After a spate of homicides in Uruguay, there is growing concern that violence is connected to organized crime groups, an assessment that could be premature and lead to an ineffective policy response.
Authorities in Uruguay recorded 218 homicides during the first half of 2018, representing a 66 percent increase from the 131 homicides that were recorded during the same period last year. Officials said 40 percent of these homicides were related to fighting among criminal groups.
“We are convinced that the increase in violence in Uruguay is not the product of the strengthening of criminal gangs but of confrontation between them,” Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi said in comments to El Observador in April.
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Authorities are reportedly investigating 20 criminal groups with international connections for allegedly supplying drugs to be resold in Uruguay. International drug trafficking groups have also long used the capital city of Montevideo and its port -- one of South America’s major commercial ports -- as transshipment points for drug loads en route to markets in Europe and Asia, while also taking advantage of the country’s porous borders with Argentina and Brazil.
In the past, authorities have raised concerns that this dynamic could potentially lead to an increase in the domestic consumption of drugs and related violence stemming from disputes over control of the local and international criminal markets.
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Authorities in Uruguay have been quick to link the recent uptick in homicides to criminal groups operating in the country without offering much corroborating evidence. And while the increase is significant, there are probably a variety of factors contributing to it.
As we know from other parts of the region, authorities regularly use organized crime as a scapegoat when there are upticks in violence, but the detailed and time-consuming analysis needed to make such a connection is often absent.
“The increase in Uruguay’s homicide rate is far too complex to narrow down to one single cause,” Geoff Ramsey, a research and communications associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think tank, told InSight Crime.
Ramsey said he would be “skeptical” of those linking Uruguay’s homicide rate solely with organized crime groups because while there are criminal networks in the country, Ramsey says they are mostly “small, unsophisticated street gangs that operate in the periphery of major cities.”
This rush to judge can at times go hand-in-hand with the implementation of security policies aimed at beefing up security force budgets in the short-term, at the expense of long-term social and economic projects.
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Indeed, authorities are reportedly preparing to expand Uruguay’s security budget in response to the recent violence, which could lead to the use of more heavy-handed strategies that have proven ineffective elsewhere throughout the region.
Recently approved legislation will also expand the military’s ability to carry out surveillance and other security tasks in the country’s border regions, likely in an effort to prevent criminal groups from using the country’s porous borders to move drug shipments but also as a means to increase the military's role in the war against crime, which is more often the purview of civilian authorities.
This comes as authorities in Uruguay are facing rising public pressure to militarize the fight against organized crime groups, which in part prompted Uruguay President Tabaré Vázquez to announce plans to increase coordination among security institutions.
The legalization of marijuana in Uruguay in 2013, followed by the start of legal sales in 2017, raised concerns about the black market and increased drug consumption and how this might affect violence between criminal groups vying to control this market.
However, Ramsey, who recently co-authored a report examining marijuana legalization in Uruguay, told InSight Crime that the percentage of Uruguayans who say they’ve used marijuana in the last year has increased by just one percent, making it unlikely that marijuana legalization has had an impact on levels of violence.
“This is especially true now that so much of the cannabis market is being regulated, and thus taken out of the hands of criminal networks,” Ramsey said.
Even with the recorded increase in homicides so far this year, Uruguay is still one of Latin America’s safest countries and often the country of choice for criminals searching for a safe haven rather than a battleground.