Uruguay Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 3.4 million (World Bank, 2013)

Capital: Montevideo

Languages: Spanish (official), Portunol, Brazilero (Portuguese-Spanish mix on the Brazilian frontier)

Major Ethnic Groups: white 88%, mestizo 8%, black 4%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 
17,749 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 18,166 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 24,650 (Military Balance, 2014)

Small Arms: The estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians is 1,100,000; the defence forces are reported to have 77,000 firearms; and Police are reported to have 11,000 firearms (Gun Policy, 2015)

Military Expenditure: 1.9% of GDP (World Bank, 2013)

Executive Summary

Uruguay has historically been one of South America’s safest nations having successfully transitioned from military to civilian rule two decades ago.  However, its reputation for having some of the lowest crime rates in the region appears to be under threat, with homicides increasing by nearly 50 percent from 2011-2012. What’s more, the country’s importance as a transhipment point for the international drugs trade seems to be growing, as does the presence of international criminal actors.

Driving much of the violence are local gangs who are battling with each other for control of one of the region’s larger domestic drug markets, in terms of population share. The majority of violent crimes are concentrated in the capital, Montevideo.

Uruguay has low corruption rates and some of the strongest institutions in the region, though there are still problems. A backlogged courts system and overcrowded penitentiary facilities are arguably the two biggest problems facing the country. Efforts have been undertaken to address these over the coming years and represent the best opportunities for engagement.

Helping to improve the performance of security institutions—particularly the police—is also key. This can be done through aid and reform measures aimed at professionalising and modernising the police force.

Security and Justice Context

One of South America’s safest nations, Uruguay has recorded a consistently low level of murders since 2000, with the rate never surpassing the 2002 figure of 6.9 homicides per 100,000 people. However, this trend has changed since 2011, with the country experiencing a significant rise in murders in 2012, when the homicide rate increased by nearly 50 percent (See Figure 1.). This trend continued at the start of 2013 with more than one homicide per day registered up until January 25[1] . The majority of the violence is concentrated in the capital Montevideo, according to the non-government organisation (NGO) Proposal Foundation (Fundación Propuestas-Fundapro).


Fig. 1 Uruguay Homicide Rate 2000-2012

Violence in the country appears to be fuelled by conflicts between local gangs, though there are no definitive estimates as to what percentage of homicides can be attributed to these groups. The National Police (Policía Nacional) warned in 2012 that these gangs could present the government with a similar threat as that posed by Central American street gangs, or “maras.” The deputy interior minister stated in January 2013 that though there are no mara-style organisations currently present, this doesn’t mean that the country does not have the “embryos” of such organisations in its territory.

One factor that contributes to gang disputes is attempts to gain a greater share of the local drug market. In the 2011 National Home Survey on Drug Use (Encuesta Nacional en Hogares sobre Consumo de Drogas) conducted by the country’s National Drug Board (Junta Nacional de Drogas) it was found that 1.9 percent of those asked had taken cocaine over the previous 12 months. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated in 2012 that the global cocaine use is roughly 0.3-0.4 percent of the total population.

The survey also found 1.1 percent of Uruguayans admitted to having taken cocaine paste, or “paco,”[2] at least once in their life.

Uruguay is a transit point for the international drugs trade. The US State Department warned that Colombian, Mexican and Serbian drug traffickers have all used Uruguay for their operations. The Uruguayan government has also stated that it fears Brazilian gangs will begin to use Uruguay as an escape from pressure in their home country.

Between April 2008 and August 2012, the police dismantled four cocaine laboratories, suggesting that traffickers may be shifting some of their production to Uruguay. It must be noted, however, that these labs were small-scale and not comparable to processing laboratories typically in the Andean region.

In 2012, it was announced that the US Drug Enforcement Administration would re-open its Montevideo office, 18 years after it had closed. As of January 2013, this had still not happened.

There were an estimated 584,000 registered firearms in the country. However, there are believed to be 1.1 million arms in circulation, meaning 500,000-600,000 are unregistered, or illegal. The high number of unregistered arms makes Uruguay an important country in the illicit arms trade. As of January 2013, arms trafficking was still not recognised as a crime in its own right with guilty parties instead being convicted for contraband smuggling.

