Money laundering, microtrafficking, prostitution
Uruguay is the second-smallest country in Latin America by area, after Suriname. To the west, it is separated from Argentina by the River Plata, and, farther north, the Uruguay River. To the northeast, the country shares a 1,068 kilometer-long land border with Brazil. Southern Uruguay has a long coastline on the South Atlantic.
Authorities say that the majority of drug seizures take place on the three bridges which span the Uruguay River, but considering the porous nature of the border with Brazil, there is likely a substantial illicit cross-border trade there as well. The capital city of Montevideo is Uruguay’s main port, and a major international shipping hub. It is this port that transnational drug networks are increasingly using as a bridge to the European cocaine market.
The country has a homicide rate of 6 per 100,000, one of the lowest in the region. Despite this, the perception of insecurity among Uruguayan citizens is surprisingly high. According to a May 2012 survey by Corporacion Latinobarometro, the country has one of the biggest gaps in the region between the level of perceived insecurity and the number of respondents who claimed to have been victims of crime. Some 40 percent of the country rated citizen security as the biggest issue facing the country, and 84 percent said crime had worsened in the past two months.
An April 2013 study found that residents of Montevideo are more likely to rate their country as “highly unsafe” than those polled in either of Colombia’s two largest cities, Bogota and Medellin. Each of these sees around ten times as many murders annually.
This is more than just a perception. Uruguay has seen a wave of violence in recent years. According to the non-governmental monitoring group Observatorio Fundapro, the number of reported robberies in the country has increased from around 8,500 in 2002 to 16,812 in 2012, a 200 percent increase over the past decade.
According to drug officials, one of the main contributors to the rise in insecurity was the influx of an unprocessed cocaine derivative known as “pasta base” around 2000. The highly addictive drug was previously unheard of in the country in the 1990s, but beginning in the early 2000s pasta base became increasingly popular among low-income Uruguayans.
The arrival of pasta base to Uruguay coincided directly with increased regulation of precursor chemicals in Colombia and Peru in the early 2000s. This crackdown forced drug traffickers in these countries to look for new ways to sell their product without processing it into cocaine, and pasta base provided the perfect solution. This also occurred around the same time as the 2002 economic crisis in Uruguay, which saw unemployment skyrocket, providing an increased market for the cheap drug.
Although the recent proposal to legalize marijuana has placed the country in the spotlight, Uruguay has long held liberal attitudes towards drugs. In 1974, the country’s civic-military dictatorship passed a law decriminalizing personal drug use, which became the foundation for drug policy for the next 30 years. While it imposed strict sentences of for those who produced or sold illicit substances or provided them to minors, it exempted individuals who possessed below a “reasonable” quantity, intended solely for personal use. This amount has historically been left up to judges, and is one of the reasons supporters of the marijuana initiative claim it is merely an update of existing legislation.
Organized crime is not a major problem in Uruguay. There are small criminal bands in cities around the country, but these are nothing like the powerful street gangs elsewhere in Latin America, like Guatemala or El Salvador. They are limited mostly to petty theft and microtrafficking, with no single group exhibiting dominance on a national scale.
The players in Uruguay's underworld are not well-known, and there are no universally recognized criminal groups in the country. Perhaps its most high profile criminal is 30 year-old Luis Alberto Suarez Correa, alias “El Betito.” Arrested in 2006 for leading a stick-up gang going by the name "Los Profesionales," Betito has expanded his organization in prison. In December 2012, organized crime judge Nestor Valetti Rodriguez described him as “the most dangerous criminal” in Uruguay. Authorities say Betito’s network includes some 50 foot soldiers, and he is believed to lead a microtrafficking operation in neighborhoods in west Montevideo.
Transnational crime is present in Uruguay to some degree as well. Police sources have told InSight Crime that both Peruvian and Colombian criminal groups are active there. For these organizations, Uruguay serves as a transit country for cocaine. It is also an attractive place to launder illicit profits, largely because of its highly dollarized economy.
Like elsewhere in Latin America, Uruguay’s prison system is chronically overcrowded. A 2011 country visit by the Inter-American Special Rapporteur on The Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty found “serious shortcomings” in Uruguay’s prison system, fueled by overcrowding and the use of pretrial detention. Official estimates put the country’s prison population at around 10,000, or 120 percent of the intended capacity. Some facilities in the country are at twice their capacity. To combat overcrowding, the government has announced the construction of new prisons, with the goal of meeting current needs by 2015.
Partially because of this overcrowding, the country's prisons may facilitate the operations of criminal networks. Prison officials simply do not have the capacity to limit contact between Uruguayan criminals and their associates on the outside.
While foreign convicts represent a small fraction of total inmates, the country’s penal system houses Colombian,
Paraguayan and Peruvian traffickers, as well as members of Brazilian prison gangs like the First Capital Command (PCC). Officials have expressed fear that these Brazilian groups could spread their influence into Uruguay, but to date there has been no evidence of this.
Uruguay faces small time criminal challenges but big time political challenges. The new law that regulates production, distribution, and consumption of marijuana puts it on the forefront of the drug policy debate. All eyes will be on the country as it tries to monitor and control marijuana consumption rates and keep tabs on organized criminal activity. It will be difficult. Paraguay's production accounts for an estimated 80 percent of Uruguay's local marijuana consumption, mostly due to price. In order to undercut that market, which is illegal, Uruguay's producers will have beat the price and create a higher quality product that is readily available throughout the country.