Uruguay Seeks DEA Help to Curb Cocaine Violence

Uruguay, a small and prosperous country in South America, is facing a surge of cocaine violence that has tarnished its image as a stable and peaceful nation. The country has asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reopen its office in Montevideo, which was closed in 2019, to help combat the drug trafficking and smuggling that have fueled the bloodshed.

Cocaine Shipments Through Uruguay Increase

Uruguay has become a major transit point for cocaine shipments from South America to Europe, especially through its main port of Montevideo, which handled a record 1.1 million containers last year. The port has only one cargo scanner to detect drugs and other illicit goods, after another scanner fell into the sea during delivery in 2005. The port authorities have seized several large cocaine hauls in recent years, including a record 4.4 tons in 2019, but many more are believed to have slipped through.


The cocaine trade has attracted the attention and involvement of powerful criminal organizations, such as the Brazilian PCC and the Colombian Clan del Golfo, which have established links with local gangs and corrupt officials. The drug money has also corrupted the political system, as some politicians have been accused of receiving bribes or donations from drug traffickers.

Cocaine Violence Shocks Uruguay

The influx of cocaine and drug money has also spa

Cocaine Violence

rked a wave of violence that has shocked Uruguay, a country of 3.4 million people that has long been considered one of the safest and most democratic in Latin America. The country recorded a record 426 homicides in 2018, a 46% increase from the previous year. The homicide rate remained high in 2019 and 2020, with 391 and 382 killings respectively.

The violence has been mostly concentrated in poor neighborhoods, where rival gangs fight for turf and customers. The gangs have also targeted police officers, judges, and witnesses, in an attempt to intimidate and silence them. Some of the killings have been particularly gruesome, such as the beheading of a drug dealer in 2019, or the shooting of a pregnant woman in 2020.

The violence has also affected the tourism industry, which is one of the main sources of income for Uruguay. The country has seen a decline in visitors from neighboring Argentina and Brazil, as well as from Europe and the U.S., due to the perception of insecurity and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Uruguay Asks for DEA Help

Uruguay has asked the DEA to return to the country, after the U.S. agency closed its office in Montevideo in 2019, following years of strained relations with the local law enforcement. The DEA had been operating in Uruguay since 1998, providing training, intelligence, and equipment to the Uruguayan police and customs. However, the DEA had also faced accusations of meddling, spying, and violating the sovereignty of Uruguay, especially from the left-wing government that ruled the country from 2005 to 2020.

The current center-right government, led by President Luis Lacalle Pou, who took office in 2020, has taken a different approach, and has repeatedly requested the DEA to resume its cooperation with Uruguay. The government has also sought help from other countries, such as Spain, France, and the Netherlands, which are the main destinations of the cocaine that passes through Uruguay.

However, the U.S. has not shown much interest in reopening the DEA office in Montevideo, according to four former DEA officials who spoke to Reuters. The U.S. is more concerned about the fentanyl crisis that is affecting its own borders, and the cocaine that transits through Uruguay does not pose a direct threat to the U.S. market. The U.S. also has limited resources and personnel to cover the whole region, and has to prioritize other countries that are more strategic or problematic, such as Colombia, Mexico, or Venezuela.

Uruguay Faces Challenges and Opportunities

Uruguay faces many challenges and uncertainties in its fight against cocaine violence, such as the lack of international support, the limited capacity and resources of its own institutions, and the social and economic impact of the pandemic. The country also has to deal with the legal and cultural aspects of its drug policy, which allows the cultivation, consumption, and sale of cannabis, but prohibits other drugs, creating a paradoxical and contradictory situation.

However, Uruguay also has some opportunities and strengths that could help it overcome its difficulties, such as its democratic tradition, its civil society, and its regional and global reputation. The country also has some innovative and successful initiatives that could serve as models or examples for other countries, such as the Plan Ceibal, which provides laptops and internet access to all public school students, or the Sistema Nacional Integrado de Salud, which provides universal health care to all citizens.

Uruguay has a long history of resilience and creativity, and has faced and overcome many challenges in the past. The country has the potential and the will to curb the cocaine violence that has afflicted it, and to restore its image and identity as a peaceful and progressive nation.

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