In 2010, guns were used in approximately 60 percent of all homicides in the country, putting it above the global average of 42 percent.

The US State Department identifies Uruguay as a key site for laundering illicit proceeds from drug trafficking, pointing to the fact that many cases against money laundering in the country are drug-related. Part of the attractiveness of Uruguay is the fact that it uses the US dollar in many business transactions.

Global media reported in 2010 that Uruguay was suffering from a spate of so-called express kidnappings—when the victim is taken for a matter of hours and forced to withdraw money from cash machines, or not released until a ransom is paid—with seven such cases in one month. However, this phenomenon appears to have not developed into a consistent threat to Uruguayan society.

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), the perception of insecurity in Uruguay has consistently fallen since 2007 when the country registered a score of 45.2 points[3] . In 2010 this had dropped to 39.3 points and then fell again to 39.1 in 2012 (See Figure 2.).

Despite the apparent improvement in citizens’ perceptions of security in the country, since the homicide rate began increasing in 2012, public unrest has grown; for example, Montevideo residents marched through the capital in December 2012 demanding the government bring violence under control and increase the number of police on the streets.

Fig. 2 Uruguay Perception of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

Uruguay’s judicial branch is independent and headed by the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia) which is comprised of five judges elected by the General Assembly (Asamblea General). Below the Supreme Court are District Courts (JuzgadosLetrados) and then Peace Courts (Juzgados de Paz)[4] . Between the Supreme Court and District Courts are Courts of Appeal (Tribunales de Apelaciones) which handle disputes on rulings in the first instance—those handed down in the District Courts. Final appellate jurisdiction is held by the Supreme Court.

There are no juries in Uruguayan court proceedings.

Specialised courts to deal with organised crime (Juzgados especializados en Crimen Organizado) were created in 2009 and deal with the crimes of drug trafficking, money laundering and human trafficking, among others. There are also military courts (Tribunales Militares) to try cases of alleged abuse by the armed forces.

There is no Constitutional Court, with matters relating to constitutionality instead being handled by the Supreme Court.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público y Fiscal) is headed by the Attorney General of the Court and Prosecutor General (Fiscalía de Corte y Procuraduría de la Nación) who serves as the government’s principal legal advisor. The Office also houses Uruguay’s district attorneys.

The National Human Rights Institution and Ombudsman (Institución Nacional de Derechos Humanos y Defensoría del Pueblo – INDDHH), was created by a December 2008 law and formally established in 2012. It is designed to promote and protect human rights, as defined by Uruguayan law.

The Uruguayan justice system generally has one of the better reputations in the region with no significant concerns of corruption. However, there is a severe backlog of cases. The US State Department cites the taking of written as opposed to oral arguments by judges in court proceedings as being a major factor slowing down trials. The pace of processing cases is a contributor to the length of time pre-trial detainees must spend in prison prior to their case being heard. A visit by the Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights[5] (IACHR) in 2011 found that a number of pre-trial detainees had been held for more than two years. This is detrimental to an already overstretched prison system.

The country’s penitentiary system is managed by the National Rehabilitation Institute (Instituto Nacional de Rehabilitación) which comes under the Interior Ministry (Ministerio del Interior). As of April 2012, prisons in the country were running at close to 20 percent over capacity, with 64.6 percent of the prison population comprised of pre-trial detainees or prisoners on remand. According to the US State Department, conditions in the country’s prisons are poor and many are understaffed and under resourced. For example, there have been cases of prisoners relying on visitors to being food and clothing as the prison authorities do not provide enough.

Uruguay’s General Assembly approved a law in 2003 that saw the creation of a prison ombudsman, the Parliamentary Prisons Commissioner (Comisionado Parlamentario Penitenciario), whose job it is to monitor prison conditions throughout the country, hear prisoner complaints and report his/her findings to parliament.

Security Institutions

The National Police are the main body charged with maintaining internal security and are housed under the Interior Ministry. There are some 27,000 police officers throughout Uruguay.

