Authorities in Uruguay are facing mounting public pressure to pursue hardline security strategies to combat a perceived rise in gang-related violence, but caving to these demands could hamper long-term efforts that have made the country one of the safest in Latin America.
Amid a perceived spike in homicides and armed robberies in urban areas across the country, Uruguay President Tabaré Vázquez told news outlet Búsqueda on May 17 that “soon there will be news” about his administration’s plans to improve coordination between security institutions in the fight against organized crime.
President Vázquez’s remarks came on the heels of an inflammatory May 12 interview provided to El Observador by Police Chief Mario Layera, in which he accused the government of being too “scared” to take “non-sympathetic measures” to combat rising gang-related crime that could lead the country into a “scenario like El Salvador or Guatemala.”
In response, Vásquez said that Uruguay is “really far from that scenario.” Nevertheless, on May 15, his administration submitted a bill to Congress aimed at strengthening coordination between police, prosecutors and the courts, as well as giving police officers “more flexibility” and “legal support” to do their jobs.
While a recent opinion poll showed nearly three out of every four Uruguayans believe that soldiers should collaborate with police in the fight against crime, Vásquez has so far rejected the idea.
Earlier this month, the president denied a request to deploy soldiers to Lavalleja, a department northeast of Montevideo where a string of five homicides since February has been attributed to clashes between criminal groups.
“Uruguay is not in a situation of war,” Vásquez said in defending his response.
InSight Crime Analysis
Sustained public concerns about a perceived rise in violent crime are putting pressure on Uruguayan officials to implement a heavy-handed response. However, the true severity of the rise in violence and the factors fueling it remain unclear, and a poorly planned response could exacerbate insecurity, as has been the case in other countries across the region.
Recent fears about rising criminal violence in Uruguay seem to be related mostly to anecdotal and sensationalized media reports. Official statistics show Uruguay’s overall homicide rate — one of the lowest in the region — has remained relatively stable over the past quarter-century, and has actually been declining since 2015.
At the same time, government data shows the proportion of homicides related to clashes between criminal groups may be increasing. In 2012, conflicts between crime groups accounted for 25 percent of all murders, whereas they accounted for 45 percent in 2017 and 58 percent in the first three months of 2018.
Uruguay’s success in keeping levels of violence low is due in large part to the government’s emphasis on professionalizing its police force and using data and technology to efficiently target interventions against crime. However, experiences in countries like Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador have all shown how public pressure over perceptions of insecurity can push governments to implement militarized policies that in most cases have limited long-term efficacy.