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Illegal Police Protection and the Market for Stolen Vehicles in Buenos Aires

  • MATÍAS DEWEY
Abstract

In comparison to some illegal enterprises whose operations generate decisive moral rejection on the part of the public, vehicle theft remains an illicit underground activity that citizens largely tolerate or even exploit. In the province of Buenos Aires, the persistence, depth and breadth of transactions related to this black market cannot be explained without referring to the role of the state police. This article uses a theoretical approach to illegal police protection in order to understand the complicity between the police and criminals as fundamental to the market for stolen cars in the province. Using data from in-depth interviews and official documents, the article examines how exactly the police protect thieves, dismantlers and distributors of cars and/or auto parts. It analyses three elements that condition the sale of illegal protection to criminals by the police: threats and selective implementation of penalties; control of consequences; and bureaucratic falsification.

En comparación con algunas empresas ilegales cuyas operaciones generan un rechazo moral claro de parte del público, el robo de vehículos se mantiene como una actividad ilícita subterránea que la mayoría de ciudadanos toleran e incluso explotan. En la provincia de Buenos Aires la persistencia, profundidad y amplitud de las transacciones relacionadas con este mercado negro no se puede explicar sin tocar el papel de la policía estatal. Este artículo utiliza un enfoque teórico sobre la protección policial ilegal con el fin de entender la complicidad entre la policía y los delincuentes como un nexo fundamental en el mercado de automóviles robados en la provincia. Utilizando datos de entrevistas en profundidad y de documentos oficiales, el artículo examina cómo exactamente la policía protege a los ladrones y a quienes desmantelan y distribuyen automóviles y/o autopartes. Se analizan tres elementos que condicionan la venta de protección policial ilegal a los delincuentes: amenazas e implementación selectiva de castigos; control de las consecuencias; y la falsificación burocrática de evidencias.

Contrastando com empreitadas ilegais cujo funcionamento provoca rejeição moral decisiva do público, o roubo de automóveis segue como uma atividade ilícita amplamente tolerada, inclusive explorada, pelos cidadões. Na província de Buenos Aires, a persistência, profundidade e amplitude de transações relacionadas a este mercado negro não podem ser explicadas sem referência ao papel da policía do estado. Este artigo utiliza uma abordagem teórica para estudar a proteção policial ilegal e compreender a complicidade entre a polícia e os criminosos como algo fundamental para o funcionamento do mercado de carros roubados na provincia. Utilizando dados obtidos por entrevistas aprofundadas e de documentos oficiais, o artigo examina como exatamente a polícia proteje os ladrões, desmanteladores e distribuidores de carros e/ou auto peças. Ele analisa três elementos que condicionam a venda de proteção ilegal policial aos criminosos: ameaças e a implementação seletiva de penalidades; o controle das consequências; e o falsificação de provas.

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1 Centro de Experimentación y Seguridad Vial Argentina (CESVI Argentina), ‘Estadísticas de robos: 1er. semestre 2012’, available at www.cesvi.com.ar/EXPOESTRATEGAS2012/presentaciones/Robos-1semestre2012.pdf.

2 See http://test.minseguridad.mg54.net/m%C3%A1s-de-trescientos-cincuenta-mil-autopartes-ilegales-incautadas-en-desarmaderos. Also shown in the advertising campaigns of spare parts companies AFAC, ACARA and FACCERA.

