Author: Cristian Manchego Cardenas
Universidad de Buenos Aires


In Argentina, the topic of drug trafficking has, for decades, been  part of the national political conversation. For the most part, it has been approached from punitive and prohibitionist standpoints. In the runup to the 2015 presidential elections, the consumption and distribution of illegal drugs became a relevant  part of the campaign agenda. Candidates stated how they would deal with the problem, if elected, and diagnosed the social impact of the issue. This article, then, analyzes the political discourse on drug trafficking during the above electoral period in Argentina, and offers a few analytical variables worth considering in future investigations on drug-related  crime and the  consumption of  illegal substances. By reviewing audiovisual ads, presidential debates, television interviews, pamphlets, and the electoral platforms of the parties and coalitions  involved  in  the  first  and  second  rounds of  the  2015 elections, we define  how presidential hopefuls dealt with the topic at hand and reached out to their potential electors. We conclude that the political discourse on drug trafficking was characterized by four main discursive through-lines: the promise of armed intervention, the territorialization of the illegal drug phenomenon, the application of legal-normative punishment, and the appeal to a citizenship victimized by drug trafficking, urban insecurity, political corruption, and the inefficiency of the incumbent government.


Political communication, drug trafficking, illegal drugs, electoral campaigns.


The phenomenon of drug trafficking has been the subject of government policies and public discussion in recent years in Argentina. Prohibitionist and punitive logics on drug trafficking have permeated national political discourses and practices for decades, but have deepened in the context of the worsening of the fragility of the Argentine State in the face of organized crime (Frederic, 2020) and in the context of the emergence of new global threats (Tokatlian, 2018). Despite the negative experiences of the so-called war against drug trafficking, carried out by nations such as Mexico and the United States (Ángel, 2017; Keefer and Loayza, 2010), the Argentine Government has promoted since 2011, but, above all, to from 2015 , the intervention of the Armed Forces in the fight against illicit drugs and, in this sense, the demarcation between the actions of public security and national security has been violated (Sain, 2018).

Although drug trafficking is part of the contemporary Argentine political agenda, electoral campaigns in particular are configured as opportune moments to analyze how the political field questions citizens and identifies with their concerns about security issues (Calzado, 2020; Dallorso and Seghezzo, 2015; Calzado, Fernández and Lio, 2014a; Fleitas Ortiz de Rosas, 2014). Examining the discursive characteristics on a criminal issue such as drug trafficking allows us to delve into the symbolic power relations that constitute the words and positions of the Argentine candidates (Calzado, 2020). These electoral discourses do not only correspond to the national reality (1), but were also analyzed in other countries, particularly from a criminological perspective (Beckett, 1997; Garland, 2005; Simon, 2011). In fact, there is a political tendency to resort to crime and fear as an electoral topic that is found both in Latin American nations and in the United States (Chevigny, 2003). Drug trafficking as a discursive object in the Argentine political or journalistic field, as well as as in citizen perceptions, it is part of investigations occupied by mediatization and the discourse of crime and urban insecurity in the country. Some of these studies have deepened the understanding of the production or circulation or reception of police news in written or audiovisual format (Baquero, 2017; Focás, 2019; Focás and Galar 2016; Heram and Gago 2019; Luchessi and Martini 2004; Silvera and Natalevich 2012). From this literature, drug trafficking is taken up based on the debates about the feeling of insecurity, the role of the media, the media establishment of fear and the penetration of the issue of insecurity in citizenship. Taking into account this broad field of analysis, the present study has the particularity of focusing on the subject of drug trafficking and converses, in a certain sense, with the works indicated above.

In the electoral campaign for the 2015 presidential election in Argentina, drug trafficking was positioned by the candidates as a problem that the incoming government had to face. The relevance of the issue of illicit drugs on the public agenda determined the production of specific political interventions on the topic. As part of their communication strategies, the presidential candidates intervened in the public debate about how to combat drug trafficking and developed situation diagnoses regarding the dimension of its impact on society. Likewise, according to some public opinion studies, in 2015, Argentines were in tune with the political agenda. Drugs had increased in the neighborhoods and were considered a serious problem (2).

The candidates addressed «drug trafficking» from their electoral platforms, public events, televised interviews, web platforms, social networks and audiovisual spots, among other media coverage. The media also recorded the relevance of the topic based on its greater news coverage. Mentions of crimes related to drug trafficking increased in the campaign months of 2015 with respect to the total of this type of journalistic information reported in the pre-election months. As the presidential campaign evolved, news about «drug possession and trafficking» gained presence on the media agenda and became central during election months (3).


