Murder in Montevideo

What lies behind Uruguay’s spate of narco-fuelled homicides?

Uruguay, usually considered Latin America’s most stable and least violent country, has seen homicide rates soar this year. According to official data, there has been a 40% increase in homicides this year compared to the same period last year. The interior minister, Luis Alberto Heber (“Heber”), was quick to blame longstanding narco-fuelled criminality originating from the infamous tri-border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and the border of the state of Rivera. The state was of particular concern due to the “… penetration of international criminal gangs, especially Brazilians, who enter the country,” added the minister.  

An investigative journalist and expert on narco-crime in Uruguay explained “Uruguay was successful in stopping the entry and action on its territory of important international drug cartels in the country, although it has always been used as a port of departure for drugs produced in other parts of the Americas, which follow the same routes as some agricultural items exported by the country. The greatest impact during all these decades on society is that of domestic drug dealing associated with cocaine paste.”

“Uruguay was successful in stopping the entry and action on its territory of important international drug cartels, although it has always been used as a port of departure for drugs produced in other parts of the Americas…”

An investigative journalist and expert on narco-crime, Uruguay

Until recently and, especially the case in the capital Montevideo, drug trafficking and the criminality it generates tended to be confined to a few bad neighbourhoods in which delineated geography enabled police to effectively contain illegal activities. This dynamic is changing – narco-violence is posing a growing threat to wider society and for businesses where supply chain corruption could develop into a major challenge.  

Public criticism has recently turned its sights on the government and particularly the interior ministry. A sociologist and writer in Uruguay explained, “The interior ministry of the new government dismantled a hierarchical and professional police structure consolidated in recent years, and incorporated police officers from the ‘old guard’ – less familiar with new crime dynamics – into important positions. Although the ministry promised to address this issue with a more direct police presence, there has been no increase in the material resources necessary to achieve it (patrol cars, cameras, etc.).”

“The interior ministry of the new government dismantled a hierarchical and professional police structure consolidated in recent years, and incorporated police officers from the ‘old guard’…”

A sociologist and writer, Uruguay

Developing a deep understanding of the ways in which narco-gangs are evolving was not helped by the death of the former interior minister Jorge Larrañaga, in May 2021, and the assumption of Heber as his replacement. The problem, according to our sources, is that Heber’s approach to narco-violence is characterised by a lack of technical expertise – crucial in the fight against groups constantly evolving and using increasingly technologically sophisticated means to traffic narcotics.      

Ironically, it is Uruguay’s lower purchasing power in comparison to narcotics markets in North America and Europe that could help insulate the country from creeping internal consumption and circulation. An investigative journalist and drug trafficking expert explained, “As for designer drugs with higher added value and higher prices, the manufacture of which is beginning to take place in Uruguay, they are unlikely to reach significant consumption in the country because the general purchasing power does not allow it.” 

That said, Uruguay will feel the effects of expanding criminal networks. A former senior official in the national police explained, “First, there is a level of social decomposition and violence carried out by drug trafficking and gangs that end up suffocating the security systems. The more money the narco-gangs manage, the higher the levels of corruption and the threats and attacks on the security forces and the judiciary.” 

If such a model is consolidated in Uruguay, the country will end up creating, as in other places, a parallel state in the communities where the narco-gangs impose their rule, which are naturalised and adopted due to the lack of state presence – such dynamics have proliferated in neighbouring Brazil. It will not be an immediate process, but it could be sadly inevitable if Uruguay does not change its approach. 

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