3 The first reform began in 1998 and ended one year later. The second reform was launched in 2004 and lasted until 2007.

4 Interview with Roberto Vásquez, former undersecretary of investigations and criminal intelligence.

5 Networks of corruption and misconduct within Latin American police organisations have attracted more research in recent years. See Elena Azaola Garrido and Miguel Angel Ruiz Torres, ‘Cuadrándole a uno el delito: la participación de policías en el delito de secuestro en la Ciudad de México’ (Mexico City: CIESAS, 2011); Brinks, Daniel M., The Judicial Response to Police Killings in Latin America: Inequality and the Rule of Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); de Garay, María E. Suárez, ‘Armados, enrejados, desconfiados’, Política y Sociedad, 42: 3 (2005), p. 91; and Braig, Marianne and Stanley, Ruth, ‘Die Polizei–(k)ein Freund und Helfer? Die Governance der öffentlichen Sicherheit in Buenos Aires und Mexiko-Stadt’, in Risse, Thomas and Lehmkuhl, Ursula (eds.), Regieren ohne Staat? Governance begrenzter Staatlichekeit (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2007).

6 The link that the police establish with criminals through the sale of protection is just one of the possible alternatives. The available literature on the subject points out that the control of illegal markets by means of the sale of protection by the police force has led to largely non-violent relationships. Along those lines, the similarities between the cases of Chicago and Buenos Aires are remarkable: see Whyte, William Foot, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Haller, Mark H., ‘Illegal Enterprise: A Theoretical and Historical Interpretation’, Criminology, 28: 2 (1990), pp. 207–35; and Reuter, Peter, ‘Police Regulation of Illegal Gambling: Frustrations of Symbolic Enforcement’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 474 (July 1984), pp. 3647.

7 Lane, Frederic C., Profits from Power: Readings in Protection Rent and Violence-Controlling (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1979); Tilly, Charles, ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime’, in Evans, Peter et al. , Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 182; Maczak, Antoni, Der Staat als Unternehmen (Munich: Stiftung Historisches Kolleg, 1989).

8 See Gambetta, Diego, The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996). See also other specialists, such as Varese, Federico, The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); and Chu, Yiu Kong, Triads as Business (London: Routledge, 1999).

9 Although not expressed in such terms, the available literature refers sporadically to the government's provision of protection to outlaws, and only in regards to earlier stages of state formation in Europe.

10 The great majority of works on Argentina's police deal with the Federal Police, but there is growing interest in the police force of the province of Buenos Aires. See Barreneche, Osvaldo, ‘La historia de las instituciones de seguridad a través de las fuentes documentales y los archivos institucionales: el caso de la Policía de la Provincia de Buenos Aires’, in Sirimarco, Mariana (ed.), Estudiar la policía (Buenos Aires: Teseo, 2010), pp. 5785; Sirimarco, Mariana, De civil a policía: una etnografía del proceso de incorporación a la institución policial (Buenos Aires: Teseo, 2009); Sain, Marcelo F., El Leviatán azul (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2008); and Osvaldo Barreneche, ‘La reorganización de las policías en las provincias de Buenos Aires y Córdoba, 1936–1940’, available at http://historiapolitica.com/datos/biblioteca/barreneche1.pdf. For information regarding reform processes of the police force of the province of Buenos Aires, see Eaton, Kent, ‘Paradoxes of Police Reform: Federalism, Parties, and Civil Society in Argentina's Public Security Crisis’, Latin American Research Review, 43: 3 (2008), pp. 532; Barreneche, Osvaldo, ‘La reforma policial del peronismo en la Provincia de Buenos Aires, 1946–1951’, Desarrollo Económico, 47: 186 (2007), pp. 225–48; Föhrig, Alberto and Pomares, Julia, ‘Las reformas policiales desde las teorías del cambio institucional: los intentos de transformación de la policía de la provincia de Buenos Aires’, in Frühling, Hugo and Candina, Azun, Policía, sociedad y estado: modernización y reforma policial en América del Sur (Santiago: Centro de Estudios del Desarrollo, 2001); and Sain, Marcelo F., Seguridad, democracia y reforma del sistema policial en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002).