We reviewed audiovisual spots, presidential debates, televised interviews, electoral platforms and brochures thematic regularities around “illicit drug trafficking and use” (4). The objective of the research is to explore the way in which the Argentine political discourse approached the fight against drug trafficking in the 2015 presidential campaign. The specific ones are: 1) to describe and analyze the enunciative and thematic modalities of the discourse on drug trafficking of the presidential candidates of 2015; 2) identify the similarities and differences of the communications on the topic of drug trafficking made by the different representatives of the political forces; and 3) establish and define typologies of the electoral political discourse on the traffic and use of illicit drugs in Argentina.

To address our object of study, we use discourse analysis techniques (Verón, 1993, 2003), we review the entities and components of political communication (Verón, 1996) and the linguistic and extra-linguistic features of the analysis material (Mangone and Warley, 1994). The corpus includes the communications of the candidates Mauricio Macri (Let’s Change), Daniel Scioli (Front for Victory), Sergio Massa (United for an Alternative), Margarita Stolbizer (Progressives), Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (Federal Commitment) and Nicolás del Caño ( Workers’ Left Front). Although we mainly work with material from the first three candidates mentioned, since they were the ones who obtained the most votes in the first electoral round,6 we do not lose sight of the discursivities of their adversaries, mainly those of the representative of the force left. This makes it possible to better define the tensions and invariants of the electoral political discourse on drug crime. The selection period of the corpus covers from September 30 to October 23 and from November 6 to November 21, 2015, time stipulated by the National Electoral Chamber and by the National Electoral Justice for the circulation of campaign material in audiovisual media. 

How is the treatment of the topic «drug trafficking» in the speeches of the 2015 presidential candidates? What does fighting against drug trafficking mean for the electoral political discourse of that campaign? What discursive invariants are registered between the candidates of the different political forces? How is the public questioned on the issue of drug trafficking? From the approach to these questions that guided the development of our research, we obtained the results that are presented in the following sections. In this sense, the findings were elaborated from the identification of the enunciative and thematic modalities of the communications on drug trafficking, as well as the recognition of the similarities and differences corresponding to the interventions of the representatives of each political force. As a hypothesis, we assume that the 2015 presidential candidates addressed the drug issue from four key discursive lines: the armed intervention of the State, the territorialization of the phenomenon of illicit drugs, the management of punishments from a legal-regulatory approach and the appeal to citizens who are victims of insecurity and the government in power. These categories are transversal features of the communication strategies carried out by the political arch in competition for the presidential campaign of that year. These are not exclusive modalities between the political forces, since the presidential candidates adhered, to a lesser or greater extent, to these discursive axes to deal with the issue of drugs before the citizenry. However, throughout the following sections we will see how each typology presents particular features and varies depending on the treatment of the subject carried out by the political enunciator according to the place it occupies in the electoral game (either a coalition in opposition to the government of the day or the pro-government front), as well as from their trajectories of approaching security issues (as is the case of the left front).

Main findings

The fight against drug trafficking has occupied the center of the political agenda of many countries in the region and has implied the implementation of a series of security responses that include the use of the Armed Forces. The militarist and police strategy, in addition to having been ineffective in the purpose of ending drug trafficking, has deepened the levels of violence in nations such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. Taking into account this context and the analysis developed in this article, we understand that the treatment of drug trafficking by the 2015 presidential candidates in Argentina did not generate an alternative debate to the prohibitionist and punitive approach to illicit drugs that would allow enriching the significant and perceptive dimension of citizens around the subject. In the speeches that we analyzed, fighting against drug trafficking meant putting the figure of an absent state on the political scene. The rhetoric in an adversarial key crossed the speeches that were built as a pro-addressee (Verón, 1996) to the citizenship victim of crime and vulnerability due to the proclaimed advance of drugs in the country. In fact, the hypothesis that we assume is based on an adversative matrix, since although the four discursive lines raised are transversal to the communications of the political forces in competition, they differ mainly based on the location occupied by the political enunciator, either the ruling party or the opposition to the government of the day.

