HomeNewsUruguay's Institutions Struggle to Fight Back Against Increased Criminal Threats

Uruguay's Institutions Struggle to Fight Back Against Increased Criminal Threats


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.

SEE ALSO: Can Uruguay Adapt to Its New Role in International Drug Trade?

The more recent problems, like unemployment, have been dragging on since the pandemic. With an increase in unemployment comes an increase in poverty.

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.

SEE ALSO: Behind the Manhunt for Sebastián Marset, Founder of the First Uruguayan Cartel

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.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

BRAZIL / 8 JUL 2022

Authorities in Paraguay and Brazil have recently stepped up activities targeting contraband flows through lake Itaipú, from where all manner…


In 2013, Nicolás Maduro became president of one of the world’s most important cocaine hubs, inheriting a unique drug trafficking…


The dismantling of a drug trafficking and money laundering network implicating government officials in the Dominican Republic has presented a…

About InSight Crime


Europe Coverage Makes a Splash

20 JAN 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published an analysis of the role of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as an arrival hub for cocaine and methamphetamine from Mexico.  The article was picked up by…


World Looks to InSight Crime for Mexico Expertise

13 JAN 2023

Our coverage of the arrest of Chapitos’ co-founder Ovidio Guzmán López in Mexico has received worldwide attention.In the UK, outlets including The Independent and BBC…


InSight Crime Shares Expertise with US State Department

16 DEC 2022

Last week, InSight Crime Co-founder Steven Dudley took part in the International Anti-Corruption Conference organized by the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, & Labor and…


Immediate Response to US-Mexico Marijuana Investigation

9 DEC 2022

InSight Crime’s investigation into how the legalization of marijuana in many US states has changed Mexico’s criminal dynamics made a splash this week appearing on the front page of…


‘Ndrangheta Investigation, Exclusive Interview With Suriname President Make Waves

2 DEC 2022

Two weeks ago, InSight Crime published an investigation into how Italian mafia clan the ‘Ndrangheta built a cocaine trafficking network from South America to ‘Ndrangheta-controlled Italian ports. The investigation generated…