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Berni: 26% of airstrips are clandestine

Security Secretary Sergio Berni (centre) testifies about drug trafficking in Congress yesterday.
By Tomás Brockenshire
Herald Staff

Security secretary tells lawmakers the global fight against drug trafficking has failed

As many as 500 clandestine airstrips have been uncovered by the federal government in the country, Security Secretary Sergio Berni yesterday told lawmakers in Congress.

At a time of increased concern about the growth of drug-trafficking in the country, the comments raised more than a few eyebrows in the Bicameral Interior Security Monitoring Committee as they seemed to directly contradict recent statements by Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich, who had denied there was evidence of clandestine airstrips in the country.

Yet according to Berni, for every three official airstrips, there is one that is off the books—and that’s only counting those that have been uncovered.

There are “1,400 duly registered airstrips (in the country) and another 500 clandestine airstrips,” Berni said. That means 26 percent of all airstrips are clandestine.

The comments came as Berni and Security Minister Cecilia Rodríguez addressed a session of the bicameral committee to answer questions on drug-trafficking.

Radical (UCR) Senator Gerardo Morales (Jujuy) seized upon the airstrip comments, noting that Capitanich had told the Senate in March that “there is no evidence of any clandestine airstrips.”

Berni attempted to retract his comments with a turn of phrase, saying that “I am in complete agreement with the Cabinet chief. Naturally, any airstrips that we have discovered are no longer clandestine per se.”

Berni also answered to accusations that the government’s drug policy is a “failure” saying that “what has failed is the global war on drugs. Ever since (former US president Richard) Nixon’s era, one trillion US dollars have been spent globally and the drugs keep on advancing. They are now cheaper and are even purer.”

Berni went on to say that new methods were required in the fight against trafficking, challenging Congress to think of new approaches to the problem that did not emphasize a full-frontal approach, noting that it was important to reduce the demand for narcotics through non-police means.

The Security secretary added that he was not advocating any particular stance when it comes to decriminalizing narcotics but noted that drug trafficking is a complex problem and that in addition to “discussing new paradigms,” there were “neighbours” who had different narcotics legislation that impact Argentina. Although he did not say it, Berni appeared to be referring to Uruguay, which decriminalized the consumption, production and distribution of marijuana in 2013.

Noting the importance of the judiciary, the Secretary Berni also called for more agile and dynamic legal tools to tackle drug lords, citing the success of such measures in Colombia.

Drug trafficking dominated the four-hour session that brought together senators and Lower House representatives, with Secretary Berni repeatedly insisting that “radars are important, but they are not the only measure” that can be used to combat the entry of narcotics into the country, and asked the opposition to not fixate on the issue.

The imperfect radar coverage of the northern border has been a recurring theme in questions asked of Capitanich during his presentations in Congress. The Security Secretary instead noted the greater importance of an Airborne Observation Network (ROA) that uses human resources to verify irregular flights, most of which Berni suggested were “crop dusters and private flights between farms.”

Emphasizing his specialization in tactical matters, Berni spoke of the urban nature of police anti-drug operations, which he said occur “mostly in the slums not because that is where the consumption is highest but because drug lords stay out of sight because the urban landscape is well-suited for hiding.”

Berni outshines boss

Berni’s forceful discourse and political tone overshadowed that of Security Minister María Cecilia Rodríguez, who did not have the same stage presence as her supposed subordinate. Berni warmly greeted the assembled lawmakers as he arrived at the Salón Azul whereas the minister was far more discreet.

The dynamic hardly seemed surprising for a secretary who is often on television and a minister whose face remains unknown for the majority of the population.

The secretary also took time to shake hands with Senator Morales after the session ended, despite their extensive verbal sparring.

Exchanges between the two extended into a prolonged and light-hearted discussion of the practice of chewing coca leaves in Jujuy and Salta provinces, which is legal to consume according to current legislation. However, that same framework forbids its importation from Bolivia and its distribution in large quantities in Argentina. Senator Morales had a small bag of coca leaves with him during the session.

The minister delegated many questions to Berni or other associates, but did respond with greater force to crime statistics from Radical Party lawmaker Luis Petri, calling them useless as they were not “scientific.”

@tbrockenshire

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