11 The focus is on the police because of their profound influence on the stolen car market, although of course, as studies about street vendors or public marketplaces show, a variety of state-related actors such as local elected politicians can supply (illegal) protection to illegal enterprises. See, for example, Aguiar, José C. G., ‘The Ambivalent Relation between State and Illegal Actors: Piracy Retail in MexicoEtnográfica, 15: 1 (2011), p. 114; Cross, John C. and Peña, Sergio, ‘Risk and Regulation in Informal and Illegal Markets’, in Fernández-Kelly, Patricia and Shefner, Jon, Out of the Shadows: Political Action and Informal Economy in Latin America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006); and Arias, Enrique Desmond, ‘The Dynamics of Criminal Governance: Networks and Social Order in Rio de Janeiro’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 38: 2 (2006), pp. 293325.

12 See O'Donnell, Guillermo A., ‘On the State, Democratization, and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries’, World Development, 21 (August 1993), pp. 1355–69; Brinks, Daniel M., ‘Informal Institutions and the Rule of Law: The Judicial Response to State Killings in Buenos Aires and São Paulo in the 1990s’, Comparative Politics, 36: 1 (2003), pp. 119; Levitsky, Steven and Helmke, Gretchen (eds.), Informal Institutions and Democracy: Lessons from Latin America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); Auyero, Javier, Routine Politics and Violence in Argentina: The Gray Zone of State Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Arias, ‘The Dynamics of Criminal Governance’; and Clunan, Anne L. and Trinkunas, Harold A. (eds.), Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).

13 Due to the shadowy nature of the field of illegal police protection, the collection of data required a specific strategy. An initial, exploratory phase of interviews with public officers, representatives of different entities and/or companies and journalists, and a bibliographic review of academic and journalistic literature, was followed by a phase of more focused interviews and searching for specific documents. During the latter phase I had access to valuable public files and the opportunity to evaluate them with former officers of the Ministry of Security of the province. This triangulation, in addition to a critical attitude towards the documentary sources, was necessary, given that the administrative proceedings within a police institution are frequently used for extortionary or informal disciplinary purposes. Collecting information according to pre-established criteria (years, zones, hierarchies and so forth) was not possible for two reasons: firstly due to the reluctance of those in charge (in 2010) of the Auditoría General de Asuntos Internos (General Audit of Internal Affairs) to grant access to such information, and secondly due to the lamentable and total absence of official statistics concerning public security issues.

14 I conducted 21 interviews. The great majority were in-depth interviews, and whenever it was possible and/or necessary to consult the interviewee again, the interviews were pre-structured. Few interviewees gave consent to be recorded, and in some cases the conditions of the dialogue did not allow it. Those interviewed were a former minister of the Ministry of Security of the province of Buenos Aires, a former vice-minister of the same, an undersecretary of security and criminal intelligence, two former general auditors of the General Audit of Internal Affairs of the province's police force, a minister of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, a supervision officer in the Investigations Unit, an undersecretary of security and civil defence of a municipality of Greater Buenos Aires, two high officials at the DNFDA, the chief technician of the Association of Argentine Components Manufacturers, the main investor in Punta Mogotes (one of the three markets of La Salada), two journalists and two businessmen, as well as five academics with expertise in policing, security and drug trafficking. At the request of the interviewees, some of the names mentioned in this article are fictional.

15 Court cases no. 365/03 and 406/03, Cio Oscar Fernández ‘El Rey del Corte’, Federal Court of Quilmes.

16 One of the chop shops was 3.5 kilometres from the nearest police station. Eleven establishments marketing illegal auto parts (chop shops and storehouses) were only about 1.4 kilometres from the nearest police station in Grand Bourg, Malvinas Argentinas district. See Dirección Prevención del Delito Contra la Propiedad del Automotor, ‘Desarmaderos’, memorandum, Province of Buenos Aires, 2002.

17 ‘Caso Testigo’, Página 12, 3 August 2003. The usual export of stolen vehicles to Paraguay was also confirmed by Luis A. Garicoits, the chief technician of the Association of Argentine Components Manufacturers.

18 Tilly, ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime’, p. 182.

19 Thomson, Janice E., Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 69; Tilly, Charles, Trust and Rule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 87.

