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An unprecedented wave of narco-violence is sweeping the Argentinian city

ROSARIO, Argentina (AP) — The killing order came from a federal prison near Argentina’s capital. Unwitting authorities diverted a call from drug traffickers linked to one of the country’s most notorious gangs to outside collaborators. By hiring a 15-year-old hitman, they sealed the fate of a young father they didn’t even know.

At a gas station on March 9 in Rosario, the picturesque hometown of soccer star Lionel Messi, 25-year-old employee Bruno Bussanich stood whistling to himself and checking the day’s receipts moments before he was shot three times from less than a meter away. Surveillance footage shows. The attacker fled without taking a peso.

It was the fourth fatal gang-related shooting in Rosario in almost as many days. Authorities called it an unprecedented disaster in Argentina, which had never witnessed the extremes of drug cartel violence suffered by some other Latin American countries.

A handwritten letter was found near Bussanich’s body, addressed to officials who want to curb the power of drug lords behind bars. “We don’t want to negotiate about anything. We want our rights,” it says. “We will kill more innocent people.”

Shocked residents interviewed by The Associated Press in Rosario described a sense of fear taking over.

“Every time I go to work, I say goodbye to my father as if it were the last time,” said 21-year-old Celeste Núñez, who also works at a gas station.

The series of killings represents an early test for the security agenda of populist President Javier Milei, who has tied his political success to saving Argentina’s tank economy and eradicating drug trafficking violence.

Since taking office on December 10, the right-wing leader has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the military to take to the streets for the first time since Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship in 1983.

His message of law and order has enabled the hardline governor of Santa Fe province, which includes Rosario, to crack down on jailed criminal gangs that authorities say orchestrated 80 percent of last year’s shootings. Under orders from Governor Maximiliano Pullaro, police have stepped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits.

“We are dealing with a group of narco-terrorists who are desperate to maintain power and impunity,” Milei said after Bussanich was killed, announcing the deployment of federal troops in Rosario. “We will lock them up, isolate them and take back the streets.”

Milei won 56 percent of the vote in Rosario, where residents praised his focus on an issue largely neglected by his predecessors. But some worry the government’s combative approach puts them in the line of fire.

Gangs began their deadly reprisals just hours after Pullaro’s security minister shared photos showing Argentine prisoners crammed on the ground with their heads pressed against each other’s bare backs – a scene reminiscent of the crackdown President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, against the gangs.

“It’s a war between the state and the drug traffickers,” said Ezequiel, a 30-year-old worker at the gas station where Bussanich was killed. Ezequiel, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals, said his mother has since begged him to stop. “We are the ones paying the price.”

Even Milei’s supporters have mixed feelings about the crackdown, including Germán Bussanich, the father of the murdered gas station worker.

“They are putting on a show and we are dealing with the consequences,” Bussanich told reporters.

Rosario, a leafy city 300 kilometers northwest of Buenos Aires, is where revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was born, Messi first kicked a football and the Argentine flag was first raised in 1812. But lately the city became known because the number of murders is five. times the national average.

Tucked into a bend of the Paraná River, the port of Rosario turned into Argentina’s drug trafficking hub as regional crackdowns pushed the narcotics trade south and criminals began smuggling cocaine in shipping containers transported across the river to foreign markets . Although Rosario has never suffered the car bombs and police killings that have gripped Mexico, Colombia and most recently Ecuador, the splintering of street gangs has led to bloodshed.

“It doesn’t come close to the violence in Mexico because we still have the deterrent capacity of the Argentine government,” said Marcelo Bergman, a social scientist at Argentina’s National University of Tres de Febrero. “But we have to keep an eye on Rosario, because the biggest threats come not so much from big cartels, but from the fact that these groups are spreading and diversifying.”

Drug traffickers have a tight grip on Rosario’s poor neighborhoods, full of young men vulnerable to recruitment. One of them was Víctor Emanuel, a 17-year-old who was murdered two years ago by rival gangsters in an area where street murals pay tribute to slain criminal leaders. No one was arrested.

“My neighbors know who is responsible,” his mother, Gerónima Benítez, told the AP, through tears. “I looked for help everywhere, I turned to the judiciary and the government. No one answered.”

An anxious existence is all Benítez has ever known. But now, for the first time in Argentina, warring drug traffickers are banding together and terrorizing parts of the city previously considered safe.

Imprisoned gang leaders in Latin America have long run criminal enterprises from a distance with the help of corrupt guards. But according to an indictment unsealed last week, jailed gang bosses in Argentina provided instructions on how to kill random civilians through family visits and video calls.

Court documents show bosses paid underage hitmen up to $450 to attack four of the recent victims in Argentina’s third-largest city. The murders of Bussanich, two taxi drivers and a bus driver in less than a week in March, federal prosecutors say, “destroyed the peace of an entire society.”

Street cleared. Schools closed. Bus drivers picked up. People were too afraid to leave their homes.

“This violence is on another level,” said 20-year-old Rodrigo Dominguez from an intersection where a dangling banner demanded justice for another bus driver killed there weeks earlier. “You can’t go outside.”

Panic was still palpable in Rosario last week, as police swarmed the streets and normally busy bars closed early due to a lack of customers. A restaurant run by Messi’s family, a magnet for fans, reported quiet nights and lower profits. Women in one neighborhood said they were carrying 22-caliber pistols. Analía Manso, 37, said she was too scared to send her children to school.

Pope Francis said last month he was praying for his compatriots in Rosario.

The attacks and public threats continue. This month, a sign appeared on a highway overpass warning Argentina’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich that gangs would expand their offensive into Buenos Aires if the government does not back down.

Authorities have tried to reassure the public by sending hundreds of federal agents to Rosario. The AP spent a night with police last week as officers patrolled neighborhoods to record suspicious activity and set up checkpoints.

Georgina Wilke, a 45-year-old Rosario bomb squad officer, said she welcomes federal intervention, including the military, to control crime. “We have been hit very hard,” Wilke said.

Omar Pereira, the provincial secretary of public security, promised that the efforts represent a shift from the failed tactics of the past.

“There were always agreements, implicit or explicit, between the state and criminals,” Pereira said, describing how authorities looked the other way for a long time. “What is the idea of ​​​​this government? There is no pact.”

But experts are skeptical that a crackdown on crime will stop drug traffickers from taking control of Argentina’s police and prisons.

“Unless the government fixes its corruption problems, the prison crackdown is unlikely to have any long-term impact,” said Christopher Newton, a researcher at Colombia-based investigative organization InSight Crime.

For years, Rosario’s 1.3 million residents have watched warily as presidents and their promises came and went as the violence continued.

“It’s like a cancerous tumor that grows and grows,” Benítez said from her home, whose windows were protected by wrought iron bars.

“We, on the outside, are living in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.”

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero prison in Pinero, Argentina, April 9. PHOTO: AP