In late December 2019, the Uruguayan Navy seized about 6 tons of cocaine, striking what it called “the largest blow to narcotrafficking in the country’s history.” Authorities arrested four people following an operation that brought elements of the Navy from Montevideo Port, on the south coast, to the city of Dolores, on the country’s west side.
During a port inspection on December 26, officers of the Naval Prefecture’s Investigation Division, in cooperation with Customs Directorate agents, found 9,740 pounds of cocaine in four containers. The drug was hidden in packages inside a shipment of soy flour that belonged to the company Camelia Sociedad Agraria. Its destination was Lomé, the capital of Togo, Africa.
The next day, authorities headed for Dolores, where the company was located. In a field, officers found more than 3,086 lbs of cocaine hidden in packages inside soy flour bags. The company’s owner, Luis Gastón Murialdo Garrone, and his 19-year-old son were arrested and charged with storing and exporting narcotics. Authorities also detained two workers responsible for transporting the soy flour from the company premises to the port.
Point of transit
Uruguay is increasingly being used as a transit point to move drugs produced in Latin America to Africa, with European markets as their final destination. According to U.S.-based organization In Sight Crime, which specializes in the study of security threats in Latin America and the Caribbean, the amount of cocaine Uruguay seized in the first few months of 2019 was twice the total seized in 2018. Drug confiscations increased throughout the year.
For example, in May 2019, authorities found more than 1,323 lbs of cocaine inside a private jet coming from Uruguay, after it landed in Basel, Switzerland. In August, German authorities discovered more than 4 tons of cocaine from Uruguay in Hamburg Port. In November, Uruguayan authorities seized about 3 tons of cocaine in containers in Montevideo Port that were bound for Togo’s neighboring state of Benin.
According to Insight Crime, the demand for cocaine is on the rise in Europe. Prices are also higher than in the United States, attracting transnational criminal groups.
“A kilogram [2.2 lbs] of cocaine leaves South American ports valued at about $5,000, a price that reaches $50,000 when it arrives in Europe,” Martín Verrier, professor of International Relations at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Argentina, told Diálogo. Verrier served as the Security Ministry’s deputy secretary for the Fight Against Narcotrafficking during the presidency of Mauricio Macri.
According to January 2020 research from U.S. daily newspaper The Wall Street Journal, worldwide cocaine seizures on commercial ships and private vessels tripled in the last three years, going from 22 tons in 2017 to more than 73 tons in 2019. The contamination of containers is a cheap method used to transport drugs from Latin America, says the newspaper. In Uruguay, Montevideo Port is one of the main shipping points for the Southern Common Market, known as Mercosur, an organization founded by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
The findings in Switzerland and Germany led to the resignation of Uruguay’s head of Customs in August 2019, and the strengthening of control measures. Captain Diego Perona, head of the Uruguayan Navy’s Public Affairs, told Diálogo that the December seizure was made possible by “changes in regulations and controls on container exports, modifying flaws and weaknesses.”
The cocaine, authorities said, was produced in Bolivia, as the logos on the packages found in December were similar to others seen in operations where Bolivia was confirmed as the country of origin.