On a warm evening in February 2013, residents in Arquitecto Tucci convened to discuss their concerns about their neighborhood. Located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the once working-class neighborhood had grown significantly in recent years through the expansion of informal settlements. Paved streets and sidewalks now transitioned into muddy dirt roads. In these areas—many of which were prone to flooding—newer residents constructed simple concrete houses, most of which lacked access to municipal services like electricity, water, sewers, and garbage pick-up.
In addition to these transformations, residents were living in an increasingly violent place. Homicides had quadrupled since 2007, with 65 people murdered in the area in 2015 alone. At first pass, much of this violence seemed to be associated with the growing presence of the illicit drug trade, a product of the systemic violence that often unfolds in illicit markets where participants lack access to legal forms of recourse (Goldstein 1985).
But neighbors who convened that night focused on a different source of insecurity. As the sun set on the informal settlements and unpaved streets, a community leader named Alicia was direct: “They [the police] know where they [drug dealers] are but they don’t do anything.” Another attendee expressed similar concerns: “Everybody knows where the dealers live, and everybody knows that the police are in cahoots with them…and we are afraid that if we report the dealers, we’ll suffer the consequences.”
Just three years later, eleven people associated with a group called “Los Vagones” (the train cars) were charged with a series of drug-related crimes in the very same neighborhood. Of those indicted, two were Buenos Aires State Police officers allegedly working with local drug dealers. These charges were based on wiretapped phone conversations between members of Los Vagones and their contacts in the police collected in anti-corruption efforts, which provide an unprecedented window into collusion between the police and criminals (Arias 2006).
In our recent article published in the Latin American Research Review (link), we combine wiretapped phone conversations embedded in court documents with long-term ethnographic research in the same area to analyze the ways that police collusion in the local drug market impacts residents’ perceptions of the state.
Over the course of our ethnographic fieldwork, residents regularly expressed their distrust of the police. A young woman named Cintia recounted a time when her house was robbed and then asked rhetorically: “Why would you call the police? What for? They don’t do anything.”
On another occasion, Juan explained: “I was driving my motorcycle and the cops stopped me. They took all my money. You have to give them money otherwise they take your motorcycle.”
Accounts of extortion and incompetence by the police often merged with suspicions of their illicit relations with drug dealers. As one resident said, “The cops have their deals. They know everything. But they only do something when it is in their favor, or when someone else benefits…” Given these suspicions, residents were clear: they cannot reliably call on the police for protection from violence.
While our fieldnotes overflowed with anecdotal evidence of police collusion, the case of Los Vagones confirmed residents’ suspicions: in exchange for cash, drug dealers in Arquitecto Tucci could call on certain police officers to protect their illicit operations or turn a blind eye to their use of violence. For example, a series of wiretapped phone conversations document an officer called “Lucho” speaking with Fifi, a member of Los Vagones:
Lucho: Are they [police officers] bothering you?
Fifi: Yes, [they were] the other day but not yesterday or today.
Lucho: They are someone else’s. They are from the other side of the tracks. I will find out who they are.
Lucho: You guys are being marked by the street patrol… Write down the license plate number of the car… XL5-C94. It’s a white Nissan. They were told that people were bringing stuff around where you are.
The court case also includes evidence that police promise to intervene on behalf of their contacts. In another wiretapped conversation, Fifi talked to Officer Lucho about his problems with his competitors. Lucho assured him, “leave that to me. I’ll deal with them. I’ll go fuck with them a bit.” As this and other interactions show, drug dealers not only paid for information but also for direct police intervention on their behalf—in this case, to maintain an economic monopoly on their territory.
And the case of Los Vagones is no exception. As Marcelo Sain (2017: 165), one of the foremost experts on police in Argentina asserts, “there is no criminal undertaking devoted to drug trafficking that does not have at least some degree of protection or police coverage, or in which the police do not participate as a central actor.”
Criminologists have long examined how perceptions of law enforcement shape citizen behavior. Scholars developed the notion of legal cynicism to make sense of the shared belief that law enforcement agents are “illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill equipped to ensure public safety” (Kirk and Papachristos 2011, 1191). We find that residents in Arquitecto Tucci collectively develop legal cynicism not simply out of the perceived unavailability or bias of law enforcement agents, but out of the felt complicity between police officers and drug dealers. Existing research shows that legal cynicism has material effects on crime and violence. When people perceive the law as unavailable or unreliable, they are left to resolve their problems independently. Paradoxically, drug dealers can call on certain police officers to turn a blind eye in exchange for cash, thus obtaining protection typically unavailable in illicit markets.
What does all this tell us about the workings of the state and its clandestine relationships with drug market organizations? How do these relationships shape residents’ views of law enforcement? We contend that the interactions between Los Vagones and the police provide evidence of a state that is neither “weak” nor “strong.” Rather, the set of clandestine interactions we analyze in our article shows that the state is a deeply ambivalent organization, acting simultaneously as an enforcer of the rule of law and an accomplice to criminal acts.
Arias, Enrique Desmond. 2006. Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
Goldstein, Paul J. 1985. “The Drugs/Violence Nexus: A Tripartite Conceptual Framework.” Journal of Drug Issues 15 (4): 493–506.
Kirk, David S. and Andrew Papachristos. 2011. “Cultural Mechanisms and the Persistence of Neighborhood Violence.” American Journal of Sociology 116(4): 1190–233.
Sain, Marcelo. 2017. Por Qué Preferimos No Ver La Inseguridad (Aunque Digamos Lo Contrario). Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.
Sobering, K., & Auyero, J. (2019). Collusion and Cynicism at the Urban Margins. Latin American Research Review, 54(1), 222–236. DOI: http://doi.org/10.25222/larr.370