Uruguay Combats Crime Through Tougher Laws, Expanded Social Programs
By Dialogo August 27, 2013
MONTEVIDEO — Uruguay’s new Seven Zones Plan focuses law-enforcement and anti-poverty measures in the poorest districts of Montevideo and parts of the adjacent state of Canelones.
President José Mujica has designated a team headed up by the ministries of internal affairs and social development to come up with a joint plan to target areas where extreme poverty is concentrated. These neighborhoods persist, even though according to official figures the number of Uruguayans living under the poverty line fell by 900,000 — from 40 percent of the population in 2004 to 12.4 percent in 2012.
“In the seven areas considered vulnerable, single-parent households headed by women surpass the national average by 10 points. In these areas live nearly 32,000 people, and more than half are under 29 years of age,” said Social Development Minister Daniel Olesker.
The plan involves five levels of action: access to housing, education, employment training, entry into the workforce, and health and child care services. It also includes strengthening police patrols and deepening social intervention plans with the objective of boosting security.
“The initiative will collaborate with the National Public Education Administration (ANEP) and the State Public Health Administration (ASSE),” Olesker said, adding that the government will soon implement a “Young Mediators” plan in vocational and high schools throughout the seven selected areas. Bonuses will also be given to single parents to send their children to kindergarten.
“This year we distributed 200 bonuses, and the next year we will give out 400 bonuses,” he said.
Republican Guard deployed to zones
The Ministry of Internal Affairs has deployed units of the Republican Guard, a riot control force, in some of the seven zones. Principal Inspector Rovert Yroa and Inspector Maj. Elbio Barboza are in charge of the 1,500-strong Guard.
“The message we get from citizens and authorities alike is very clear,” Yroa said. “They demand security. We conduct operations on a daily basis in the ‘hot’ areas; some of them appear in the press and some don’t, but our work is permanent. We work very well with City Hall regarding traffic control, seizure of non-compliant vehicles and other regulation enforcement activities throughout the city.”
Yroa said his Republican Guard differs from regular police units in equipment, materiel and training.
“You can see our personnel on horses, cross-country motorcycles and in anti-riot units,’ he said. “We train our personnel using an intervention protocol that involves the escalation of force when the situation calls for it, but to do everything possible to not to reach the point of utilizing force.”
Father Mateo Mendez is founder and ex-director of Movimiento Tacurú, a Montevideo youth services agency. He said Uruguayan youth are often excluded from national anti-poverty programs, which lead to higher crime rates.
“Young people today face a more complex set of problems than 10 years ago, and there are required behaviors that are not being taught,” Mendez told Diálogo. “Social plans need to be more in tune with reality.”
Uruguay homicide rate up sharply in 2011
Dr. Guillermo Maciel, head of independent security research organization Observatorio FundaPro, said the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Uruguay’s new Seven Zones Plan.
“The plan is very new, and therefore there are no results yet to analyze. On one hand, it’s good to strengthen social policies and increase the impact of social programs in those areas in need. But it does not necessarily lead to reduced crime,” he said. “It’s often part of the following axiom: the causes of crime are social and it’s poverty that creates the offense. From there the plan jumps to an unproven conclusion: if poverty decreases, crime decreases. That is perhaps the error. Proof of this is that [despite a] full economic boom in Uruguay, crimes does not stop growing.”
Last year, 289 people were killed in Uruguay, up from 196 in 2011, reported Maciel’s group. That translates into a homicide rate of 9.19 per 100,000 inhabitants — the country’s most violent year on record. In 2011, the homicide rate was 6.27 per 100,000.
In addition, traffickers from Colombia, Mexico and Bolivia are increasingly using Uruguay as a transit point for drug shipments, said the U.S. State Department’s latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. According to Edward Fox of Insight Crime, “Uruguayan officials are also concerned that Brazilian gangs may be using their country as a haven from the attention of Brazilian authorities, and that criminal organizations may even be shifting cocaine production operations to the country.”
A bill pending approval in the Uruguayan legislature would tighten controls on the legal possession of shotguns and handguns up to nine millimeters.
Uruguay has 32 civilian firearms per 100 inhabitants, giving it the highest ratio of gun ownership in Latin America, and the ninth highest in the world, said the Small Arms Survey. By comparison, the top three countries on that list are the United States (89 firearms per 100), Yemen (55) and Switzerland (46). No other Latin American country made the top 15.