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Cablegate: Argentina Discusses Shift in Policy Toward Illicit

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DE RUEHBU #0322/01 0731730
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P 131730Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY BUENOS AIRES
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0447
INFO RUEHAC/AMEMBASSY ASUNCION PRIORITY 6828
RUEHLP/AMEMBASSY LA PAZ MAR 5110
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RUEHMN/AMEMBASSY MONTEVIDEO PRIORITY 7025
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RUEABND/DEA HQS WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
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RHMFIUU/DEPT OF HOMELAND SECURITY WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHMFIUU/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
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UNCLAS BUENOS AIRES 000322

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SNAR KJUS PGOV PREL AR
SUBJECT: ARGENTINA DISCUSSES SHIFT IN POLICY TOWARD ILLICIT
DRUG USE

1. (SBU) Summary: Minister of Justice Anibal Fernandez

announced this week that the GoA intends to redirect its

counternarcotics efforts away from the pursuit of drug users

in order to make more resources available for investigating

and prosecuting drug traffickers. He argues that Argentina's

courts and prisons are overwhelmed and overflowing with drug

users. Although Fernandez's thinking on the initiative

appears well advanced, sources in his Ministry note that this

is still a work in progress and that such a shift, likely

implying legislative changes, will not happen immediately.

Some press reports indicate that not all elements of the

Government support the proposal. The Minister, in clarifying

remarks to the local press following his speech in Vienna,

has stressed he is not proposing the legalization of drugs

and that his proposed policy shift is intended to improve,

not weaken, GOA counter-narcotics efforts. End Summary.


TREATMENT NOT PRISON FOR ADDICTS


2. (SBU) GOA Minister of Justice, Security, and Human Rights

Anibal Fernandez announced in Vienna at the 51st session of

the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) that the GoA is

contemplating a shift in emphasis in its treatment of illicit

drug users. Fernandez contends that current policies are

overwhelming Argentina's courts and flooding its prisons, at

great cost to the GOA. He notes that between 70 to 80

percent of cases in the courts are related to drug use, and

that only 2.8 percent result in convictions. The

criminalization of drug use in Argentina, he states, inhibits

users from getting the treatment they need and has been a

drain on counternarcotics resources that could be put to

better use in pursuing traffickers. Fernandez made similar

remarks during a working lunch in Buenos Aires on March 6

with visiting FBI official Thomas Fuentes and the Ambassador.

In that conversation, and from the information reported from

other Ministry sources, it is clear that the emphasis of this

policy shift is on giving lower priority to arresting and

convicting individual users and putting more emphasis on

breaking up trafficking rings and on creating a health and

social services network to treat addicts and other illicit

drug users. Fernandez and sources in the Ministry claim that

this proposed shift in the treatment of illicit drug users

would bring Argentina into line with countries like Brazil

and Uruguay in the region and Spain, Switzerland, and the

Netherlands in Europe.


MISUSE OF RESOURCES


3. (SBU) In his discussion with the Ambassador and Tom

Fuentes on March 6, Fernandez relayed how expensive it was to

incarcerate users -- US$ 1,500 per month -- and that only 2-3

percent are ever convicted. He noted the costs and the large

backlogs caused by the thousands of cases in the federal

court system. (Most Argentine provincial legislatures have

not authorized provincial jurisdiction/prosecution in drug

cases, leaving them to be prosecuted in federal court.) He

argued that it would be more effective to concentrate on

dealers and trafficking networks and getting convictions for

these traffickers. Fernandez explained that federal law

enforcement had seized more marijuana last year than the year

before, most of it coming from Paraguay. He also said that

Peru is the largest source of cocaine coming to and through

Argentina, followed by Bolivia. He explained that much of

his forces' current efforts are focused on going after the

big Peruvian networks and that he feels he has more support

for his counternarcotics efforts from President Fernandez de

Kirchner than he had previously.


