November 24, 2014
To say that the US and Argentine governments do not see eye to eye on the ways and means of dealing with the challenge of drug trafficking is more than an understatement. Last week, Security Secretary Sergio Berni rebuked what sounded like a US State Department’s critical comment about Argentina still facing “the challenge of controlling the Triple Frontier” with the phrase “they export death.”
There are, in fact, some clear and present policy differences between both countries. One case in point is the role of the military in combating drug trafficking.
To cite the US’ Joint Military Southern Command’s mission statement: “We work with our partners to address the growing threat of transnational organized crime (...) Drug trafficking represents the epicentre of illicit trafficking, serving as the predominant means by which Transnational Criminal Organizations obtain money and increased power in the region” (http://www.southcom.mil/ourmissions).
The Argentine position is that the armed forces have no business in fighting crime. As this daily reported on January 18, Defence Minister Agustín Rossi pointed out that “the National Defence Law prevents the Armed Forces from taking part in any kind of domestic activity” and made it clear that “President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was not planning to reopen the debate on the issue.” Some readers might think that this is in blatant contradiction with the Army’s current participation in social work. They may be right.
But back to the drugs issue. There is abundant evidence that a number of consignments which leave Argentina, have Europe as a point of arrival. Just remember the 944 kilograms of cocaine seized by the authorities on arrival in Spain, in an aircraft chartered by — at least — one of the Juliá brothers back in 2011. Consequently, a number of EU countries cooperate permanently with Argentina. And this “condemns” the US and Argentina to cooperate with each other, given that both share partnerships with the Europeans. In fact it seems safe to say that — in spite of the shouting matches — the US’ DEA and Argentina cooperate already.
But over and above policy differences, international cooperation in this kind of issues often presents practical problems. Take the case of the so-called “controlled deliveries.” It involves one drug enforcement authority letting a detected consignment leave its frontiers, in coordination with their counterparts in the destination country. This allows the latter to tail the consignment in order to capture the recipients and get hold of the big fish. Wise as this might seem, it has difficulties. In the case of Argentina, the power to authorize such an operation rests with the judiciary. But in many European countries, the authority is in the hands of the enforcement agencies. And reaching agreements between those two different lines of business is not always easy. This is just one example of why good cooperation relations are necessary. Even for hardened professional law-enforcement people, life is easier if their masters are not exchanging derogatory comments.
So what triggered the last confrontation? It is suggested that too many words with too little spin. Take, for example, the first salvo about the triple frontier. It is no secret that the place is a trouble spot. Argentina knows, and the US knows that Argentina knows. So the wording of the report seemed aimed at putting more pressure on Argentina to work harder and — possibly — to allow the US to offer more help. Or to get involved. But those that drafted the State Department’s report, and whoever cleared it for publication, did not take into account Argentina’s internal political situation. It was quite predictable that the opposition press and politicians would pick up the report’s message and use it to fire a broadside against the government.
Berni’s harsh words were — in this context — almost predictable, given the “Cristinista” political style. Berni raised the ante and was — many would say — outright insulting. It was his way of saying “we do not give in to pressure and you know it, so you are not being helpful.” In fact, if the US wanted to achieve any kind of change, it had many more chances to achieve the objective through discreet negotiations.
But Sergio Berni also lost. Government administration, included specifically-targeted funding is not decided by gods. They are decided by frail individuals. And among these frailties we should count that of not liking to be called “death exporters.” So any Argentine application to Washington for funding in that class of issues, or other kind of help, might be rejected or delayed.
So what to do next time? — and sooner or later there will be a next time. A healthy ration of spin used by both sides could do the trick. For the unaware: “spin” is a word coined in the US but then re-coined in the UK — and to the level of total copyright ownership — by former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s people. It essentially means: “Twist and turn so as to give an intended interpretation to a message in order to make it less embarrassing.” Please note. It is not about lying. It is about all involved limiting embarrassment.