We cannot affirm that the findings of this study were particularly exclusive to the 2015 campaign. The development of research that addresses the object in its historical development will help us to further elucidate the panorama. However, we can conclude that any hypothesis that conveys the idea that a certain political force –or specific candidate– who has emphatically worked on the issue in those electoral months has initiated the discussion of the issue of illicit drugs in the country is questionable. If the presidential candidates dealt with the issue to a greater or lesser extent in their communication pieces, it can be explained more depending on the way in which they were strategically presented. The link promoted by the media between some public officials of the then Government and the drug-trafficking business, and some results of studies of both public opinion and the media agenda in which the public repercussion of drug trafficking is shown, account for the particular features of the political-social scenario of 2015. It is not possible to affirm that the political discourse on the drug trafficking has arisen under the determination of these variables. However, having pointed out these contextual elements throughout this investigation makes it possible to understand the relevance that drug trafficking had in the public agenda of 2015. The figure of the State absent in the political discourse was represented by the Kirchner government. In the analysis, we have described how even the official candidate, Daniel Scioli, tried to detach himself from the continuist figure of Cristina Fernández and recognized the importance of the coming government confronting drug trafficking. In this sense, political speeches built the figure of the future president of the country based on qualities such as efficiency, capacity for action and, above all, experience in political management positions. The main candidates, Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri and Sergio Massa, turned to making visible the security policies that they had implemented during their respective municipal or provincial mandates. To combat drug trafficking, the formation of a State with a heavy hand was required from the use of the Armed Forces and the professionalization of the security forces. This approach catalyzed argumentative lines that, with particular variants and chiaroscuro, were circumscribed to the role of the armed wing of the State as a mode of combat. For this reason, even the leftist candidate, Nicolás del Caño, despite not building a police program plan, addressed the repressive proposal, although focusing on its negative aspects. At times, the debate was reduced to the use or not of the Armed Forces, which restricted an overcoming, imaginative and realistic discussion about the ways to confront organized crime, beyond the decriminalization of the use of substances. . Be that as it may, the role of the security forces and the Armed Forces was consolidated as the central axis of the electoral debate.

In this sense, far from adopting a discourse that presented them as weak to the public, a large part of the candidates accentuated the use of punitive rhetoric and prioritized their experience in security management. Fighting against drug trafficking meant taking care of the national territories characterized as dangerous because of drugs: national borders and poor urban spaces. Although the drug problem was confined to certain areas of the country, the figure of the addressee-victim acquired totalizing dimensions: the we-national at risk had its correlate in a then-absent State that was unable to confront drug trafficking and, above all, everything, did not keep the sovereignty of the country safe. The political discourse mapped territories with ties to drug crime at the national level and described areas in which the future State would have to intervene, to a large extent, through the police. Intervening legally gave an account of the way in which political discourse meant, through the use of the law, the fight against illicit drugs. Intervening from the legislative strategy aimed, to a large extent, at deepening the punishment of the drug criminal. The enunciations configured a legal machinery on the situation of harm to the victims. The norm and the punishment appeared outdated with respect to the dimension of the drug trafficking problem. Broadly speaking, the candidates indicated that the tolerance threshold had been crossed and that the State had to react and act through the norm. The candidates mentioned the urgency of modifying the penal legislation to regulate the punishment of delinquents. In this sense, the presidential candidate was the spokesperson for legislative actions that could be promoted in the fight against drug trafficking. Thus, they sought to build a legislating State; a State that would even review the penalties for the use of certain substances. The political discourse built as the main addressee the citizenship-victim of crime and violence linked to drug use, as well as the then Government due to its inaction against drug trafficking and punitive regulations against the consumption of certain illegal substances . Taking into account the adversative matrix inherent to electoral discourses, we find that the figure of the victim of drug trafficking was configured based not only on security risks, but also on the incapacity and, to a certain extent, the corruption of the then Government. Likewise, the figure of the perpetrator was deposited as alien to us-victim, as well as in relation to the figure of certain state officials and authorities (corrupt judges, complicit police officers, high-ranking politicians, government officials). and young substance users. The figure of the young-poor in political discourses includes, on the one hand, a significance as a victim of social vulnerability and, on the other, as a possible perpetrator involved in actions of urban crime.


Footnotes page:

  1. Citizen insecurity is one of the most important concerns of Argentines. In 2015, for example, 39% of those surveyed by Latinobarómetro (2015) stated that this issue was one of the country’s main problems, a diagnosis that was repeated in previous years.
  2. In 2015, 8 out of 10 respondents considered the advance of drug trafficking as «serious» or «very serious» (Universidad Argentina de la Empresa, 2017).
  3. Of all the graphic notes that reported this crime, 30% were published during the first six months of 2015, while that percentage increased to 70% during the campaign season, that is, from July to December of the same year (Observatorio de Medios del Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos, 2016).
  4. For this instance of The research did not address political propaganda on social networks. We hope, in future research, to expand the material and conceptual perspectives that help the analysis of what happened in 2015 with the political discourses on drug trafficking in social networks. Taking this caveat into account, it is necessary to clarify that the audiovisual spots that are part of our corpus were broadcast through national television media and, subsequently, published on the digital channels of the competing political forces. Only for the purpose of making this study material available to the reading public of this research, the links to those videos recorded on YouTube are shared, which does not imply that our study addresses that digital space.
  5. In these elections, the candidate Daniel Scioli obtained 37.08% of the votes counted. Mauricio Macri was in second place with 34.15% and Sergio Massa obtained 21.39% of the total votes (Government of Argentina, 2015).



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This is a translated version of the original article published in Spanish in Revista Austral Comunicación. Available here.