Police in Uruguay are investigating the possibility that drug trafficking organizations are increasingly using the country to set up cocaine processing laboratories in the country.

According to a report by Uruguay’s El Pais, police have reason to suspect that cocaine traffickers, seeking easier access to precursor chemicals, are looking to Uruguay, where the chemicals used to process the drug are not restricted as in other countries in the region. A police intelligence source consulted by the paper claimed that these labs are frequently operated by at least one foreigner, presumably from a coca-producing country like Colombia, who has experience in making the drug.

Police say that they have detected and raided at least four cocaine labs in recent years. The first discovery occurred in April 2008, when police arrested 11 suspects accused of using a Montevideo residence to convert large quantities of unrefined cocaine paste into cocaine.

InSight Crime Analysis

Of course, four incidents in as many years do not necessarily indicate a trend. Additionally, it is not clear whether all of these “laboratories” actually carried out chemical processing of cocaine, or whether some were used simply as staging points to divvy up and repackage the drug into smaller quantities to be sold on the street.

Still, the report comes at a time when officials in Uruguay are highly concerned about a rise in drug trafficking and violence linked to organized crime in the country. While Uruguay still has the lowest homicide rate in Latin America (6.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants), it has risen significantly. The country saw 133 homicides in the first half of 2012, up 75 percent from the previous year.

A recent government proposal to legalize and regulate marijuana sales via official government dispensaries was cast as a solution to the illicit drug trade in the country. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica endorsed the plan as a way to force marijuana dealers out of business and free up more resources in order to pursue cocaine traffic.

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