocha, the female police officer indicated in the case, at 5 p.m. at the “usual place.” This interaction illustrates an important detail: Members of Los Vagones not only paid bribes, but they did so regularly (i.e., they met at the “usual place”).
Unlike some of the other cases we will examine, the indictment of both police and members of Los Vagones received widespread public attention when a video was leaked to the media. The video, which aired on national television, captured the actual payment of one of these bribes, which was made in the bathroom of a local gas station. A grainy black-and-white video shows the police officer named Lucho arriving at a gas station on a busy corner near “the Tracks.” He exited from the passenger side of a gray car driven by an accomplice and walked to a bathroom that was accessible from the outside of the station. On his way in, he took out his cell phone and called Fifi. “I’m here,” he told him. Fifi responded, “Okay, let me tell her to approach you.” The video then captures a woman entering the bathroom and closing the door behind her. Minutes later, both exit the bathroom—the woman walking with her head down and Lucho jogging back to the gray car. According to court documents, every week in a similar fashion, Fifi paid Lucho between ARS $10,000 and ARS $12,000 for the protection we described.
The clandestine connections between drug dealers and police are not established and negotiated without conflict. Although Los Vagones made large sums of money selling drugs, these profits fluctuated based on many factors, from issues of supply and demand to the variable costs of labor and security. One issue in particular stood out for the dealers: their ability to actually sell drugs. As described in this chapter, dealers responded to information received from police by sometimes fully stopping their activities. They stalled shipments, suspended sales, and ultimately reduced the hours spent making money.
As a result, dealers negotiated their weekly payments for protection based on their cash on hand. For example, in a wiretapped phone conversation, Tío told Fifi, “When your friends [referring to the police officers] call you . . . your little friends who want to be paid . . . tell them that we are not going to give them what we usually give them. Tell them that we are going to give them only eight [thousand pesos].” Tío went on to explain his decision to reduce the weekly payments: “Why?” he asked hypothetically. “Because your friends are not letting us work during the day or at night. We can’t work like this. If you want to earn the money you used to, well, I have to earn mine and those people are not letting me do my job. See what you can do about it.” As this conversation suggests, interactional dynamics between drug dealers and police change from the moment of foundational negotiations we described at the opening of the chapter. Whereas police agents can hold greater power in these initial meetings, clandestine relationships evolve over time as interactions become more routine. As they developed a provisional trust, drug market participants like Tío leveraged their power against officers, from making strictly economic arguments to negotiate bribe amounts to secretly collecting evidence to blackmail their contacts in the state.
The case of Los Vagones offers insights into how police-criminal collusion works, the kind of material and informational resources exchanged, and the impact of clandestine relationships on interpersonal violence. Yet the collusion that we are now beginning to uncover extends far beyond the geographical boundaries of Arquitecto Tucci. Three vignettes, extracted from national news sources, illustrate that illicit relationships between drug dealers and police officers are present in many other Argentine cities.
Córdoba, September 22, 2013
A former undercover officer described the relationship between the police and narcos in the city of Córdoba: “Basically, the dealer tells the cops about other narcos that they can raid. Half of the drugs the cops seize goes to the narco who gave the tip, the cops keep the other half, and the narco they raid goes to jail. The police chief also receives monthly payments from narcos, always more than 50,000 pesos.”11
Rosario, December 31, 2016
The former police chief of the city of Rosario was accused of giving protection to a local narco when the latter was under investigation by the Airport Security Police. According to a federal judge, the former police chief, two other police officers, and a local drug dealer organized a joint “criminal enterprise devoted to the distribution and sale of drugs.” The specific function of the police chief, according to the judge, was to protect and ensure the normal development of such activity by preventing police action.12
Santa Fe, January 13, 2017
Wiretapped phone conversations revealed a series of offenses in the Santa Fe State Police. One agent from the investigative unit (p.104) offered protection to local drug dealers in exchange for a monthly bribe. Another agent from the same division was in charge of contacting new street dealers to sell drugs in Santa Fe, Santo Tomé, and other towns in the northern part of the state. This agent was arrested when he was about to exchange 300 grams of cocaine for ARS $30,000. According to court documents, part of the drugs these two agents were selling was supplied by narcotics seizures.13
These brief stories—often buried in the next day’s news cycle—show that the complicity reported by residents in Arquitecto Tucci and substantiated by the case of Los Vagones is taking place in many other areas throughout the country.14 They also point to potential sources of data like federal investigations, judicial proceedings, and wiretapped phone conversations that document the relational dynamics of collusion. Much like the inquisitorial trials that offered historians such as Carlo Ginzburg (1989:142) “an unexplored gold mine,” these data sources combined with investigative journalistic reports provided us a treasure trove of evidence on the workings of the state and on the impact of collusion on interpersonal violence. The next chapters turn to a detailed analysis of three more legal proceedings that extend well beyond the boundaries of Arquitecto Tucci.
(1.) Throughout this book, we describe the drug trafficking organizations in the past tense, acknowledging that each group was impacted in different ways by the outcome of the trials.
(3.) At time of writing, this case has been brought to trial but no arrests have been made.
(4.) Names of places and persons in this section have been changed.
(5.) We converted Argentine pesos (ARS) to U.S. dollars (USD) using the average exchange rate for the year in which the conversations took place.
(10.) Specific citations reporting on these homicides are not included to protect anonymity of the field site.
(12.) “Hay Fecha para el Juicio Oral al ex Jefe de Policía,” Página/12, December 31, 2017, retrieved June 1, 2018, https://www.pagina12.com.ar/11728-tognoli-ya-sabe-su-dia-y-su-hora. See also several reports published in www.cosecharoja.org.
(13.) “Dos Policías de Santa Fe Serán Procesados por Proteger a un Narcotraficante,” La Nación, January 13, 2017, retrieved June 1, 2018, http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1975400-dos-policias-de-santa-fe-seran-procesados-por-proteger-a-un-narcotraficante.