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Latin America Blog

Organized crime sets its sights on peaceful Uruguay

Uruguay is known as one of the safest countries in Latin America, but organized crime and violence are on the rise.

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / January 30, 2012

Members of a Murga (an Uruguayan carnival group) perform during the inaugural parade of the Urguayan carnival along 18 de Julio Avenue in Montevideo January 27.

Andres Stapff/REUTERS

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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

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Uruguay has long been one of the safest countries in Latin America, but some are warning that the influence of organized crime is on the rise, with gang shootouts in the capital and an increase in large-scale cocaine seizures.

A Jan. 23 story entitled “Shootout Between Two Gangs of Narcos” (most links in this blog are in Spanish), describes a 10-minute long gun battle between rival gangs on a city street. The story would seem more likely to appear in a newspaper in northern Mexico than in Montevideo-based El Pais.

But violent incidents such as this are becoming more common in the South American country, as drug trafficking groups from elsewhere in the region extend their activities there. On January 2, for instance, soccer agent Washington Oscar Risotto was gunned down in southern Montevideo, which police said was likely a revenge killing related to the drug trade. According to the US Department of State’s 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), drug trafficking is on the rise in the country, as evidenced by an increase in large-scale cocaine seizures since 2006.

A May 2011 survey by polling firm Interconsult found that 62 percent of Uruguayans believe that their country is becoming more insecure. Seventeen people were murdered there in the first week of 2012 alone. Although as many people were killed daily in Guatemala in 2011, the violence shocked the country, and prompted the government to issue a statement assuring Uruguayans that their country still has the lowest homicide rate in Latin America, at 6.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

However, officials have also expressed concern over rising violence in the country. On Jan. 8 criminal Judge Nestor Valetti told El Pais that he had never seen so much violence in his 16 years on the job, saying that the country had become more like those in the Andean region. “In Uruguay there are power struggles between narco groups. It involves not only the murders of those who show up dead in a gutter, but also those who are killed in prisons.” The remarks were backed by Raul Perdomo, deputy director of the National Police, who said the country had been affected by the uptick in violence in the region. Indeed, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has acknowledged that dealing with the public’s perception of rising insecurity will be a major hurdle this year.

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