BUENOS AIRES — Whether it's poor kids sniffing coca paste, or middle class and wealthy youth indulging in refined cocaine, these are the hapless end users in a continental drug chain in which Argentina is now a critical link.

As in the late 18th century, when Spain turned this area into a viceroyalty with Buenos Aires as its capital, Argentina remains a corridor for goods destined for Europe. The trade then was in silver from the mines of Potosí in Peru, which the laws then mandated be exported via Buenos Aires, because it was the shortest route to Spain. The new route worked for decades, until Spain's colonies began to revolt in 1810, and new states emerged on the continent.
 
Two hundred years later, the country is again a strategic stepping stone, this time for drug cartels that want to ship cocaine from Peru and Bolivia back to the Old World. 
 
The decline of the Colombian cartels in the 1980s and 1990s and the problems their lackluster successors have had in taking their goods into the United States have created this veritable geopolitical shift. Peru and Bolivia, whose raw materials are used to make drugs, have redirected the export routes southward, turning southern Bolivia's city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra into a processing and refining center for coca paste. It is the new Potosí.
 

 
A Spanish coin from the Potsoi' mint. Photo: Wikipedia
 
Curiously, the change of routes has led to the resurgence of several actors from 200 years ago: indigenous communities and drug-producing peasants. They produce the coca paste by treading on hundreds of kilos of coca leaves mixed with gasoline, suphuric acid and ammonia. Then there are the contingents of thousands of locals, who load and carry this product on their backs along the narrow paths of Peru's central mountains, as the "feudal" laborers and porters of the Inca empire once did. When they reach the south, vehicles take their loads either to Santa Cruz or to Chilean ports for shipping to the United States.
 
The more powerful cartels have opted for air routes, which has also made Santa Cruz de la Sierra a training ground for Bolivian pilots who can become millionaires within a few years.
 
Getting it in
 
Once the base paste is refined in Santa Cruz, it must then be taken into Argentina. It's no easy task, because here the traffickers face a solid state, even though it's weakened by fissures and corruption. It is the cracks that allow the drugs to get through.
 
The most powerful capitalists take advantage of limited scanning to bring their loads in by air and dropping them into fields across northwestern Argentina. The safest landing tracks are located in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, though when they don't land, they just "shower" the loads onto the fields before cars load the drugs and take them to Argentine ports.
 
There is also entry by land, though the adventurers using this "low-cost" option must negotiate their way through gendarmerie posts. This is sometimes done using the "spectacle" of traditional Andean caravans bringing in a range of goods such as fake Chinese goods, some of which conceal coca paste. Whatever comes through can be sold in La Salada, the popular forgeries market outside Buenos Aires.
 

 
Coca leaves in Bolivia. Photo: Dr. Blofeld
 
For the next step, taking either paste or refined cocaine onto Argentine ports — the last stop before Europe — there is a well-oiled infrastructure of partners in the security forces and "multitasking" criminal gangs linked to them. One loading point par excellence is Rosario, the capital of soy, just inland from Buenos Aires. Local criminals receive an in-kind commission for their services, which they can sell in the local market. 
 
In Rosario, the drugs flow through the social divides. The gangs that refine coca paste in their "kitchens" distribute it among the "soy children" from wealthy families, and lower-quality stuff that resembles crack is sold in the crowded housing estates. Local sporting clubs that intermittently act as hired hands for politicians are thought to have a hand in this local drug trade.
 
Similar scenarios apply in Greater Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Mendoza.
 
The small amounts of merchandise remaining in Argentina — the commission the cartels pay to local gangs — are enough to create growing damage to Argentina's social fabric.
 
Like the great merchants of colonial Spain, the drug cartels of today run an entire system through their agents in the various stopovers of the global drug circuit: Ayacucho, Sant Cruz de la Sierra, Rosario, Córdoba, Buenos Aires and the European ports.