On February 24, 2018, Uruguayans awoke to the alarming headline “Murder Epidemic” on the editorial page of one of the country’s main newspapers, El Pais. Then earlier this month, Mario Layera, Director of the National Police, made the incredible claim that Uruguay’s future security situation could approach that of El Salvador and Guatemala if key legal and bureaucratic reforms are not adopted. In Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital and its largest city, the homicide rate (11.6 per 100,000) is four times higher than that of Buenos Aires. How is this security deterioration possible in Uruguay of all places, where the homicide rate of 8.2 per 100,000 (2017) is the sixth lowest in Latin America, where the average is about 24 per 100,000?
Homicides and crimes, such as armed robbery, began to spike in 2011-2012. Since then murders have increased by nearly 40 percent. However, it is the unprecedented upsurge of murders and violent crimes since November 2017 that has raised concerns among the general public and politicians. The first quarter of 2018 brought a record number of homicides—147 compared to 81 in the same period last year. Experts believe that if current trends continue, Uruguay may reach double digits this year in murders per 100,000 (epidemic levels according to the World Health Organization) for the first time in the country’s history.
As a result, the public has grown anxious about the deteriorating security situation. The problem is viewed as the second most important issue facing the country, after unemployment/economic issues, according to a March 2018 poll by Opcion Consultores. In a May 2018 poll, 74% of Uruguayans expressed backing for a strong supporting military role in public security, a considerable increase from the 61% in 2014.
But what’s behind this increase in violent crime? Some, including former president Julio Maria Sanguinetti, allude to an increase in drug consumption and the proliferation of organized crime groups violently competing for turf. However, there is another recent phenomenon to which few, outside of Uruguayan authorities, seem to pay much attention.
For a number of years Montevideo has been the most violent city in the country because of population density and deepening socioeconomic challenges present in marginalized and underprivileged neighborhoods, such as Casavalle, Tres Ombues and La Paloma Tomkinson. However, in 2016-2017, the Brazilian border towns of Rivera and Chu, in the departments of Rivera and Rocha, respectively, also saw a turn toward greater violence and criminality. Violent theft/robbery is up by more than 30% in each department, while homicides escalated to 13.5 per 100,000 in Rivera and 11.8 per 100,000 in Rocha in 2017. In the first quarter of this year, violence reached unprecedented levels in the border towns. For example, in Chuy, more than 20 people were murdered from November 2017 to April 2018, compared with six homicides in all of 2016. Similar developments occurred in the border between Rivera in Uruguay and Santa do Livramento in Brazil.
These small border towns—each has a population below 15,000 inhabitants—have become major smuggling hubs for the trafficking of drugs, counterfeit goods, alcohol and, some believe, humans. Some fear these towns will become the next tri-border area in terms of the types and volume of contraband trade unless both governments enhance police presence and binational law enforcement cooperation. Latin American Newsletters (April 2018) reports that “in recent years the area has been used as a transshipment point for marijuana coming from Paraguay and cocaine from the Andes” in addition to “synthetic drugs such as ecstasy being smuggled from Brazil into Uruguay.” Police on both sides have reported the presence of drug trafficking or criminal organizations, such as Os Irmaos (The Brothers) in Rivera and a group in Chuy-Chui led by Emmerson “Pele” Cunha Lima, who was killed in April by an unidentified gunmen. Local authorities have also reported an increase in extortion and violent robberies (attacks on money exchange centers), which are believed to be linked to the expansion of illicit activities and criminal organizations on the border. The Rivera police chief noted that in all his time living and working in Rivera, he had never seen so many people, on both sides of the border, carrying large, heavy modern weapons, a sign that organized crime is overwhelming the capacity of local security forces.
These Uruguay-Brazil border towns have never had much of a government or police presence. In the past, they were nothing more than out of the way sleepy towns that attracted some low-end tourists and small time smugglers. Currently, there is not much of an immigration or customs presence on the shared border. People move freely across the border without much inspection or controls. Moreover, police presence is quite limited, especially on the Brazilian side. For example, while there are about 30 police officers in Chuy, Uruguayan Minister of Interior Eduardo Bonomi reports that Brazil has only four on its side. By all accounts, the local police and government authorities are no match for the arrival of these criminal groups and will be easily overrun if national governments don’t act quickly.
Fortunately, efforts to reinforce security are underway in these border towns. Uruguayan President Tabare Vasquez recently established an entity within the presidency responsible for coordinating public policy and operations of all agencies responsible for combatting common crime, organized crime and drug trafficking. Also, Minister Bonomi revealed that the Uruguayan Foreign Ministry is working its Brazilian counterpart to negotiate a new border security cooperation agreement. But even after an April 13-14 summit between Vasquez and Brazilian President Michel Temer, where the issue was addressed, no concrete progress toward cooperation has resulted.
For now, it seems like Uruguay will have to go at it alone, a prospect that does not bode well for the outgunned police force and panicked citizens.