20 Grossman, Herschel I.: ‘Rival Kleptocrats: The Mafia versus the State’, in Fiorentini, Gianluca and Peltzman, Sam (eds.), The Economics of Organised Crime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 144.

21 Due to limitations of space, I will not enter into a discussion about the application of the law. Here, suspension of the application of the law means the non-enforcement of official rules.

22 See note 12.

23 I wish to thank Sergio Costa, who kindly drew my attention to this point.

24 Interview with Marcelo F. Sain, former vice-minister of the Ministry of Security of the province of Buenos Aires, 25 Feb. 2012. The police of the province of Buenos Aires still have exclusive jurisdiction over crimes related to the market for stolen cars. Four law enforcement organisations have jurisdiction over all the Argentine territory. These are the Federal Police, mainly charged with civil policing, the National Gendarmerie as a frontier guard force, the Naval Prefecture as a coast guard, and the Airport Security Police in charge of guarding national public airports. As Argentina is a federal republic, law enforcement in the 23 subnational units is carried out by provincial police forces, which have jurisdiction over vehicle theft-related crimes. For an example of competing police forces, see Durán-Martínez, Angélica and Snyder, Richard, ‘Does Illegality Breed Violence? Drug Trafficking and State-Sponsored Protection Rackets’, Law and Social Change, 52: 3 (2009), pp. 253–73. For more on this discussion, see Reuter, Peter, The Organization of Illegal Markets (Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 1985).

25 This view coincides with Sain's when he states that ‘the traditional police model posed an irrational personnel structure, marked by the existence of a deficient distribution of human resources and by the appointment of a significant part of the personnel … to perform administrative tasks … or to take care of the personal security of judicial officials, politicians, legislators, dignitaries and others’; see Sain, El Leviatán azul, p. 150.

26 On the phenomenon of illegal detentions as a means of producing bureaucratic information, there is a considerable amount of literature from human rights organisations. See, for example, Oliveira, Alicia and Tiscornia, Sofía, ‘Estructura y prácticas de las policías en Argentina: las redes de la ilegalidad’, in Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) (ed.), Control democrático de los organismos de seguridad interior en la república Argentina (Buenos Aires: CELS, 1997), p. 17; and Tiscornia, Sofía, Activismo de los derechos humanos y burocracias estatales: el caso Walter Bulacio (Buenos Aires: Del Puerto, 2008), p. 36.

27 Interviews with Marcelo F. Sain; Elena Mariani, former general auditor of the General Audit of Internal Affairs of the province's police force; and ‘Carlos’, supervision officer in the Investigations Unit.

28 See Superintendencia de Seguros de la Nación, ‘Anexo II: automotores – coberturas de casco’, available at www.ssn.gov.ar/Storage/Info-estadistica/Mercado/Automotores/Automotores/7464%20ANEXO%20II.xls; and CESVI Argentina, ‘Estadísticas de robos’.

29 Fabián Pons, ‘Automóviles: robos y fraudes’, CESVI Argentina, 2009.

30 It is not only stolen cars that end up in bordering countries. There is a very common form of fraud which consists of an owner selling his or her car to criminals for a fee and waiting two or three days to report the theft. By that time, the car is outside the country and the original owner will be able to get the money back from the insurance company (interview with Luis A. Garicoits). Identical fraudulent practices can be found in Russia – see Gerber, Jurg and Killias, Martin, ‘The Transnationalization of Historically Local Crime: Auto Theft in Western Europe and Russia Markets’, European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, 11: 2 (2003), p. 220.

31 CESVI Argentina, vehicle theft statistics for 2011, available at www.cesvi.com.ar.

33 Dirección General de Evaluación de la Información para la Prevención del Delito, ‘Informe sobre víctimas fallecidas en ocasión de robo automotor: período 2000/2001’, memorandum, 2001.

