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

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

This project defines organized crime as: a structured group of people that associate on a regular and prolonged basis to benefit from illicit activities and illegal markets. This group can be local, national or transnational in nature, and its existence is maintained using violence and threats; corruption...

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Rodrigo Tovar Pupo never imagined it would come to this: dressed in an orange jumpsuit in a Washington DC courtroom and standing in front of a United States federal judge, the grandson of a wealthy Colombian cattle rancher and nephew to a governor was facing a possible...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

On the morning of April 5, 1988, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros left his palatial Tegucigalpa estate for a jog. Matta Ballesteros was wanted for murder, drug trafficking and other crimes in several countries, but in Honduras he felt safe. He regularly hosted parties for high-level officials at...

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Organized crime is not an abstract concept for me. I grew up in Oak Park, a leafy suburb of Chicago with a population of about 60,000. In general, it was a very low crime city, which is perhaps why many mobsters made their homes there, among them...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala is Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy. But an intransigent elite, an ambitious military and a weak state has opened the way for organized crime to flourish, especially since the return of democracy.

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

By the end of 1993, Pablo Escobar was cornered. The cocaine king -- known as "El Patrón" -- was running out of money and options. His top assassins were either dead or had turned themselves in. Almost all of the senior members of the Medellín Cartel were...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

As it tends to happen in Honduras, the news began as a well-heeled rumor: Javier Rivera Maradiaga, the oldest of the three Rivera Maradiaga brothers still alive and leader of the feared and powerful Honduran drug trafficking group known as the Cachiros, had handed himself in to...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

In the northwest corner of Guatemala, a little known criminal organization known as the "Huistas" dominates the underworld, in large part due its ties with businessmen, law enforcement officials and politicians.

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Like any arm of the justice system, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) had its battles with elites who used their charm and their muscle to try to influence what and who the celebrated commission...

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...