Narcotraffickers are increasingly using Uruguay — sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil — as a convenient transshipment point for smuggling cocaine to Spain and other key European markets.
MONTEVIDEO — Narcotraffickers are increasingly using Uruguay — sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil — as a convenient transshipment point for smuggling cocaine to Spain and other key European markets.
In October 2009, international efforts led to the largest drug seizure in Uruguay’s history: 2,174 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a recreational boat. The long-running stakeout was dubbed “Operation Balkan Warrior” because the criminal organization smuggling the drugs was based in Serbia.
“In the last few years, we have seen Uruguay become a very important country for drug traffickers, from a logistics standpoint,” said Jorge Díaz, a Montevideo-based magistrate and expert in organized crime.
Díaz explained that traffickers favor Uruguay because Montevideo is also home to one of South America’s fastest-growing container ports — not to mention its proximity to Argentina and Brazil, both of which border major drug-producing nations. In addition, Uruguay boasts good highways and telecom links, as well as a vibrant fishing industry, all of which are key attractions for drug traffickers.
Profit margins are potentially huge; cocaine sells for about $7,000 to $7,500 per kilogram in Uruguay, but around $55,000 per kilogram in Europe.
Drugs smuggled from Uruguay are sent primarily to Spain, often as a point of entry to other European countries. Most shipments consist of cocaine hydrochloride — usually from Bolivia or Colombia — and are generally of exceptional purity. Sometimes, Paraguayan marijuana is also smuggled from Uruguay, though to a much lesser extent because it faces stiff competition in Europe from hashish.
“We have the principal producers in the region, and obviously the drugs need to leave the country. Strangely, we have not seen [shipments] being sent to the United States,” said Díaz, explaining that drugs bound for the U.S. market would instead pass through the Caribbean, “more towards Central America or Mexico rather than South America.”
Inspector Maj. Mario Layera Panzardo, chief of Uruguay’s Directorate General for Illicit Drug Trafficking Enforcement, said the current situation reflects a worldwide tendency.
“The truth is, Uruguay is no exception to what is happening throughout the region,” he said. “Globalization affects this illegal business, just like it affects legal businesses, as far as the diversification of shipping routes, the specific capabilities of criminal organizations, or where the consumer markets are.”
That’s one reason Uruguay has begun cracking down on money laundering, which is often linked to drug trafficking. New regulations require not only banks but also casinos, notaries, antiques dealers, auctioneers and administrators of free trade zones to report suspicious financial activities. At the same time, Pablo Ferreri, director of Uruguay’s General Tax Directorate, recently announced that his agency will soon open an international office to investigate cases of money laundering reported from abroad.
Yet smuggling patterns have shifted dramatically in the last 20 years, said Layera.
“At first, the largest consumer market for cocaine was the United States, and they used a few direct routes to get to the U.S. by any existing means. Later, due to a market opening or greater demand, the tendency moved towards Europe, first Western Europe and then Eastern Europe. Most recently, they’ve even moved into the Asian market,” said the inspector. “They have started to deviate from the primary routes, and they are looking for an exit route through countries that have legal commercial contacts that would allow traffickers to employ maritime and air routes in a variety of ways.”
Where both experts agree is that these organizations — most of them non-Uruguayan — have become very clever at hiding drugs. Traffickers have managed to place narcotics on foreign ships without the knowledge of those vessels’ captains or even their crews.
One occasion involved a Japanese-flag ship carrying cereal between Uruguay, Spain and Portugal. While the ship was docked in Montevideo, divers working for a criminal organization went underwater and used iron screws to attach hermetically sealed containers to the boat. Each container held 50 kilograms of cocaine. The task required expertise in scuba diving as well as special materials for moving around underwater and for attaching the illicit cargo.
“If there’s one thing Uruguayan drug traffickers do well, it’s transportation,” said the judge. In early January, two Argentines and three Uruguayans were detained in northwestern Uruguay as part of an anti-drug operation that resulted in the seizure of 702 kilograms of marijuana worth $700,000.
Then in late April, Uruguayan police arrested several Colombians trying to export cocaine to Germany and Latvia. Some 119 kilograms were found hidden in fuel tanks and forklifts being re-exported to Europe, where its street value would have exceeded $6.5 million. According to Díaz, authorities uncovered at least 10 prior shipments identical to this one ¬— and they’re convinced that the gang had already carried out this type of operation with engines shipped to Europe.
In addition to Colombians, local authorities have also arrested Mexicans and Europeans as well. However, Layera claims no domestic gangs or organizations are involved.
“Obviously, Uruguayan criminals want a share in the large amount of business that international drug trafficking represents. And of course, if they have access to large shipments of cocaine, they will try to sell it abroad, mainly in Europe, which is where it would yield the greatest profits,” he explained. “But they never form a highly structured organization. They remain in small groups that work together case by case. Once the job is over and they receive their money, everyone goes his own way.”
Yet the danger of incarcerating so many foreign prisoners is that, while in prison, they’ll come into contact with local criminals, whom they can train and with whom they can forge lasting bonds.
“This is a significant threat,” said Layera. “We do not know the actual scope these contacts might have. We suspect, and we have reports, that they pass on their knowledge and their ways of doing things to common criminals or drug traffickers in Uruguay.”
Uruguay’s overcrowded prisons don’t allow for sufficient “segregation” of prisoners based on the types of crimes they’ve committed. As a consequence, said Layera, “when we have too many foreigners with different modes of operation than our own criminals, they share ideas, forge ties, make contacts and long-term plans. We have citizens of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Serbia. It’s a kind of United Nations here.”
The policy applied in Uruguay for the repression of illegal drug trafficking is good. We are a country that has just begun to work on this calamity, we know that there is a long way ahead and it would be good to promote a regional conference to apply policies and efforts among the different forces.