Homicides in Uruguay in 2018 increased 35 per cent on the previous year, while violent crime prompted growing public concern; this report analyses the reasons for the worsening in public security.
In 2018, Uruguay recorded 382 murders, a 35 per cent increase on the previous year, prompting the national homicide rate to jump from 7.8 to 11.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in just one year. The sharp increase in homicides coincided with an equally acute rise in robbery, both armed and unarmed, and points to a rapid deterioration in public security. This is particularly noteworthy as Uruguay has traditionally been one of Latin America’s safest countries.
The principal reason for the worsening of public security is increasing competition between rival criminal groups, particularly drug-trafficking organisations – in 2018, approximately 40 per cent of all homicides in the country were committed by criminals and drug traffickers, up from 29 per cent in 2012. The increase in violence is especially acute in marginalised areas of the capital Montevideo, a major port city and transhipment point for illicit drugs. The violence largely takes place between well-armed local drug-trafficking organisations vying for territory. Such groups include the Los Yingas, Los Camala and Los Algorta drug-trafficking organisations. Local authorities are reportedly investigating up to 20 drug-trafficking and criminal groups with international connections for allegedly supplying drugs to be resold within Uruguay.
The country is also increasingly integrated into regional narco-trafficking networks, particularly of cocaine originating in Colombia and Peru, which often passes through Uruguay to be shipped to Europe and Asia. Furthermore, gang-related violence and the trafficking of illegal drugs has increasingly spread to peripheral areas of the country, particularly the porous border with Brazil. Other factors, including a new penal code, introduced to replace that which came into force during the military dictatorship of the 1980s, and which has been criticised as lenient, and a modest rise in unemployment, which stands at 8.7 per cent, may have pushed unemployed youths towards criminal groups and contributed slightly to the heightened insecurity.
The deterioration in the security situation has sparked public alarm, with approval ratings for President Tabaré Vázquez slumping as low as 24 per cent and citizens’ groups protesting and calling for an increased public security presence and tougher punishments for criminals. While Uruguay remains one of Latin America’s safest countries – murders per 100,000 inhabitants remain approximately half the regional average – the homicide rate has now reached levels considered ‘epidemic’ by the World Health Organization.
The worsening of public security poses a risk to both business travellers visiting Uruguay and companies with in-country operations. Individuals visiting the country should dress modestly, maintain a low profile and minimise travel at night, when there is an elevated risk of violent crime. In light of the elevated risk of crime in Montevideo, business travellers should exercise heightened caution in areas including Ciudad Vieja, Avenida 18 de Julio, Plaza Independencia and Mercado del Puerto, where criminal groups are known to operate. Companies with assets and staff in Uruguay should review their security measures and protocols in light of rising insecurity, monitor local updates and regularly update country assessments.