A rise in attempted arms thefts from Uruguay's military barracks in 2016 has sparked debate over the criminal nature of the perpetrators involved, and again drawn attention to the country's role as a source of weapons for regional arms traffickers.
During a meeting of the Uruguayan Senate's security commission on April 26, Senator Javier García said 32 attempts to enter barracks and steal weapons have occurred in 2016. Of these, 11 led to exchanges of gunfire, reported El País.
In one instance in January, a group of men entered an infantry base and stole two high-powered assault rifles. An attempted robbery in February left one solider wounded after he was shot when confronting the thief. The thief had allegedly been offered 10,000 Uruguayan pesos (about $312) to the steal the rifle by a man in Montevideo, who intended to sell it on the border.
García suspects the attempted thefts are linked to organized crime and networks that traffic arms abroad, and claimed soldiers have reported being extorted to steal ammunition for stolen guns.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking
Uruguay's Minister of Interior, Eduardo Bonomi, however, disagreed with García's figures, saying there is only evidence of 11 attempted arms thefts during 2016, and that these are isolated cases not linked to an organized crime group.
Senator Ernesto Agazzi agreed, saying the distinct characteristics of the attempted thefts suggests they are the work of individual criminals, not a coherent network.
Agazzi pointed to several potential explanations for the recent spate of attempted arms thefts, including stricter gun controls and an increase in weapons seizures, which have created scarcity on the black market and driven up demand.
InSight Crime Analysis
Uruguay is a known source of illicit arms for regional criminal organizations, with thefts of weapons and ammunition from military stockpiles having occurred on a number of occasions in the past.
Previously, the main destination for stolen weapons has been Brazil, where they help arm powerful criminal organizations such as the Red Command (Comando Vermelho). In several instances, corrupt elements of Uruguayan security forces have themselves been implicated in smuggling weapons into Brazil or selling them to Brazilian criminal groups.
The string of attempted thefts from military caches this year indicates Uruguayan weapons stockpiles remain a tempting target for arms traffickers, and that the problem may actually be worsening.
As Senator Agazzi suggests, this could be due to financial incentives for thieves as a scarcity of illicit weapons drives prices up. The police chief of Montevideo, Mario Layera, however, has offered a more sinister explanation. Layera recently stated local criminals may be evolving and becoming more violent, having learned from foreign criminals incarcerated in Uruguay. As such, he warned of attacks against police and soldiers as criminals look to steal weapons to increase their firepower and capacity for violence.