RECOGNIZING WHAT ALREADY EXISTS


4. (SBU) Daily newspaper La Nacion, often critical of

Kirchner administration policies, reported in a front page

article March 12 that not everyone in the Government supports

decriminalization. Most prominently, the paper cited

opposition from the head of the Argentine drug policy agency

SEDRONAR, Jose Granero, and claimed that the President

herself has a ""more conservative position"" on the matter.

However, Minister Fernandez, in his public statements and in

comments to the Ambassador, noted that he has the President's

(general) support on counternarcotics issues. Granero, who

was in Vienna at the CND, was reportedly surprised by

Fernandez's announcement of the proposed policy change. A

number of political opposition figures and the Catholic

Church have spoken out against the proposed shift as well.

The article also quotes several judges who assert that de

facto decriminalization is already the case. According to

the article, most federal judges oppose prosecuting drug

users for possession of small quantities. Emboff heard a

similar comment from an Argentine police officer.


CORRECTING FAILED POLICIES


5. (SBU) Fernandez offered his personal assessment that

Argentina's counternarcotics efforts have been a failure.

During the March 6 encounter, he said that ""in my country,

since the (1989) drug law was sanctioned until last year,

there hadn't been a single conviction for money laundering

and that in 2006 only two drug cases were brought to oral

trial."" A large part of the problem of prison overcrowding

with drug users and small-time dealers and the relative

ineffectiveness of the police reflects shortcomings in the

current penal code. Under the Argentine judicial system,

judges are responsible for and direct investigations.

Prosecutors and judges are unable to decide which cases to

pursue -- they must, by law, investigate and prosecute all

cases that come before them. Prosecutors are unable to offer

plea bargains. Testimony of paid informants is not allowed.

Undercover agents are allowed in drug investigations but

rarely used. Most of these shortcomings are addressed in

ongoing efforts to modify the criminal procedural code, but

until that occurs, decriminalizing drug use will not

necessarily result in more effective use of law enforcement

agencies or the courts.


6. (SBU) Fernandez formed a scientific advisory committee

last year to help inform his policy decision. While the

press reports that the committee generally supports the

decriminalization of drug usage, its work continues. It is

analyzing an extensive survey on illicit drug usage

commissioned by the committee involving some 50,000

households. The Minister's thinking on this policy is

evidently well advanced, but many of the particulars of the

proposed policy shift remain to be worked out, and could

include legislative changes and budget reallocations. An

unattributed federal government source is cited by La Nacion

as saying that decriminalization is an issue to be debated

and reviewed, that the Government has ""nothing concrete,"" and

that much remains before sending anything to Congress. As

noted earlier, Minister Fernandez has now claimed that he is

not proposing decriminalization.


7. (SBU) Comment: Polls consistently report that Argentines'

number one concern is public security. The public links its

high feelings of insecurity with reports of growing drug use

in the impoverished shanty towns surrounding Buenos Aires and

other major urban centers. The new government seems more

focused on the issue than the previous regime did --

something that Fernandez himself has told us. He seems to

sincerely believe that lowering the law enforcement priority

(and perhaps penalties) given to possession for personal use

will help make the GOA anti-crime effort more effective,

freeing law enforcement and court resources to go after

traffickers. He believes that the current approach catches

lots of little fish, but allows the big ones to slip away.


8. (SBU) But there are risks in the new approach.

Experience shows that to get to the big fish you often need

to start with the little ones. Moreover, a government policy

that could be interpreted as overly lenient on illicit drug

use could engender some public pushback given the

narcotics-street crime link. We have an excellent and

long-standing relationship with Fernandez and his advisers.

As he moves forward with his policy, the Embassy will work

with him to try and limit unintended, negative impacts on our

bilateral and regional counternarcotics efforts. The main

impediments to more effective counternarcotics remain

Argentina's outdated penal code -- limiting the judicial

tools available to law enforcement and prosecutors -- and the

inefficient courts.

WAYNE


=======================CABLE ENDS============================

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