On Monday, May 27, 2013 a phone rang.
Leandro "El Gordo" Vilches — a chief operator of the narco-criminal organization known as Los Monos — answered the call. The good news could be heard coming from the other end of the phone line, in the voice of hitman Ema Chamorro.
"Seven shots, seven on target: two in the chest, two in the belly, two to his arm, and one to the leg," Chamorro said. Vilches had done his job successfully — the execution had gone according to plan.
A man named Diego Demarre had just received a retaliatory deathblow for owning the bar where Claudio "El Pájaro" Cantero — the leader of Los Monos (The Monkeys), the most powerful drug trafficking gang in Rosario, Argentina — had been killed. By May 2013, these types of execution killings had become all too common.
The wiretapped phone call, released by judicial sources and acquired by VICE News, had been ordered by Judge Juan Carlos Vienna, the man responsible for investigating the criminal organization, and documenting Los Monos' thirst for revenge in Argentina's third largest city. Claudio "El Pájaro" Cantero's murder, on May 26, 2013, unleashed a wave of violence and narco-vengeance in one of Argentina's most prosperous cities.
What these tapped phone calls, and numerous interviews conducted by VICE News across the city, reveal is that Rosario is on its way to becoming Argentina's Medellin, following in the footsteps of the Colombian city where drug lord Pablo Escobar reigned, leading the country into a gruesome civil war.
Little by little, the city became a warren for criminal industries, a battleground that devastated the city's civic balance. The police became accomplices, and young delinquents began executing targets at all hours of the day. The horror show in Rosario, and the broader surrounding province of Santa Fe, included everything from threats to judges, and prosecutors, to even a shootout at the end of last year at the governor's residence, which was attacked with more than a dozen bullets.
In recent years, Rosario's homicide index has doubled. In 2013, there were 264 murders, and in the first seven months of 2014 there were more than 150. These figures, however, only account for the homicides that appear in the media. The province of Santa Fe stopped releasing official figures in the middle of 2013.
Even Sergio Berni, Argentina's security secretary acknowledged how deep the drug trade has penetrated Argentina's reality, and spoke of the prescience required to combat crime locally.
"The anticipation of trends led us to increase the endowment for federal forces — train them, modernize the equipment, and give the fight against drug trafficking an intelligent orientation," Berni told VICE News. "This solution is comprised of a battery of methods, given that the military-style fight has been a catastrophic failure worldwide, and that our border is almost 5,800 miles long, and requires an in-depth and internationally coordinated effort."
Regardless of the government's efforts one thing is certain, drug traffickers have set up shop in Argentina and authorities have taken Rosario as a case to observe, to prevent this outbreak from spreading.
'The local government used the Canteros as though they were the paradigm of evil.'
Over the last years, the city has grown, and so has its vocabulary. New words have become frequent amongst the residents of Rosario — words such as bunker and hitman.
Drugs in Rosario are sold at semi-permanent, fixed bunkers, in plain sight of everyone, including the police. According to official figures acquired by VICE News, about 200 of these bunkers — precarious constructions that can fit one or two people, and are hermetically sealed, but for a small orifice that is used to pass drugs through — were destroyed by national forces in April during a well-planned operative. Regardless, drug sales have not stopped. In fact, according to police reports, they are now available by delivery.
"Now the boys at recess in school play to see who controls the bunkers," Norma, a teacher from the Empalme Granero barrio in northeast Rosario, told VICE News. "This is a recent phenomenon. It didn't use to exist."
The tension is thick in Rosario. People have become paranoid and live in fear. When one of the drug-smuggling groups has a score to settle or has to dispute a sales turf they get hired guns who are in charge of killing their enemies or shooting up the other groups bunkers.
The soldaditos — underage soldiers who risk their lives clutching weapons to protect the bunkers — work to safe-guard the drugs. The sicariato or "hitmen's union" is the professional operation that the soldaditos graduate to, and a signal of how the permeation and installation of narco-culture is astounding in Rosario.
Operating in the downtown area, the Cantero family is in charge of the feared organization Los Monos. This family is made up of Celestina Cantero, Ariel Máximo Cantero's wife, and her son Máximo Ariel "Guille" Cantero, stepson Ramón "Monchi" Machuca, and now-deceased Claudio "El Pájaro" Cantero.
