A spate of gang-related killings in Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, alongside violence throughout the country, is raising debate about the alleged success of the government's uncompromising security strategies in confronting microtrafficking.
On May 14, a new report indicated that Uruguay had witnessed 147 murders between January and mid-May. In the first quarter, this marked a worrying increase of 35 percent year-on-year and threatened to lead Uruguay to a record year in terms of homicides.
The report came days after six people were killed in the Peñarol neighborhood of the capital Montevideo in just 72 hours, several of whom were dismembered or set on fire, while one was shot by police in a firefight. Authorities believe several of the attacks were connected and were the result of clashes between street-level drug dealers.
Uruguay’s Interior Minister, Luis Alberto Heber, responded by arguing the conflicts paradoxically showed that the Lacalle Pou administration’s policy of targeting microtraffickers to reduce the drug trade was working.
“As there has been success in [closing microtrafficking spots in] other areas, the remaining spots are much more violently disputed,” he told a May 10 press conference.
Despite this alleged success, the following day the Minister vowed to “redouble” efforts to combat gang violence and met with Uruguay’s President to request additional funding to increase the number of drug prosecutors, police stations and police vehicles in Montevideo.
Not counting the police shooting, the latest killing marks the tenth homicide in Peñarol in 2022. This is compared to the record 15 people murdered there in 2019.
InSight Crime Analysis
Uruguay has long been one of Latin America’s safest countries with one of its most advanced drug policies. However, while that is unlikely to change much anytime soon, the country has witnessed some backsliding in both areas.
The country’s importance as a transit point for Europe-bound cocaine has steadily increased in recent years, providing the context for hardline politicians to propose more kinetic, security-driven policies to address an entirely different issue: the sporadic microtrafficking clashes taking place in marginalized neighborhoods.
The Lacalle Pou administration appears to be moving in this direction. In its 2021 annual memorandum, the Interior Ministry presented various hard tactics aimed at reducing microtrafficking as its spearhead in the fight against drug trafficking more generally.
In 2021, authorities dismantled over 1,150 microtrafficking spots, seized 2.1 tons of marijuana and 1.1 tons of cocaine base paste respectively and convicted 1,465 people for drug-related offenses, according to the memorandum. It also expanded its fleet of patrol vehicles, created a new registry for collecting information to combat microtrafficking and created mandatory sentencing minimums for microtraffickers that critics say disproportionately affect poor women.
The latest case has been met by the same alleged solutions. Authorities announced an increase in patrols, checkpoints and intelligence gathering to cut off the drug supply to microtraffickers, and the creation of a fourth anti-drug prosecutor’s office in Montevideo to speed up the approval of raids on microtrafficking spots.
More integrated responses are outlined in Uruguay’s National Drug Strategy 2021-2025, which states that “the fragility of the communities affected by illicit drug trafficking, particularly microtrafficking, requires the implementation of social and economic promotion and development programs.”