A surge in cattle and horse rustling is plaguing ranchers along the Uruguay-Brazil border, but a new specialized unit dedicated to tackling the crime may be showing signs of success.
The latest case came in December when a rural security force in Uruguay's northern department of Artigas, bordering Brazil, was informed of illegal sales being made at a horse auction, according to a statement by the Ministry of the Interior. Authorities investigating a lot of 35 horses found that 10 had been re-branded to conceal the fact that they were smuggled across the Cuareim River from Brazil.
The bust came several months after Brazilian police dismantled a cattle rustling and smuggling ring in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, on the Uruguayan border. Seven people were arrested, and 731 cattle and 80 sheep were recovered in the August raid, considered one of the region’s largest anti-cattle theft operations in years, according to reporting by Hora Del Campo.
Cattle rustling has emerged as a major policy agenda in Uruguay after complaints of theft have increased. From March to August of 2020, authorities recorded 1,200 complaints of cattle rustling, a 17 percent increase from the same period in 2019, according to Ministry of the Interior figures.
In 2019, a total of 2,075 complaints were recorded, a 16 percent increase from the 1,789 tallied in 2018, according to El Observador.
To combat the crime, Uruguay created a special unit with a strong focus on cattle rustling. After creating the National Rural Security Directorate (Dirección Nacional de Seguridad Rural – DNSR) in mid-August, 472 complaints were recorded between September and November of last year.
InSight Crime Analysis
As the world’s eighth-largest beef exporter in 2020, Uruguay has faced a long and expensive fight against cattle rustling, yet law enforcement officials have often seemed to regard it as a second-rate crime. Recent measures, however, indicate this approach is shifting.
Besides the DNSR’s creation, various other technological, legislative and security proposals have been made to combat cattle theft, ranging from using drones to patrol vulnerable areas at night and re-introducing the widespread use of branding irons on cattle. Branding is far harder to remove or hide than electronic ear tags.
The shift in attitude toward cattle rustling can also be seen from President Luis Lacalle Pou presiding over the inauguration of the DNSR, in which he declared it would attack the “organized industry" of cattle rustling.
The new DNSR will likely concentrate on northern regions, such as Artigas and Salto, that touch Brazil and Argentina. The southeastern department of Rocha, which borders Brazil, is also likely to be an area of focus. In Rocha, Brazilian smuggling gangs have collaborated with their Uruguayan counterparts to transport Uruguayan animals to Brazil and vice versa, either to fetch higher prices or to complicate recovery.
Largescale animal theft and smuggling typically require several prepared transportation routes and distributors. Criminal groups involved in cattle rustling along the border have also been found to be illegally growing marijuana and to possess illegal firearms.
The DNSR may seek to collaborate with its Brazilian counterpart, the Specialized Police Stations for Combating Rural Crimes and Cattle Rustling (Delegacias de Polícia Especializadas na Repressão aos Crimes Rurais e de Abigeato - DECRAB). That force was created in 2018 and has found success in tackling rising cattle rustling in Brazil’s southwest.