Throughout their history, members of Los Monos have typically sorted out their differences with armed force and crackdowns. They perfected this technique and became stronger. They developed deep ties with public institutions, state entities, soccer club rivals and businesses related to Rosario Central and Newell's Old Boys — two of Rosario's soccer teams. There was nowhere left that was not under their dominion. They became highly organized, and soon controlled the territory of Rosario, outsourcing security services to do their deeds.
As the criminal group's power grew, their business did also. They found that Argentine soccer was an excellent opportunity to launder dirty drug money. It is estimated that up to 120 players are financially influenced by Los Monos.
VICE News spoke to a man close to the Los Monos family, who confirmed the players' ties to the criminal organization, yet attempted to downplay the extent of their influence with a lower estimate than what is being reported. "Los Monos hold contracts with more than 30 players," he said. "The majority of them are guys who are just starting out."
Supporters of the Newell's Old Boys soccer team, or the "barra brava," a group infiltrated by the criminal organization Los Monos for the purpose of money laundering operations. Photo by VICE News.
Seven months prior to Pájaro Cantero's death, there was another death that shook Rosario's gangster scene: the shooting of Martín "Fantasma" Paz, who died on September 8, 2012. Paz was Claudio Cantero's brother-in-law. He was fatally shot several times as he drove through town with his wife and son.
This was the beginning of the end for Los Monos.
After his murder, the appointed judge, Juan Carlos Vienna, began to investigate the Cantero family. A protected witness revealed that some of the members from the highest levels of the Los Monos hierarchy planned to assassinate Paz for keeping money that belonged to the gang. But, due to the local justice system's incompetency, they were only investigated for ongoing illicit activities that they were involved with. It was the duty of the federal justice system to investigate crimes such as drug trafficking, yet they remained inactive throughout the investigation.
Today, Ariel Máximo Cantero is at large, along with his stepson Rámon "Monchi" Machuca, both accused for the murder of Martín "Fantasma" Paz, while the rest of the the family is in custody.
"The local government used the Cantero family as though they were the paradigm of evil. They served as the 'physique du rôle' that the local authorities needed to lower the pressure with regards to the peoples' demands for increased security," Carlos Varela, the Cantero family's defense attorney, told VICE News.
Varela continued by saying that the arrest of Santa Fe's chief of police, Eduardo Tongoli, for his ties with drug trafficking, was a "high-impact measure" intended to satisfy popular demand, but not to respond to the reality of the situation.
The local administration of Santa Fe has admitted that on many occasions the police patrolling the streets of Rosario were part of the problem. Authorities dismissed the idea that the people of Rosario would ever recover their trust in the local police force, and the Argentine national gendarmerie stepped in to take control.
Berni, the security secretary, launched an operation on April 19, to combat and destroy the bunkers that were selling drugs. To avoid raising suspicion, the gendarmerie cleverly mounted a fake climate change panel for security forces in a city near Rosario. The objective was to achieve heavy territorial presence of federal forces in Rosario. Three-thousand elite troops were deployed to the region, along with six helicopters and planes.
This operation was successful. Federal forces raided and destroyed bunkers throughout Rosario, seizing drugs and making arrests across the city.
Rosario breathed a sigh of relief, but its populace now fears what could happen if federal forces are withdrawn. The possibility of a resurgence in narco-violence remains a latent fear, and the people of Rosario are hoping that this dormant virus will not be reactivated.
The control for Rosario's territory is being fought tooth to nail. With the partial disbandment of Los Monos, the homicide index has not decreased. Small factions of the former ruling cartel, and lone-wolf criminals war over turf. The city has become something that no other Argentine city would wish to be.
In Rosario, what President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called "the winning decade" — from 2003, onward, under the rule of Kirchner and her husband Néstor — only brought in a wave of crime and frustration. In southern Santa Fe, the economic growth did not segue into more industry, more jobs, more schools, and better wages. In Rosario, the surge in commodities has only served to slightly slow down crime, not resolve it. Many local people that we spoke to do not feel safer, and view the current climate as just the eye of the storm.
The city has not achieved peace, rather the illusion of peaceful living, under the protection of the gendarmerie.
Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter: @gastoncavanagh