Surging Drug Violence Has Uruguay Clamoring for DEA Help

February 19, 2024

© Helandson / Adobe Stock
© Helandson / Adobe Stock

Uruguay's main port received two cargo scanners sixteen years ago to detect drugs and other suspicious loads. Unfortunately, during delivery one of them fell into the sea.

Since then, cocaine shipments to Europe have surged through the port of Montevideo, which handled a record 1.1 million containers last year, fueling a rise in gang violence and undermining Uruguay's reputation as a beacon of stability in turbulent South America.

Uruguay, a small, affluent nation sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, is desperate for help.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) shuttered its Montevideo office in 2019 after years of strained ties with local law enforcement, four former DEA officials said. The details of the DEA's exit are previously unreported.

Uruguay's current center-right government, which took office the following year, has repeatedly asked the DEA to return but U.S. officials say there are no imminent plans to do so.

Three former DEA officials told Reuters that - with Washington focused on fentanyl flooding its borders from Mexico and little of the cocaine that transits through Uruguay heading to the United States - there's scant appetite for seeking congressional approval to re-open a Montevideo office.

"Everything's fentanyl now," said former DEA official Larry Reichner, who oversaw Uruguay as the DEA's assistant regional director for southern South America from 2015-2019. "They couldn't give a rat's ass about cocaine."

The DEA declined to comment.

European nations, which receive the bulk of the cocaine passing through Uruguay, also have a limited counter-narcotics presence here. Spain is the only European country with a permanent police attache in Montevideo.

Reuters spoke with over two dozen current and former U.S., European and Uruguayan cops, as well as local officials, lawmakers and foreign diplomats. They said Uruguay is in a precarious position, fighting a lonely battle against cocaine smuggling gangs that have expanded into every corner of Latin America over the last decade, turning once-tranquil nations like Ecuador into cartel badlands.

Uruguay, home to 3.4 million people, suffered a record 426 murders in 2018. Violence has remained high ever since with grisly turf battles between small drug-dealing clans shocking a country largely unaccustomed to gang violence.

With 382 people killed last year, President Luis Lacalle Pou is struggling to defend his government's security record ahead of a general election in October, while some far-right lawmakers are calling for troops on the streets.

"We have a problem," said Mario Layera, Uruguay's police chief from 2016-20, who led the force when the DEA left. "Cocaine is a problem."

Nicolás Martinelli, Uruguay's interior minister, told Reuters that Lacalle Pou's government had repeatedly asked the DEA to return but has yet to get a positive response. He said he was pleased Argentina-based DEA agents are now visiting Montevideo twice a week, up from once every two weeks.

A DEA office is no panacea. Several Latin American nations have a deadly drug problem despite a strong DEA presence. Still, Martinelli said his country is desperate for U.S. equipment and expertise; he lamented that Uruguay's status as a high-income nation excludes it from U.S. counter-narcotics donations.

"Uruguay remains a valued DEA partner," a DEA spokesperson said. "We continue to actively explore new opportunities to expand our efforts to dismantle transnational criminal organizations operating worldwide."

Denial
Nelson Vargas, who ran the DEA's Montevideo office from 2013-2017, said "it was kind of cloak and dagger" when he arrived, with local cops wary of working with the DEA.

Politics played a part. Leftist governments ruled Uruguay from 2005-2020, and their negative view of U.S. policy towards Latin America - including support for the country's 1973-85 dictatorship - hindered counter-narcotics collaboration, Layera, Martinelli and U.S. sources said.

Uruguay's proud reputation as a regional role model bred complacency, two current and four former U.S. officials said. Authorities were in denial about the scale of cocaine moving through their country, they said.

Uruguay seized over 2 metric tonnes of cocaine in 2021, according to United Nations data, up over 1,300% compared with the 144 kgs apprehended in 2017.

In 2019, when Germany seized a record 1 billion euro haul of cocaine in a soybean shipment from Montevideo, the Uruguayans didn't believe the drugs originated in their country, initially claiming they were loaded in Brazil, two ex-DEA agents said.

"For Uruguay, I think it was their heads in the sand, you know: 'This is not happening,'" said a former Montevideo DEA chief, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss his past work. "But the reality was that it was happening, and I think it had been going on for a while."