Police are well trained but underpaid, according to the US State Department, meaning that many have to work another job in order to earn enough. Though corruption is not endemic, it is a concern within the police force. Officers were arrested in 2012 for running extortion rings and taking bribes. Most seriously, it was revealed in November 2012 that Uruguayan authorities were investigating 20 police officers suspected of selling arms from police stockpiles to Brazilian gangs.

According to the LAPOP survey, public confidence in the police increased from 2007-2010 from a score of 53.5 points to 55.6[6] . This decreased in 2012 to 52.3 points (See Figure 3.).


Fig. 3 Uruguay Confidence in Police 2012

In 2012 Uruguay’s Armed Forces—managed by the National Defence Ministry (Ministerio de Defensa Nacional)—numbered 22,372. The military is primarily responsible for external security and is one a large providers of personnel for United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions. Around 10 percent of the military was involved in UN peacekeeping missions in 2011.

The military has progressed markedly over the past two decades following the end of a military dictatorship in the country in 1985.  In 2010, Uruguayans had more confidence in the military than in the police, according to LAPOP.

There are two main intelligence agencies in the country; the National Directorate of Information and Intelligence (Dirección Nacional de Información e Inteligencia–DNII) which is the police intelligence branch and is housed under the Interior Ministry, and the National Directorate of State Intelligence (Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia de Estado–DINACIE) housed under the National Defence Ministry.

At the time of writing there was no information on a long-term national development or security strategy that was publically available.

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

Reform of the country’s overcrowded and under resourced penitentiary system has been one of the key areas of focus for the government of President José Mujica, who took office in 2010. The National Rehabilitation Institute[7] was only established during the Mujica administration, formally separating the prison system from the police and moving it towards a civilian management model.

The European Union (EU) has been a donor for prison reform initiatives, providing €5 million in aid in 2011. With this money, the EU aimed to foster the improvement of prison conditions for inmates, particularly as it pertains to the prisoners’ health, and to install training and rehabilitation programmes, so that inmates could reintegrate back into society more easily once their sentence is completed.

The EU has also supported moves by the government to reform the country’s Penal Code[8] (Código Penal), citing the penal process’ immediate recourse to handing down sentences to first time offenders as being a primary driver of prison overcrowding. The government’s aim is to have fully implemented the new code and moved to an accusatory, public legal system by 2014. At the time of writing, changes to the Penal Code were still making their way through the legislature. 

A new law was adopted in October 2011 that enables security force officials to be investigated and prosecuted for crimes committed during the country’s military dictatorship (1973-1985). This had previously been prohibited under a 1986 Amnesty Law. Human rights organisations both domestic and international praised the move as a key step in the fight against impunity.

In August 2012, the Mujica administration sent a proposal to the General Assembly to legalise the sale and cultivation of marijuana. If such a law would pass, it would enable the state to hold a monopoly over the marijuana production and distribution. Though the proposal was widely believed to have the support necessary to pass the Assembly, a lack of popular support led Mujica the following December to urge politicians to abstain from debating it, citing the need for better public education on the initiative before it can move forward. 

Security Sector Reform and Initiatives

At the time of writing, the government was pushing for the introduction of a sweeping restructuring of the national police centred on reforming the police organic law (Ley Orgánica Policial) which was established in 1971. Proposed are six key reforms to the law among which include; ensuring the police serves to guarantee the rights of citizens, remains democratic in structure and is responsive to evaluation of the force; and works to prevent and suppress crime. These changes would shift the paradigm from the old organic law which assigned the police a more militaristic role, as opposed to one which protects citizens’ rights.

Few details on how the police would be institutionally reorganised had been released at the time of writing. 

