A protest in favor of legalizing marijuana in Uruguay

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is reportedly set to reopen its field office in Uruguay, a strong suggestion that the country is now playing a bigger role in the trafficking of drugs to the US.

Weekly newspaper Busqueda broke the story, reporting that the DEA will reopen the Uruguay field office, which closed in 1994. According to newspaper El Observador, Uruguay’s narcotics police confirmed these reports.

Uruguay is not a major drug producer, but, as highlighted in the US State Department’s 2012 Narcotics Control Strategy report, drug traffickers are increasingly using it as a transit zone for drug shipments from Brazil and Argentina. Traffickers from Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia, and even Eastern European countries like Serbia have all used Uruguay for logistics and transit operations, the report says.

There are other indications that drug trafficking has increased in Uruguay. The consumption of a cheap cocaine derivative known as “paco” is on the rise there: according to a survey by the National Anti-Drug Secretariat, one in 10 students have tried the drug. While cocaine seizures in Uruguay remain low -- with just 237 kilograms confiscated in 2011 -- there have been incidents involving the bulk transport of cocaine, pointing to the involvement of organized criminal groups. In April 2011, Uruguay police found a shipment of 120 kilograms of cocaine in Montevideo, and arrested a suspected Colombian drug trafficker at the scene. In 2010, police reported the interception of a small aircraft from Bolivia loaded with 176 kilograms of cocaine.

InSight Crime Analysis

Several violent gang shootouts registered inside Uruguay have fed concerns that insecurity is rising and that organized crime is becoming a greater threat, as InSight Crime has reported. The interior minister has expressed fears that Uruguay is becoming a haven for Brazilian drug traffickers, an indication of the growing consensus that foreign groups have a foothold inside Uruguay. Police have also said they are worried that more cocaine is being processed inside the country, although there is little evidence to support such claims. 

The DEA’s decision to open a field office in Uruguay is part of a larger trend that has seen the US agency expand its field operations over the past decade. There are currently six DEA field resident offices in the region classified as the Southern Cone, which includes the regional headquarters in Lima, Peru. If Uruguay authorized the DEA to open a new office in Montevideo, there was likely agreement that the Buenos Aires office -- responsible for Uruguay -- was not enough to cover the region.

The DEA cannot open new offices without the approval of the host country, the US Chief of Misson, and US Congress. Presumably, this approval process is already underway or has been completed in Uruguay's case. The DEA has also said that it only opens offices in countries where the illicit drug trade is somehow tied to the US. As stated in a 2007 audit by the US Justice Department, "This includes countries that are a source of drugs or precursor chemicals, countries where significant money laundering occurs, or countries that are linked to drug trafficking organizations that threaten the United States." Therefore, one implication of the decision to reopen the DEA field office in Uruguay is that not only is drug trafficking within the Southern Cone increasing in general, but it is also becoming more connected to the drug supply arriving in the US. 

Notably, the decision to reopen the DEA field office follows a proposal made earlier this year to legalize marijuana in Uruguay.