Uruguay authorities are investigating police accused of trafficking some 300 weapons to Brazil, an indication that the most heavily armed country in South America — in terms of per capita gun ownership — may also serve as a valuable source of weaponry for criminal groups.
On April 14, authorities detained three police officers and a businessman in the Uruguay-Brazil border city of Rivera as result of the investigation, reported Uruguayan newspaper El Pais. The detainees are suspected of trafficking 9-millimeter handguns and other semiautomatic pistols to the Brazilian cities of Porto Alegre and Pelotas between 2013 to 2015.
Brazilian criminal group the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) is one suspected recipient of the weapons, according to El Pais.
Only a single road separates Rivera from its sister city in Brazil, Santana do Livramento, which facilitates smuggling. Brazilian police have previously identified Rivera as one of the two major entry points for weapons moved from Uruguay into Brazil — the other is the city of Artigas, also on the Uruguay-Brazil frontier.
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As documented in a 2009 report by research institute Small Arms Survey, Uruguay has the highest per capita gun ownership in South America, with one firearm for every three residents. According to El Observador, there are 87 guns for every 100,000 people in Uruguay’s Rivera department, with 54 guns for every 100,000 people in the department of Artigas.
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This proliferation of firearms has likely fed an illegal weapons trade with Brazil, although there have been few notable prosecutions against arms trafficking in Uruguay. One high-profile case also involved police in the department of Treinta y Tres (where there are 116 guns for every 100,000 residents). The investigation found that over 200 weapons were missing from the police department, suspected of being sold on the black market.
That case eventually stalled in court, partly due to Uruguay’s weak gun trafficking laws. Congress did approve new gun trafficking legislation last year, which prohibits carrying weapons and munitions without a license, and create new regulations for weapon purchases. However, the law is not yet active.