Uruguay’s local gangs likely will not become a national threat, but the government’s current policies are insufficient to roll back a recent escalation in violence, according to two new government-funded studies.
Two research articles were presented in July to the Interior Ministry, which funded the research, outlining how organized crime is operating in the country and mapping out future expectations.
The first, “In the Cracks of the State: Criminal Governance in Montevideo, Uruguay,” by political scientists Inés Fynn, Verónica Pérez Bentancur, Lucía Tiscornia, and Guillermo Martínez, used field work, surveys, and data analys to examined criminal groups in Montevideo.
The second, “Diagnosis of Homicides in Uruguay (2012-2022),” by sociologists Emiliano Rojido, Ignacio Cano, and Doriam Borges, combined homicide and demographics data to find patterns among different types of murder.
Here, InSight Crime analyzes the articles’ three key findings.
Gangs Unlikely to Expand Criminal Governance
Uruguay’s domestic criminal groups cause violence by competing over local retail drug sales. But with limited manpower, territory, and revenues, these groups are unlikely to become major criminal players.
Most gangs in the country’s capital Montevideo started as small family bands dedicated to robbery. As they grew and started controlling parts of various neighborhoods, these groups moved into extortion and small-time drug trafficking, particularly selling coca base.
In Peñarol, one of Montevideo’s most violent neighborhoods, three family clans, the Vallejos, Calderas, and Segales, have risen up and are fighting for dominance, often catching bystanders in the crossfire.
While these criminal groups sow fear and violence locally, they are unlikely to evolve into greater national threats, the authors of “In the Cracks of the State” found.
“Criminal groups can regulate microtrafficking and occasionally try to extort residents, but they do not have access to large amounts of money. This limits their capacity to grow, expand, acquire heavy arms and really confront the state,” the report found.
The territories that these gangs control are small -- sometimes a single neighborhood, or even part of a neighborhood -- and the presence of Uruguayan police forces combined with strong social programs is enough to prevent expansion.
Uruguay Holds Little Appeal to Transnational Groups
Uruguay’s criminal markets are not robust enough to attract larger transnational groups, so the presence of major drug trafficking organizations, like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), is limited.
Several factors make the country relatively unattractive for them: its domestic drug market is small, its justice system comparatively robust, and despite the country being a transport hub for cocaine, there has been little violence over river-based drug shipment routes. Ships are loaded with cocaine in Paraguay and then permitted to travel through Montevideo.
But larger groups could step up their activities in Uruguay if they see opportunities to develop highly profitable criminal economies.
“The question is how costly it is to conduct criminal activities in Uruguay,” said Borges, one of the co-authors of the homicide diagnosis.
In Brazil, for example, many cities had small, family gangs controlling the criminal landscape. But as the domestic drug market expanded, bigger groups moved in and took over, he said.
Uruguay may also be gaining prominence as a money laundering hub.
But critics said the change could fuel money laundering by allowing criminals to buy property and other legitimate investments with few or no questions asked.
“You could have a backpack with $100,000 inside, and go buy a property, cash in hand,” said Rojido.
Even before the 2020 law, Uruguay was being used by powerful crime groups for money laundering. The Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), bought property in the Uruguayan resort city of Punta del Este to clean its illicit profits in the formal financial system.
Experts worry that with the 2020 change, more criminal groups will seek to use Uruguay and its banks to launder their profits and bring with them the increased threat of violence and criminality.
A recent evaluation by the government concluded that Uruguay lacks the capacity to fight money laundering by drug trafficking groups in the region.
Security Strategies Could Worsen Violence
During the last two administrations, police have focused on tackling gangs through raids, arrests, and busts. But these anti-gang strategies may increase violence and crime if the state does not maintain a nonviolent presence and create a strong social safety net in the disadvantaged neighborhoods where gangs operate.
Police have employed violent methods to crack down on gangs as criminality has grown. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of people killed by police in Uruguay jumped more than tenfold, from three to 37. But this approach has had little success in decreasing homicides.
The government’s hardline approach might actually be contributing to ongoing violence between microtrafficking gangs, Pérez Bentancur, a co-author of “In the Cracks of the State,” told InSight Crime.
“This strategy causes the gangs to fragment … and they fight among themselves and create conflict,” she said.
Crackdowns aimed at dismantling gangs also fail to prevent the groups from reorganizing inside prison, and open the door for new groups to rise up in the same territory, said Fynn, a co-author of “In the Cracks of the State.”
“This type of intervention raises levels of violence,” she said.
The researchers recommended that crime prevention strategies should focus less on crackdowns and more on social development, such as cooperating with community leaders and investing in the social programs to address poverty in underfunded neighborhoods where gangs are most active.
But these initiatives require taxpayer money, and President Luis Lacalle Pou has made cutting taxes a political priority, decreasing the funds available for social investment.