Known as “the Switzerland of Latin America,” Uruguay has traditionally had some of the lowest crime rates and strongest state institutions in the region. At the same time, the historically peaceful country is undergoing a steady rise in crime and insecurity, much of which is linked to drug trafficking and small-scale gang activity. Homicides, corruption, and the presence of organized crime have all increased in recent years. While these developments do not yet disqualify Uruguay as the “good pupil” of Latin America, these concerns pose serious security risks for the country.
After becoming the first country in the world to legalize recreational cannabis, the country maintains some of the most liberal laws regarding drug production, distribution and consumption in the region.
Uruguay, Latin America’s second-smallest country, is bordered to the northeast by Brazil and separated from Argentina to the west by the Uruguay River, which flows south to the Plata River and empties into the Atlantic Ocean on the westernmost edge of Uruguay’s roughly 600 kilometers of coastline.
Recent drug seizures in Uruguay involve cocaine from Paraguay arriving in Argentina on clandestine flights, which is then moved across the Uruguay River. Human smuggling and trafficking networks have been discovered to use similar routes. Due to the porous nature of its northeastern border with Brazil, there has been substantial smuggling of illicit agricultural products and cattle there.
The capital city of Montevideo is Uruguay’s main port, and a major international shipping hub. Transnational drug networks have used this port, and increasingly Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport, as routes to European cocaine markets.
Uruguay was established in the early 19th century as a type of buffer between then-rivals Argentina and Brazil, both of which meddled in the small country’s affairs in its early years.
During much of the early and mid-20th century, Uruguay grew in terms of population and development, until the military seized power in a 1973 coup. Amid an economic crisis, the junta negotiated a return to civilian governance in 1984, and over the next decade the country saw a gradual return and strengthening of its democratic institutions.
Before the turn of the century, organized crime posed virtually no threat to Uruguay’s security. However, in the early 2000s, a highly addictive, partially processed cocaine product known as coca base became increasingly popular across South America. With unemployment skyrocketing in Uruguay as the result of a 2002 economic crisis, the market for the cheap drug grew.
By the late 2000s and early 2010s, concerns about foreign organized crime in Uruguay became more pronounced, with officials warning about the presence of Mexican, Colombian, Brazilian and Eastern European networks. However, the country’s drug consumption market remained relatively small in the regional context, and it was not a major producer of illicit goods, somewhat lessening its attractiveness to transnational crime groups. Still, authorities expressed concern that local Uruguayan groups were developing in sophistication.
In contrast to many other countries in Latin America, Uruguay responded to growing concerns about crime and violence not with heavy-handed or militarized strategies, but with technocratic reforms. In the early 2010s, the government adopted advanced predictive policing technologies and introduced plans to reinforce its anti-money laundering regime. And in 2012, then-President José Mujica floated a plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize the production and use of marijuana for recreational purposes. The marijuana law put Uruguay at the forefront of the drug policy debate, but implementation of the law moved slowly for several years due to political and regulatory challenges. Legal sales of government-regulated marijuana began in July 2017. The innovative drug policy has been moderately successful, although by 2018 only a third of users purchased marijuana from the regulated market.
Although these progressive reforms bucked regional trends, they did not necessarily reverse underworld trends like the continued development of local gangs in Uruguay’s urban areas and the persistence of informal drug trafficking and money laundering operations by foreign groups, particularly Brazil’s biggest gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital -PCC). Additionally, Uruguay — the country with the highest per capita gun ownership in South America — began to show signs of being a source country for firearms trafficking in the region, in part due to corruption in the military and police.
The 2019 presidential elections were characterized by debate over a perceived spike in urban crime across Uruguay. The eventual victor, right-wing candidate Luis Lacalle Pou ran on a law-and-order platform which stressed a crackdown on crime in prisons and drug trafficking. His administration has militarized the fight against organized crime, a significant shift from his predecessors who relied heavily on Uruguay’s professional police force to keep violence levels low. The murder rate in the country has dropped significantly since 2019, although Uruguay has seen an increase in violence against security forces since Lacalle Pou’s election, including police and soldiers.
Organized crime has not historically been a major problem in Uruguay. However, small, homegrown crime groups are increasingly operating in Montevideo and several other urban areas. These criminal groups are not as powerful as street gangs elsewhere in Latin America, and their activities have traditionally been limited to petty theft and small-scale drug trafficking. In recent years, soccer fan clubs known as “barras bravas” have also been accused of operating as criminal organizations, engaging in drug trafficking and extortion activities.
Transnational criminal organizations also appear to be expanding their presence in Uruguay in recent years. Uruguay’s location and prominence as an international port have made it an attractive transit country for cocaine being trafficked from Colombia and Peru to international markets. Brazil’s largest gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital – PCC), has been linked to these drug trafficking activities.
In 2021 and 2022, Uruguay has experienced an uptick in organized criminal activity has left Uruguay in a more precarious security situation that it has previously had. Turf wars between Brazilian gangs have spurred violence and instability in the northern provinces of the country and have stepped-up cattle rustling activity along the Uruguay-Brazilian border.
On the other hand, discoveries of massive drug trafficking networks demonstrate Uruguay’s role as a crucial transit country where criminal groups will hope to expand. Shipments containing cocaine from Paraguay passed through ports in Uruguay before being seized in Europe, indicating links between Brazilian organizations like the PCC and Paraguayan drug mules transporting drugs via Uruguay.
Uruguay is also an attractive place to launder illicit profits, largely because of the country’s highly dollarized economy.
Uruguay has a national police force that is overseen by the Interior Ministry, which is the primary institution dedicated to fighting organized crime in the country. According to Interior Ministry, Uruguay had around 33,500 police officers in 2022 — a rate of more than 950 officers per 100,000 citizens.
Uruguay’s armed forces are comprised of three branches — the army, navy and air force — with around 27,000 active personnel as of 2022.
Uruguay has some of the strongest and most trusted institutions in Latin America, but occasionally there are cases of corruption within the security forces.
Uruguay’s highest judicial body is the Supreme Court, which also hears constitutional cases. Below this are the Court of Appeals, District Courts, Peace Courts and Rural Courts. Uruguay’s Attorney General’s Office (Poder Judicial) handles organized crime cases.
The World Justice Project’s 2021 Rule of Law Index ranked Uruguay as the country with the least corruption and one of the most effective criminal justice systems in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Uruguay maintains fair and democratic elections, and independent judiciary and strong protections for civil rights. Uruguay’s strong institutions allowed it to weather the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic much better than other countries in the region, according to the World Justice Project.
Uruguay’s prisons are chronically overcrowded, although conditions inside are a far cry from those of other countries in Latin America. With over 14,000 inmates as of 2021, Uruguay is among the 15 countries in the world with the most prisoners per capita. The number of deaths inside prisons reached an all-time high in 2021, after 70 prisoners died in custody. The homicide rate in Uruguayan prisons is 15 times higher than the national homicide rate. The prison system was operating at 133 percent of its total capacity in 2021, and almost 70 percent of all prisoners were being held in pretrial detention.
Despite its progressive legislation on marijuana, authorities are still locking up low-level drug offenders, who have little chance of rehabilitation while in prison, leading to high rates of recidivism. Uruguay has taken some steps to implement prisoner rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism rates, including a project launched in 2017 to provide job opportunities to recently released prisoners. In 2019, The Ministry of Interior created a prison reform plan called the “Dignity Plan 2020-2025,” which aims to improve prison conditions by implementing physical improvements, adding educational/work programs for poisoners and incorporating health and wellness initiatives.
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