34 According US Department of Justice statistics, the following numbers of people were murdered during vehicle thefts in the United States: in 2005, 32; in 2006, 16; in 2007, 20; in 2008, 20; and in 2009, 23. See www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/offenses/expanded_information/data/shrtable_12.html.

35 Special thanks to Elena Mariani for her comments here.

36 Interviews with Carlos, Elena Mariani and Marcelo F. Sain.

37 Interview with Luis A. Garicoits.

38 To ‘lift’ means to choose a vehicle and steal it. This can occur when the occupants are in the vehicle – carjacking – or when it is parked without occupants.

39 Report, ‘Cuaderno Happy’, in Case 22.318, ‘Chiaradía María Victoria e Iglesias Héctor Horacio, víctimas de homicidio en Bahía Blanca’.

40 Clarín, 15 May 2003. Conversion rate from 19 March 2012.

41 Dismantling cars is not an illegal activity in and of itself, and this creates problems in controlling the sale of illegal auto parts. Interview with Mario, head of the DNFDA.

42 Interview with Mario.

43 See Jens Beckert and Frank Wehinger, ‘In the Shadow: Illegal Markets and Economic Sociology’, MPIfG Discussion Paper 11/9, 2011.

44 According to some interviewees, these three forms of protection are also required by other criminal activities such as human and drug trafficking.

45 Since the practice of arresting and releasing individuals has become institutionalised, it creates an expectation that protection against prosecution can be obtained in exchange for money. This should be distinguished from extortion, whereby money, goods or services are obtained by force or threat. In other words, arrest-and-release delivers not only a benefit to police officers but also certain advantages for criminals, making it a two-way, not one-way, benefit.

46 Interview with Houdini, former general auditor of the General Audit of Internal Affairs of the province's police force.

47 Interview with León C. Arslanián, former minister of the Ministry of Security of the province of Buenos Aires, and Eugenio Zaffaroni, minister of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation.

48 The proliferation of dead young men in the Lomas de Zamora district during the crisis of 2001 was the subject of judicial inspections that are recorded in a report of the Human Rights Department of the Government of Buenos Aires. See Secretaría de Derechos Humanos, Gobierno de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, ‘Informe sobre la muerte de jóvenes en enfrentamientos policiales ocurridos en el ámbito de la Departamental de Lomas de Zamora’, in memorandum, Ministerio de Seguridad de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, Secretaría Privada, April 2003. Another example is Administrative Summary Investigation no. 4389/302, file no. 21.100-638285/01, which investigates the death of a 16-year-old boy in an alleged confrontation with two policemen. Other forms of conflictive situations, for example with the so-called piratas del asfalto, are ‘solved’ through similar methods. Interview with Leon C. Arslanián.

49 Interview with Roberto Vásquez. Since each type of crime requires a specific type of coordination, there are several ways of creating police no-go areas.

50 Interview with Carlos. This type of operation results in the driver of the transport, and sometimes his companion, being arrested.

51 This practice also occurs in the field of manufacturing fake clothing and fake luxury items. Interviews with Santiago Ferrer Reyes and Diego Farreras Villalón, the legal representatives of Nike and Louis Vuitton in Argentina.

52 Interview with Carlos.

53 Tilly, ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime’, p. 173.

54 A good example is José Garay, who worked as a police sub-officer in the police station of the city of General Pacheco, Buenos Aires. Around 2002, a judicial investigation determined that he collected a weekly ‘fee’ from several chop shops in General Pacheco under the control of chief officer Norberto Fiori. According to witnesses, the relationship between the owners of the chop shops and officers Garay and Fiori was very close. Reports from neighbours state that cars were transported almost daily between the police station and the facilities in which they were later scrapped, and that the officers and chop shop owners used to have barbecues together. See Administrative Summary Investigation no. 241.452/02, 27 Sep. 2002. Officer José Garay was subsequently discharged from the police force: see Agenda no. 101, Ministry of Security of Buenos Aires, 25 Oct. 2002.