Layera, the police chief under the former leftist administration, said investigators ultimately confirmed the cocaine originated in Montevideo. A Uruguayan businessman called Martin Mutio last year received a 15-year sentence for trafficking the load. His lawyers didn't respond to requests for comment.

Martinelli described the previous government as "naive" on public security. He said Montevideo's port remains ill-equipped to inspect the container flow.

Three more cargo scanners, bought by the current government, will arrive in April to supplement the X-ray machine donated by China in 2008, Martinelli said. That should allow for inspection of 80% of all merchandise, he said.

Layera acknowledged that gangs like Brazil's First Capital Command, or PCC, were a growing threat, and that powerful Mexican and Italian capos had exploited weaknesses in the country's legal system. But he defended counter-narcotics work during the previous administration, citing their respect for police independence and operations with foreign counterparts.

'This place is wide open'
The DEA's exit from Uruguay capped years of worsening counter-narcotics ties that turned even run-of-the-mill operations into a headache, five former U.S. agents said.

The former Montevideo DEA boss said it was an open secret that 'El Perro Que Fuma,' a seedy bar near Montevideo's port, was frequented by drug traffickers. Its owner, Amir Alial González, aka "El Turco," had long been suspected of coke trafficking, U.S. and Uruguayan sources said.

Eager to take down a seemingly easy target, the ex-agent flew in a Colombian informant in 2018 to visit the bar as a fake buyer looking for a load. González, who also had a fishing business that gave him access to the port, was surprisingly open with the Colombian, outlining his whole operation, the ex-agent said.

The informant was shocked.

"He came back and he's like, 'Dude, this place is wide open,'" the ex-agent said.

When DEA officials shared González's information, Uruguayan police appeared to get cold feet. They didn't like the informant "ordering up a load," the ex-agent said, saying it was "entrapment." They asked the informant to leave Uruguay immediately.

Yet around a week later, in September 2018, the Uruguayans told the DEA they'd arrested González for trying to traffic 417 kilos of coke in a shipment of wool bound for Antwerp. González, who received a seven-year sentence in 2018, declined to comment.

The ex-DEA agent said they were frustrated not to get a heads-up about the arrest, given it was their intel. The Uruguayans also refused to share information on González that scuppered a parallel DEA probe in Paraguay, he added.

In late 2019, the DEA pulled out its four-man team from Montevideo, with the González incident among the final straws.

Carlos Mitchem, the DEA's former top official for the southern cone, made the call, which was supported by his bosses.

"The cops wouldn't share information," he said. We "had to close the office," he added. "Wasn't working well."

Two other ex-DEA officials confirmed the account of González's arrest. Interior Minister Martinelli heard a similar story from the DEA.

"The previous government ... didn't want to collaborate with the DEA, and then the DEA left," he said.

The DEA declined to comment.

Layera said he was unaware of the Colombian being told to leave, but added the issue of informants was "highly sensitive." He said he believed the DEA left for budgetary reasons and because so little cocaine was U.S.-bound.

"The criticism that Uruguay didn't share information is totally wrong," he said.

Fentanyl focus
Lackluster local co-operation wasn't the only frustration for DEA officials in Montevideo. They were struggling to get Washington to care about Uruguay's growing importance in the cocaine trade.

Half a dozen ex-DEA chiefs said they urged U.S. bosses to pay more attention to the southern cone, but got little traction because the drugs were heading to Europe.

"There was not a lot of interest," said Vargas.

These days, with Washington fixated on fentanyl, there's even less, they said.

A current U.S. counter-narcotics official based in the southern cone said "the DEA and other U.S. agencies are very concerned, almost obsessed about ... efforts to establish fentanyl labs in South America. But so far, nothing really has developed on that front, and it's blinded us to what continues to happen with cocaine going to the non-U.S. market."

The DEA declined to comment.

There was one thing both U.S. and Uruguayan cops could agree on - that European nations should be doing more.

While the DEA can count on up to 40 agents across the southern cone, and some 200 DEA-accredited local investigators, Britain has just one cop for the vast region. Britain's National Crime Agency declined to comment on its southern cone staffing.

"I think the Europeans definitely could have represented more," said Reichner.


(Reuters - Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; editing by Claudia Parsons)

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