With numerous criminal problems seemingly catching up to Uruguay, from drug trafficking to government corruption, the country’s run of good fortune may be in jeopardy.
Homicides are up almost 40 percent this year over 2021. Seizures of cocaine, coca base, and marijuana are all increasing. And the government is embroiled in two high-profile passport scandals while the country’s domestic drug trafficking gangs are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
To discuss Uruguay’s current plight and whether its institutions are strong enough to hold the line, InSight Crime sat down with Nicolás Centurión, Uruguay crime observer and analyst at the Latin American Center for Strategic Analysis (Centro Latinoamericano de Análisis Estratégico – CLAE).
InSight Crime (IC): You have been a strong critic of the growing criminal problem in Uruguay, yet the country ranks as the least corrupt in Latin America. What are your main concerns for Uruguay at the moment?
Nicolás Centurión (NC): We can categorize the problems in two ways: long-standing issues and more recent issues that have arrived together.
By long-standing issues, I mean those such as the the childhood poverty problem that no government has been able to address. The number of homicides has increased since the return of democracy [in 1985]. There has also been a general lack of long-term state policies.
Uruguay at the moment has the advantage of being able to anticipate, prevent, and take note of what is happening in the region. But it is clear that the drug trafficking problem is not being fully assessed and time is running out.
IC: Minor levels of transnational drug trafficking have persisted in Uruguay for a long time, but activity increased considerably during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why?
NC: The COVID-19 pandemic reduced the transshipment of cargoes in certain regional ports, for example, in Brazil’s Port of Santos. Traffickers’ attention turned to Uruguay, especially in the Port of Montevideo, due to Uruguay’s location and [the lack of] controls in producer countries. Drug traffickers will always look for alternatives because their business has to continue operating.
Uruguay’s situation needs to be understood from different perspectives. First is its geography: It is a port of entry to the continent and a departure point for drugs to Africa and Europe. The Port of Nueva Palmira, in the department of Colonia, is located at the very beginning of the Paraná-Paraguay waterway.
Second is the desire for organized crime to have a presence in the country. In 2019, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s largest gang, wanted to extend its reach within Uruguay. This underlines how the country is becoming attractive, not only for money laundering, but also for an organization of the size of the PCC.
And third is that violence is on the rise. This is true both in the number of homicides as well as in criminal violence including hired killings, the settling of scores, and territorial disputes, especially in peripheral neighborhoods of the capital Montevideo.
Cocaine production is still at its peak in the region’s producer countries, and Uruguay is therefore an attractive destination for drug trafficking organizations. Spillover violence then happens as drug trafficking organizations confront one-another. Stray bullets have already killed innocent people, including children.
IC: Do you think Uruguay’s security and customs forces are prepared for the increase in drugs that the country is experiencing? If not, what needs to be improved?
NC: The first area for improvement is the security forces’ logistical capacity. North of the Rio Negro — meaning half of the country — is a huge blind spot. Hundreds of illegal landing strips have been detected in Uruguay, despite its small size. The lack of mountains means traffickers can drop their packages almost anywhere.
Another problem is the capacity of scanners at ports. The scanners at the country’s primary port, the Port of Montevideo, fail almost daily and sometimes they’re entirely out of commission. the port of Nueva Palmira lacks scanners completely. As a result, Uruguay’s Navy has lost the confidence of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
IC: While Uruguay’s prison system often ranks among the best in Latin America, it faces its own problems of overcrowding and violence. How is this being addressed?
NC: Uruguay has 14,302 prisoners from a population that barely exceeds three million. This means roughly four out of every 1,000 inhabitants are in prison.
The Parliament’s 2021 Annual Report highlighted that some prisons are at double or triple their maximum capacity. It emphasized the critical situation at the Unit 5 Female Prison in Montevideo, which houses half of the country’s female prisoners, and has an occupancy rate of 143 percent.
IC: Are Sebastián Marset and the First Uruguayan Cartel really Uruguay’s most sophisticated domestic criminal gang or are they a distraction from bigger problems?
NC: Marset alone is not responsible for Uruguay’s criminal situation. It’s an attractive story, but the true interest lies in revealing his connections across Uruguay, Paraguay, and other countries.
Marset became infamous for his actions abroad. He has been linked to the murder in Colombia of Paraguayan prosecutor Marcelo Pecci, though neither Colombia nor Paraguay have been able to confirm it. He has also been linked with the PCC and its business in Paraguay.
So far, there is nothing to even confirm the existence of the First Uruguayan Cartel. Nothing confirms that Marset is in charge of cocaine production in producing nations. Rather, he is known as “The Facilitator,” and acts a nexus between the PCC and his organization in Paraguay.
The important thing for Uruguay is to ensure that these types of regional organizations do not get set up in the country. Getting them out would lead to a terrible cost for the population.
IC: Do you think Uruguay’s reputation as the “Switzerland of Latin America” has led to the country resting on its laurels instead of preparing for security challenges?
NC: By perceiving itself as an exception, or as the “Switzerland of Latin America,” there is a belief among Uruguay’s general population and authorities that nothing happens here. But things do happen, more and more. Globalization does not only enable the spread of cultural phenomena and access to information, it also expands markets, including the drug trafficking market.
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