Known as “the Switzerland of Latin America,” Uruguay has some of the lowest crime rates and strongest state institutions in the region. At the same time, however, 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 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.
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.
In December 2013, Uruguay earned international attention by becoming the first country to legalize the production and use of marijuana. Implementation of the law has come at a halting pace, but in October 2015 the government announced it had chosen two companies to sell regulated marijuana in pharmacies. Commercial sale of the drug is tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-2016.
The marijuana law puts Uruguay at the forefront of the drug policy debate. All eyes are on the country as it tries to monitor and control marijuana consumption rates and keep tabs on organized criminal activity.
It will be difficult. According to Uruguayan officials more than 90 percent of the marijuana consumed in the country comes from Paraguay, mostly due to price. In order to undercut that market, which is illegal, Uruguay’s producers will have to beat the price and create a higher quality product that is readily available throughout the country.
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 Honduras 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 Luis Alberto Suarez Correa, alias “El Betito.” Arrested in 2006 for leading a street 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 the country’s highly dollarized economy.
Uruguay reportedly has the highest per capita rate of police officers of any country in Latin America, with 809 agents for every 100,000 inhabitants. According to official statistics, Uruguay has roughly 30,000 active police officers.
Uruguay’s armed forces are comprised of three branches: the army, navy and air force. There are over 24,000 active military personnel.
Uruguay has some of the strongest and most trusted institutions in Latin America, but occasionally there are cases of corruption within the security forces. In August 2015, authorities detained three police officers for allegedly trafficking 300 firearms across the border into Brazil.
Uruguay’s courts system is comprised of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, District Courts, Peace Courts, and Rural Courts. There is no Constitutional Court, as there is in some other countries in Latin America. Legal questions regarding the constitution are brought before the Supreme Court.
Judicial corruption in Uruguay is not a significant concern. Uruguay also ranked the highest on judicial independence among Latin American countries listed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness report for 2015-2016.
Uruguay’s prisons are chronically overcrowded, but the situation is not as grave as it is in other parts of Latin America.
According to 2015 statistics from the International Centre for Prison Studies, Uruguay’s prison system is operating at 108 percent the intended capacity. With nearly 10,000 inmates, Uruguay has a prisoner population rate of 291 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Despite its progressive legislation on marijuana, authorities are still locking up low-level drug offenders, who have little chance of rehabilitation while in prison. During the first nine months of 2015 over 1,000 suspects were arrested for minor drug offenses. That same year a top Uruguayan official warned that the recidivism rate for microtraffickers is 100 percent.
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.