The outlier: Rosario (and its future), explained

Argentina is one of the safest countries in Latin America, except for Rosario, the city with a homicide rate five times higher than the national average. Violence is not new, but a wave of deadly shootings in broad daylight has exposed new crime dynamics and reopened the debate on the use of “tough on crime” policies. Here’s everything you need to know.

Text: Josefina Salomón  Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Empty streets, closed schools, bars and restaurants with their shutters down, rubbish collection suspended. It was early March and the people of Rosario, Argentina’s third largest city, had imposed a curfew on themselves. It made sense. Four people – two taxi drivers, a bus driver and a petrol station worker – had been shot dead in broad daylight in the space of a week. There had also been threats. One of the notes was thrown from a car at the door of the house that footballer Angel Di Maria uses when he visits his hometown. The house is in a private, secure neighbourhood. The governor of the province, Maximiliano Pullaro, who took office in December, was also threatened. While the city has now returned to some sort of “normal”, many questions remain about its future.

Why is all this happening and how effective are the government’s proposals?

Here are 10 key facts to understand Rosario:

1.Strategic location. Birthplace of the national flag, the “Che” Guevara and Lionel Messi, Rosario is located some 300 kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires in the province of Santa Fe, and with nearly 1.4 million inhabitants is Argentina’s third largest city. It is home to 30 ports on the Paraná River, the country’s main water trade route, from which everything from foodstuffs to grain and, of course, cocaine, is transported to Europe and Asia. A growing real estate and agricultural sectors also make it ideal for money laundering.

2.Five times. Rosario’s homicide rate – 22.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the most recent data from the Santa Fe police – is five times higher than the national rate of 4.31 per 100,000 inhabitants. Some 70 percent of homicides are linked in some way to drug trafficking, according to a study by the Fundación de Investigaciones en Inteligencia Financiera (FININT), which also concluded that more than half are concentrated in the poorest 12 percent of the city. In fact, children under 18 and women have been the two groups whose murders have increased sharply in recent years, according to an analysis by ElDiarioAr journalist Arlen Buchara.

3.Clans. There are a dozen family groups that control the drug micro-trafficking business in Rosario, with the two main groups Los Monos and Los Alvarado, according to an investigation by the Santa Fe Public Prosecutor’s Office in 2022. Although most of the leaders of the groups are behind bars, from there they coordinate “franchises” through which they “sell” the right to sell drugs in some of the areas they control and a network of officials, police and even people linked to the financial world that allow the business to work. It is estimated that these groups make as much as US$ 100 million annually.

4.Prisons. They are the centrepiece of the government’s security strategy. In fact, the prison population in Santa Fe has multiplied in the last decade, as have allegations of mistreatment. Prisons are also key to the functioning of crime gangs and the place from where leaders coordinate the sale of drugs and weapons and order assassinations and kidnappings. A few days before the start of the killing spree, the Santa Fe government released images of a surprise raid on the Piñero prison. The photos showed a line of naked-chested prisoners sitting in a row on the floor, their hands tied and staring at the ground. All around them were armed policemen. The photo looked like something straight out of Bukele’s security manual. In the Instagram post, the provincial security minister wrote “Every time they’re going to have a tougher time”.

5.Narco anomaly. While the drug trafficking market is not unique to Rosario, the level of violence it generates is. Why is that? One reason is the degree of collusion between crime groups and officials, particularly the state police, who allow the violence to take place. They are the ones who turn a blind eye to crime, allow the groups to operate from prison and facilitate money laundering. Experts say the new wave of violence in Rosario is exposing new criminal dynamics, including a possible agreement between groups. Another element that gives strength to this hypothesis is the experience of other countries where prisons have become spaces where various groups coexist and end up forming alliances in which they demand improvements in detention conditions, as happened with the First Capital Command in Brazil.

6. Plan Bandera. This is the strategy launched by the federal government, led by Security Minister Patricia Bullrich and Governor Pullaro in December. The plan foresees the work of federal and provincial forces and a strong focus on the expansion of prisons, with maximum security wards exclusively for leaders of criminal groups, the introduction of isolation cells. In addition, the possibilities for visits and food for high-profile prisoners have been cut back. Pullaro is also promoting changes to the Code of Criminal Procedure, including the possible extension of pre-trial detention to 35 days. Following the spate of murders, the government announced the deployment of the Armed Forces for logistical support and, so far, more than a dozen people have been charged. Meanwhile, the federal government announced that it will send a new proposal for a new Internal Security Law that would allow, among other things, the armed forces to take on more internal security tasks..

Mexico, Colombia and Brazil offer some tragic examples of what can happen when the military is sent to do internal security work, for which it is unprepared and for which there are no independent accountability mechanisms when abuses occur.


The complexity of the situation in Rosario requires a comprehensive approach that takes into account what has failed in the past and the overall of the context, including:

7.Militarisation does not work. Mexico, Colombia and Brazil offer some tragic examples of what can happen when the military is sent to do internal security work, for which it is unprepared and for which there are no independent accountability mechanisms when abuses occur. Even Vice President Victoria Villaruel – who is an ardent defender of the military, and in particular of those imprisoned for committing crimes against humanity during Argentina’s most recent civil-military dictatorship – agrees. “The role of the armed forces is not to fight civilians. The narco is a civilian for the law,” he said in an interview.

8.Purge of the police. The high level of police corruption is often cited as the main barrier in the fight against drug trafficking in Rosario. An effective approach requires not only the investigation of corrupt police but a purge of the practices and policies that allow, and facilitate, this high level of corruption.

9.Investment in investigative capacity. Drug trafficking is a complex crime whose investigation requires special attention, particularly in relation to the money trail, the people in charge of bringing illegal profits into the legal financial market. In an interview with ElDiarioAr, Julián Alfie, executive director of the Institute for Comparative Studies in Criminal and Social Sciences, said: “The problem is not how many people are arrested but who is arrested, and for that the Public Prosecutor’s Office has to carry out a strategic, intelligent prosecution, aimed at the links in the criminal markets that can affect their profitability.

10.More, not less, State. This means more investment in schools, libraries, hospitals, amphitheatres, in other words, pacification strategies that displace criminal groups and provide local youth with real and sustainable alternatives. Medellín, which managed to lower its homicide rate in part with such a strategy, is a good example of the effectiveness of this approach. Argentina, however, is taking the opposite path, dismantling the welfare state and social containment. The delegitimisation of social movements, which in practice fulfil the role of the state in these areas, only opens the door to criminal groups.