Illegal Exchange Houses Flourish on Uruguay-Brazil Border

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A media report blames lack of government control for Uruguay’s extensive illegal currency exchange operations along the border with Brazil, but the country’s reliance on a vast informal economy is the root cause.

Rivera, an Uruguayan city adjacent to Brazil’s Santana do Livramento, has developed into a hot spot for illegal currency exchange operations, El Observador reports.

The daily flow of thousands of people and the absence of government control allow unregistered currency exchange houses to flourish in the border town, according to the news outlet.

While the government can fine individuals up to nearly 750,000 Uruguayan pesos (around $26,000) for breaking currency exchange regulations set by the Central Bank of Uruguay (Banco Central de Uruguay – BCU), only five BCU investigators are dedicated to controlling this sector.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

An anonymous owner of a legal exchange point complained about “disloyal competition” in Rivera. The owner told El Observador that during a visit from BCU officials in 2011, he warned them of illegal exchange houses. He was told to file an official complaint, a complicated process that the owner refused to undertake for fear of reprisal.

According to Daniel Espinosa, Uruguay’s Secretary Against Money Laundering (Secretario Nacional para la Lucha contra el Lavado de Activos y el Financiamiento del Terrorismo), many laundering schemes involve these currency exchange houses.

In April 2017, authorities arrested nine individuals in Rivera for running a leather and wool contraband scheme. The two leaders owned illegal currency exchange houses through which profits were laundered.

InSight Crime Analysis

The exchange houses are common for two reasons. They fulfill a need; there are not enough regulators.

Border areas do not just harbor high-end money launderers but also run-of-the mill, small businesspeople and contraband traders who do not want to use banks or cannot afford banks. These exchange houses help them survive. Indeed, an average of nearly 25 percent of workers in Uruguay are involved in unregulated activities, according to El País. In Rivera, this number could be above 40 percent, El País says.

SEE ALSOUruguay News and Profile

The government’s paltry team of regulators makes this an easy choice. Currency exchange operations have long served to launder criminal proceeds throughout Latin America, sometimes for sums measured in billions of dollars. And Uruguay has long struggled against international money laundering. But the government has yet to address the problem with the deployment of real regulatory resources or personnel, or the establishment of social and economic programs to undercut the informal market.

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