Record Seizures of Cocaine Expose Severe Flaws at Uruguay’s Main Airport

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Over the past year, repeated allegations of weak security and customs checks at Uruguay’s main international airport in Montevideo have showcased its important role in the trafficking of drugs to Europe. 

Numerous seizures throughout 2019 confirmed Uruguay was a growing transshipment point for cocaine on its way to Europe, with hundreds of kilograms of drugs being found in Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport.

But reports that staff within Uruguay’s customs and security institutions were collaborating with criminal gangs have raised the alarm.

The most impactful case came in May 2019 when more than 600 kilograms of cocaine were found in Mulhouse, France, on a private jet which had taken off from Carrasco airport, Uruguay’s El Pais newspaper reported.

SEE ALSO: Uruguay News and Profile 

As a result of this colossal seizure, Uruguay’s Anti-Drugs Trafficking General Directorate (Dirección General de Represión al Tráfico Ilícito de Drogas – DGRT) opened an investigation into how checks at Carrasco airport could have failed to detect it.

Europol suspected a network of Uruguayan officials may have been bribed to help the drugs go through the airport, Subrayado reported. One police officer and one Interpol official have been charged on suspicion of taking bribes to let the drugs go through security.

Facing accusations that airport officials involved in the crime may have been bribed, August 1, Uruguay’s customs director, Enrique Canon, defended the country’s customs system, vowing that all protocols had been carried out.

On August 2, Canon resigned. The day after his defense, the port of Hamburg in Germany seized 4.5 tons of cocaine hidden in sports bags on a ship coming from Montevideo. This was the single largest seizure of drugs in German history.

This did not appear to have an immediate effect. in September, a man was caught in Spain having travelled from Carrasco with 47 kilos of cocaine.

This arrest led to the exposure of a gang made up of Uruguayan, Spanish, Argentine and Croatian citizens who had been sending drugs from Carrasco Airport to Tenerife, Spain for months before being detected, El Observador reported. 

InSight Crime Analysis

In 2018, Uruguay seized 754 kilograms of cocaine. In 2019, this rose to 12 tons. Uruguay’s security institutions and border checks appear to be overwhelmed and have not been able to keep up with the rapid rise of the drugs flowing through the country.

Last summer’s scandal surrounding the drug flight to France may have become a watershed moment. At the time, then Minister of Defense, José Bayardi, pointed to severe lack of controls at Carrasco’s terminals going back years.

Roberto Valdivieso, president of the country’s Association of Customs Officials (Asociación de Funcionarios Aduaneros), told Montevideo Portal that “you can load and unload anything (at Carrasco Airport) and customs won’t realize because there are no controls.”

SEE ALSO: Uruguay Navy Officers in Worrying Link to Drug Trafficking

In his defense, the day before his resignation, Canon said that customs workers had not checked the cargo on board the private plane to Switzerland as it was not their job to do so, noting that this was only done when police notify customs of potential risk.

This is an example of what appears to be broader difficulties in communications between various institutions, including the police, airport security, customs and migration, which are worsening the problem.

This problem is not unique to Uruguay. Customs officials at Mexico City International Airport have also been accused of relaxing their controls to allow arms and drug trafficking through their terminals. And a report in July 2019 found that Mexico’s then Deputy Director of Airports Supervision had allegedly been facilitating drug shipments through four of the country’s biggest airports. 

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