55 Interviews with Carlos, Houdini, Marcelo F. Sain and Leon C. Arslanián.

56 Interviews with Carlos and Leon C. Arslanián.

57 Notification of the judge of guarantees of Bahía Blanca to the General Audit of Internal Affairs relating to Preliminary Criminal Investigation no. 59.947.

58 Interview with Carlos.

59 Interview with Carlos.

60 Interview with Leon C. Arslanián.

61 This method is what some investigations suggest (arising from Preliminary Criminal Investigations). See Administrative Summary Investigation no. 385/302, file no. 21.100-049.647/02 (one sergeant and one first corporal are accused); and Administrative Summary Investigation no. 4389/302, file no. 21.100-638285/01 (one sergeant and one corporal are accused).

62 Interview with Carlos.

63 According to Zaffaroni (interview), the extralegal killings of people began in the second half of the 1980s. See also Eugenio Zaffaroni, Muertes anunciadas (Santa Fé de Bogotá: Temis); and CELS, ‘Represión ilegal contra niños y adolescentes’, in Hechos enero–diciembre 2001, derechos humanos en Argentina, informe 2002 (Buenos Aires: Catálogos Editora/Siglo XXI, 2002), chap. 6, p. 261.

64 See note 48.

65 Haller was the first to refer to this fact: see Haller, ‘Illegal Enterprise’, p. 209.

66 Bear in mind that the appointment or removal of the top-ranking police personnel is a civil function: policemen strongly depend on the mayors, the legislators and the governor. For that reason, the purpose of reducing the levels of violence is to avoid affecting the political capital of police chiefs, the heads of police stations and especially the mayors. On this matter, see Sain, El Leviatán azul, and Eaton, ‘Paradoxes of Police Reform’.

67 This tendency should not be generalised because, contrary to what Carlos and many newspaper articles point out, recruitment of young people and payment with drugs is normal. Even though there is still a real risk, not every violent case becomes public, and the police possess several cover-up mechanisms. See Secretaría de Derechos Humanos, ‘Informe sobre la muerte de jóvenes’.

68 Interview with Carlos.

69 Interview with Elena Mariani.

70 Ministry of Security of Buenos Aires, Preliminary Criminal Investigation no. 22.318, ‘María Victoria Chiaradía and Héctor Horacio Iglesia Braun, Victims of Aggravated Murder’, judgement, April 2003.

71 Directorate for Prevention of Crimes against Car Ownership, ‘Chop Shops’, memorandum, Buenos Aires, 2002. This was confirmed in interviews with DNFDA official Fernando Antar, and with Mario.

72 The two former auditors of the General Audit of Internal Affairs who were interviewed confirmed that tampering with public documents is a common practice. See, for example, Administrative Summary Investigation no. 4679/702, 2002. Refer to appendix, Memorandum, 9 Aug. 2002, regarding the criminal complaint against a deputy chief officer and a deputy inspector for tampering with the logbook.

73 Interview with Houdini, Leon C. Arslanián, Carlos and Marcelo F. Sain.

74 Interview with Houdini.

75 General Audit of Internal Affairs, ‘Denuncia contra la Sra. Subcomisario Liliana Elizabeth Pacheco y el Oficial Subinspector Carlos Ariel Arias’, memorandum, La Plata, 9 Aug. 2002.

76 See note 12.

* To investigate the world of police protection is not an easy task. I would like to profusely thank Marcelo F. Sain, supervision officer ‘Carlos’ and Elena Mariani for all the information and time offered for this research. I am indebted to Javier Auyero, Jens Beckert, Mariana Llanos, Bert Hoffmann, Andrés Malamud, Detlef Nolte, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Gabriel Pereira and Maria Eugenia Kriletich for their helpful comments on previous versions of this paper. I also wish to thank the five JLAS reviewers for their critical remarks. This research was assisted by a grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

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