Known as “the Switzerland of Latin America,” Uruguay has traditionally had some of the lowest crime rates and strongest state institutions in the region. At the same time, the historically peaceful country is undergoing a steady rise in crime and insecurity, much of which is linked to drug trafficking and small-scale gang activity.
The country — which is testing some of the most liberal laws regarding drug production, distribution and consumption — is under a microscope to see whether changing drug laws can impact crime levels.
Uruguay, Latin America’s second-smallest country, is bordered to the northeast by Brazil and separated from Argentina to the west by the Uruguay River, which flows south to the Plata River and empties into the Atlantic Ocean on the westernmost edge of Uruguay’s roughly 600 kilometers of coastline.
Authorities say that the majority of drug seizures take place on the three bridges that span the Uruguay River, and human smuggling and trafficking networks have been discovered to use similar routes. Considering the porous nature of its northeastern 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. Transnational drug networks have used this port as a route to European cocaine markets.
Uruguay was established in the early 19th century as a type of buffer between then-rivals Argentina and Brazil, both of which meddled in the small country’s affairs in its early years.
During much of the early and mid-20th century, Uruguay grew in terms of population and development, until the military seized power in a 1973 coup. Amid an economic crisis, the junta negotiated a return to civilian governance in 1984, and over the next decade the country saw a gradual return and strengthening of its democratic institutions.
Before the turn of the century, organized crime posed virtually no threat to Uruguay’s security. However, in the early 2000s, a highly addictive, partially processed cocaine product known as coca base became increasingly popular across South America. With unemployment skyrocketing in Uruguay as the result of a 2002 economic crisis, the market for the cheap drug grew.
By the late 2000s and early 2010s, concerns about foreign organized crime in Uruguay became more pronounced, with officials warning about the presence of Mexican, Colombian, Brazilian and Eastern European networks. However, the country’s drug consumption market remained relatively small in the regional context, and it was not a major producer of illicit goods, somewhat lessening its attractiveness to transnational crime groups. Still, authorities expressed concern that local Uruguayan groups were developing in sophistication.
In contrast to many other countries in Latin America, Uruguay responded to growing concerns about crime and violence not with heavy-handed or militarized strategies, but with technocratic reforms. In the early 2010s, the government adopted advanced predictive policing technologies and introduced plans to reinforce its anti-money laundering regime. And in 2012, then-President José Mujica floated a plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize the production and use of marijuana for recreational purposes. The marijuana law put Uruguay at the forefront of the drug policy debate, but implementation of the law moved slowly for several years due to political and regulatory challenges. Legal sales of government-regulated marijuana began in July 2017, and experts expressed initial optimism about the experiment.
Although these progressive reforms bucked regional trends, they did not necessarily reverse underworld trends like the continued development of local gangs in Uruguay’s urban areas and the persistence of drug trafficking and money laundering operations by foreign groups, particularly Brazil’s biggest gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital -PCC). Additionally, Uruguay — the country with the highest per capita gun ownership in South America — began to show signs of being a source country for firearms trafficking in the region, in part due to corruption in the military and police.
Organized crime has not historically been a major problem in Uruguay. However, small, homegrown crime groups are increasingly operating in Montevideo and several other urban areas. These criminal groups are not as powerful as street gangs elsewhere in Latin America, and their activities have traditionally been limited to petty theft and small-scale drug trafficking. In recent years, soccer fan clubs known as “barras bravas” have also been accused of operating as criminal organizations, engaging in drug trafficking and extortion activities.
Transnational criminal organizations also appear to be expanding their presence in Uruguay in recent years. Uruguay’s location and prominence as an international port have made it an attractive transit country for cocaine being trafficked from Colombia and Peru to international markets. Brazil’s largest gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital – PCC), has been linked to these drug trafficking activities. In early 2018, police dismantled several Mexican, Argentine and Chilean criminal groups involved in robberies of banks and jewelry stores as well as the cloning of credit cards.
Uruguay is also an attractive place to launder illicit profits, largely because of the country’s highly dollarized economy.
Uruguay has a national police force that is overseen by the Interior Ministry, which is the primary institution dedicated to fighting organized crime in the country. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Uruguay had around 23,000 police officers in 2015 — a rate of more than 670 officers per 100,000 citizens.
Uruguay’s armed forces are comprised of three branches — the army, navy and air force — with around 22,000 active personnel as of 2016. The military does not participate in crime fighting activities.
Uruguay has some of the strongest and most trusted institutions in Latin America, but occasionally there are cases of corruption within the security forces.
Uruguay’s highest judicial body is the Supreme Court, which also hears constitutional cases. Below this are the Court of Appeals, District Courts, Peace Courts and Rural Courts. Uruguay’s Attorney General’s Office (Poder Judicial) handles organized crime cases.
The World Justice Project’s 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index ranked Uruguay as the country with the least corruption and one of the most effective criminal justice systems in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Uruguay’s prisons are chronically overcrowded, but the situation is not as grave as in other parts of Latin America. As of 2017, Uruguay’s prison system was operating at 112 percent of its total capacity, and almost 70 percent of all prisoners were being held in pretrial detention.
Despite its progressive legislation on marijuana, authorities are still locking up low-level drug offenders, who have little chance of rehabilitation while in prison, leading to high rates of recidivism. Uruguay has taken some steps to implement prisoner rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism rates, including a project launched in 2017 to provide job opportunities to recently released prisoners. However, the long-term impact of these policies has yet to be seen.