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.

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.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Olfato. It is a term used quite often in law enforcement and judicial circles in Central America (and other parts of the world as well). It refers to the sixth sense they have as they see a crime scene, investigate a murder or plow through the paperwork...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

The Fixer and El Salvador's Missed Opportunity

The Fixer and El Salvador's Missed Opportunity

In the photograph, they are both smiling. In the foreground, on the left hand side, a man in a short-sleeved buttoned white shirt, jeans and a metal watch, holds a bottle of water in his right hand. He laughs heartily. He is Herbert Saca. On the right...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...