Uruguayan authorities have been paying close attention to the operations of transnational criminal organizations that move drugs to Europe from the Port of Montevideo, the South American country’s main maritime terminal, where significant cocaine shipments have been seized since 2019.
“The Uruguayan port terminal is strategic for transnational organized crime,” Martin Verrier, an adjunct professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies at the U.S. Department of Defense regional center in Germany, told Diálogo on October 29. “In recent years, the port of Montevideo often became the last port of call for cocaine trafficking from Paraguay via the waterway.”
With Uruguay gaining status as an attractive transit country for cocaine trafficked from Colombia and Peru to international markets, Uruguayan Defense Minister Javier Garcia told Uruguayan newspaper El País that his country is exercising its authority in the face of organized crime.
“To understand the situation that Uruguay is going through, it must be approached from different perspectives. Among others, the country is located in a fundamental enclave for international narcotrafficking, as it is a port of entry for the continent and a departure point for Africa and Europe,” Nicolás Centurión, an analyst with the Uruguayan nongovernmental organization Latin American Center for Strategic Analysis told InSight Crime, an organization that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.
On October 25, the Paraguayan National Police arrested Carlos César Pereyra, who had escaped from a Uruguayan jail and had an Interpol Red Notice for trafficking cocaine to Europe, Argentine news site Infobae reported. Following his arrest, the head of Interpol Paraguay Carlos Duré said that this was one of the ways in which Paraguay collaborates with the Uruguayan government in the fight against narcotrafficking at a regional level.
“Narcotrafficking organizations take advantage of the free international trade in Uruguay, which increases the movement of containers in the port, operating more than 50,000 containers per month with an annual growth of 10 percent,” Verrier said. “Today, cocaine is trafficked by air to Uruguay, by land from Argentina and Brazil, and by waterways, where the vulnerability of local ports must be highlighted.”
An article in British newspaper Financial Times stressed the international narcotrafficking situation in Uruguay and pointed out that the country, often considered an exception and off the crime radar, was now among narcotrafficking routes.
“The expansion of the narcotrafficking business in Latin America, with which until recently only Colombia, Mexico, and Peru were associated, increased to such an extent that it landed in unexpected places [such as Uruguay], despite decades of pursuits,” Argentine daily La Nación reported.
Jeremy McDermott, executive director of InSight Crime, said that most cocaine bound for Europe is smuggled in shipping containers, and “when seizure rates reach 20 or 25 percent narcotraffickers often change routes.”
The ports in Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay are where narcotraffickers carry out their illegal trade, McDermott added. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, most Latin American nations are now “major sources or transit countries” for cocaine, with the exception of Guyana, Belize, and El Salvador.
“It is worth noting the increasing presence of large international organizations such as [the Italian mafia] ‘Ndrangheta and the [Brazilian criminal group] First Capital Command that use the port of Montevideo as an exit point for cocaine bound for Europe,” Verrier said. “As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the transshipment of cargo decreased and that triggered some attention from authorities in the Port of Santos in Brazil,” Centurión said. “On the other hand, this made it so narcotraffickers focused their attention on Uruguay, especially on the Port of Montevideo, due to its geographical position and inspections in producing countries. Narcotraffickers look for alternatives because for them the business has to keep on going.”
On the other hand, “foreign ships that have the Port of Montevideo as a logistics center take advantage of this situation, as happens with the Chinese fishing fleet linked to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing,” Verrier concluded. “These boats are often linked to this and other illegal activities such as environmental pollution and exploitation of people.”