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Organized Crime Sets its Sights on Peaceful Uruguay

Uruguay has long been one of the safest countries in Latin America, but some are warning that the influence of organized crime is on the rise, with gang shootouts in the capital and an increase in large-scale cocaine seizures.

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Shootout Between Two Gangs of Narcos.” The January 23 story, which describes a 10-minute long gun battle between rival gangs on a city street, would seem more likely to appear in a newspaper in northern Mexico than in Montevideo-based El Pais.

But violent incidents such as this are becoming more common in the South American country, as drug trafficking groups from elsewhere in the region extend their activities there. On January 2, for instance, soccer agent Washington Oscar Risotto was gunned down southern Montevideo, which police said was likely a revenge killing related to the drug trade. According to the US Department of State’s 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), drug trafficking is on the rise in the country, as evidenced by an increase in large-scale cocaine seizures since 2006.

A May 2011 survey by polling firm Interconsult found that 62 percent of Uruguayans believe that their country is becoming more insecure. Seventeen people were murdered there in the first week of 2012 alone. Although as many people were killed daily in Guatemala in 2011, the violence shocked the country, and prompted the government to issue a statement assuring Uruguayans that the country still has the lowest homicide rate in Latin America, at 6.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

However, officials have also expressed concern over rising violence in the country. On January 8 criminal Judge Nestor Valetti told El Pais that he had never seen so much violence in his 16 years in the job, saying that the country had become more like those in the Andean region. “In Uruguay there are power struggles between narco groups. It involves not only the murders of those who show up dead in a gutter, but also those who are killed in prisons.” The remarks were backed by Raul Perdomo, deputy director of the National Police, who said the country had been affected by the uptick in violence in the region. Indeed, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has acknowledged that dealing with the public’s perception of rising insecurity will be a major hurdle this year.

In 2010, then-Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi warned that organized crime in the country was becoming increasingly internationalized and dominated by large scale groups. He specifically mentioned the infiltration of Serbian, Mexican, Colombian and Brazilian criminal organizations, and said the government is concerned their presence might give rise to homegrown mafias. One operation in April 2011 dismantled a Colombian drug trafficking ring operating in Montevideo.

While the scale of drug trafficking in Uruguay is nowhere near that which exists in Mexico, its remote borders with Argentina and Brazil and its 600 kilometer-long coast make the country a significant transshipment point for foreign drug smugglers. A comparison could be drawn with Ecuador, which is used by criminal groups of various nationalities, drawn by its convenient location bordering Colombia and Peru.

The US State Department claims that the majority of cocaine brought into Uruguay comes either overland or on small drug flights from Colombia and Bolivia. Because Uruguay is a member of the MERCOSUR trade bloc, much of the freight that leaves the country’s ports is not closely monitored, an opening which traffickers eagerly exploit. Illicit cargo is sent out of the country in containers on board major shipping vessels. Because Uruguay is a founding member of and active participant in MERCOSUR, and trade is a major contributor of the Uruguayan economy, the allure of its ports to drug traffickers will likely remain.

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