The president sent a draft law to parliament in April that will officially recognise arms trafficking as a crime. Domestic arms trafficking would carry a sentence of up to six years while international arms trafficking could be punishable with a maximum twelve year sentence. The law is expected to be passed in February or March 2013. Once it comes into force, the government stated that it plans to launch a “Guns for Life” (“Armaspara la Vida”) drive to encourage citizens to hand in their guns to the state in exchange for items such as a bicycle or laptop.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

The General Assembly is comprised of a lower chamber (Cámara de Representantes) with 99 elected members and an upper chamber (Cámara de Senadores) with 31 members, 30 of whom are elected[9] . It is constitutionally independent from the executive and judiciary, and has the powers to provide oversight. It is generally considered to enforce one of the stronger systems of checks and balances in the region with all members of government accountable to parliament.

Security and Justice Opportunities

The incidence of corruption in Uruguay is one of the lowest in the region. In Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), the country placed 20th out of 176 countries, with its corruption score improving from the year before. This placed it alongside Chile with an identical rating and above all other Latin American states.

The low rate of corruption and progressive policies in the Mujica administration means that there is ample opportunity for engagement throughout all levels of government. Uruguay appears to be at something of a minor tipping point with violence increasing nearly 50 percent from 2011-2012. Thus, help should be given to ensure security does not slip any further.

Justice Sector Opportunities

The prioritisation by the government of reforming the penitentiary system, along with updating the Penal Code, is highly promising and offers perhaps the best opportunity for engagement in the justice sector. The tendency by judges to revert to prison sentences for minor crimes and first time offenders has placed the country’s prisons under an enormous amount of strain, and helped fuel a worsening of conditions in jails. Continuing to help in both an advisory and financial role to ensure the government is able to meet its 2014 targets is advised.

The move to reform the Penal Code should also go some way to improving judicial efficiency given the emphasis placed on transitioning to an accusatory system and oral trials. Providing this is implemented effectively, the case backlog should be decreased. Efforts should be made to help modernise the judicial system and ensure that Uruguay is able to remove its case backlog and thus cut down on the number of pre-trial detainees.

Security Sector Opportunities

The government initiative to restructure the police is promising in light of the current, outdated organic law which governs the institution. One area that arguably needs addressing most, however, is modernisation of the force and a restructuring of pay. As it currently stand, the fact that some police officers must work second jobs to supplement their income does not bode well for the morale of the force. It is therefore advised that efforts be made to help modernise the police and thus increase the level of professionalism within the force.

Civil Society Actors to Engage With

Uruguay has a number of NGOs to engage with on justice and security sector issues. Among the most prominent are the Justice and Peace Service[10] (Servicio Paz y Justicia Uruguay – SERPAJ) which works to promote the education and protection of human rights, and the Institute of Legal and Social Studies[11] (Instituto de Estudios Legales y Sociales de Uruguay – IELSUR) which advocates and pushes for the defence of human rights through international and domestic legal mechanisms.

Fundapro[12] should also be consulted as they are the primary non-governmental violence observatory in the country and hold a comprehensive database showing key crime rates and trends.


Junta Nacional de Drogas, “5ta Encuesta Nacional en Hogares sobre Consumo de Drogas,” May 2012

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “Cultura Política de la Democracia en Uruguay, 2010: Consolidación Democrática en las Américas en Tiempos Dificiles,” November 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” November 2012 (Preliminary Version)

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Uruguay 2012 Crime and Safety Report,” April 2012

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

World Economic Forum, “The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013,” September 2012


[1] In 2012 the country averaged 0.79 homicides per day. In the first 25 days of 2013, the average was 1.12.

[2]  Paco is a cheaper cocaine derivative that is smoked and was has been sold in the country since 2002.

[3] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity.

[4] The District Courts handle appeals stemming from rulings in the Peace Courts.

[5] The IACHR is an autonomous organ of the Organisation of American States (OAS) whose job it is to promote human rights in the region.

[6] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher level of confidence.

[7] The National Rehabilitation Institute replaced the National Prisons Directorate (Dirección Nacional de Cárceles).

[8] The existing Penal Code is based on that adopted in the 1930s and therefore, according to analysts, based on “fascist conceptions of law.”

[9] The final member is the vice-president.

[10] More information on their website: http://www.serpaj.org.uy/serpaj/

[11] More information on their website: http://ielsur.org/ 

[12] More information on their website: http://seguridad.observatoriofundapro.com/ 

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.