An increasing number of attacks on police in Uruguay shows that a growing organized crime threat may soon tarnish the reputation of what has long been one of the safest countries in the region.
In February, Uruguay's Interior Ministry published a report revealing that 78 police officials across the country were assaulted, with two being killed, during the first five weeks of 2020.
According to the government data, 25 of the attacks were violent robberies, and 10 of them led to the officers' firearms being stolen.
Police have three possible theories about the motives behind these robberies, El Observador reported, quoting police chief Mario Layera.
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The first is that gangs have begun paying members to assault agents in an effort to steal their weapons and other police gear, including bulletproof vests, uniforms and even electronic equipment from the ministry of the interior.
Another theory is that these weapons are being moved to Brazil, where the demand for illegal arms is high.
Finally, Layera said the increase in weapons theft may be coming after the country increased its weapons seizures in 2019, leading to gangs needing to restock their arsenals, a theory which has also been put forward by former Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi.
InSight Crime Analysis
Uruguay has experienced a shocking rise in violence of late, including a 45 percent spike in homicides in 2018, and these latest targeted attacks on police suggest perpetrators can act with increasing impunity.
Police chief Mario Layera has said that while attacks on officers and theft of their weapons are not new, police response times and seizures of drugs and weapons from local gangs has followed suit. If true, this would add credence to the hypothesis that weapons theft has increased because the gangs have lost weaponry during police operations.
Meanwhile, Uruguay has long been seen as one of the few South American countries to not be plagued by extreme violence and the drug trade. Yet it is increasingly an exit point for drugs to Europe, and there is recent evidence of its armed forces colluding with gangs.
Security was a major topic during the country's 2019 presidential campaign, including a national referendum on a security package that would have deployed the military into the streets and increased prison sentences for certain crimes. The referendum was not approved when it did not receive a majority of votes to pass, but around 47 percent of voters were in favor.
New president Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou, who took office on March 1, has taken this public support for increased security to announce new measures, including more police patrols in dangerous neighborhoods and a crackdown on crime inside prisons and drug trafficking.