Montevideo: Between violence and urban fragmentation

By Gonzalo Croci

26 May 2020

Uruguay currently suffers from the highest levels of insecurity and crime in the country’s recent history. Data prior to the 2002 economic crisis shows that structural factors such as unemployment and poverty were closely associated with the increase in crime in the period 1986-2002. However, between 2004 and 2015, Uruguay has made progress in the social and economic dimensions and has reduced its levels of poverty and inequality measured in real terms. This, however, happened alongside an increase in crime rates. The link between structural variables and crime seems not to be as linear as it had been claimed and is questioned both by academics and policymakers. This article argues that other causes – namely, drug trafficking and urban fragmentation – have influenced the increase of crime, and specifically of homicides, in Uruguay.

Statistics on homicides are widely accepted as a metric for security, especially violence. Further, homicides are commonly held to be a good index of quantitative criminal tendencies, on the assumption that police and judicial authorities are more diligent in reporting and prosecuting homicides, while other crimes such as theft can escape the attention of public institutions. Uruguay’s homicide rates have risen continuously since 2011. In that year, the homicide rate stood at 5.8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. By 2018, the government reported a homicide rate of 11.8 homicides, double the world average. A particularly high spike of homicides was registered in 2017, when the total number of homicides increased by 45.8% compared to the previous year. The latest data confirms that the trend continued in 2019 and seems to stabilise in 2020.

Drug trafficking and state absence: between short- and long-term causes of violence

The sudden increase of homicides in recent years seems to be closely linked to confrontations among gangs over the control of drug traffic routes and territories. Data from the Ministry of Interior shows that 47% of homicides were due to conflicts among criminal groups, drug trade, and hired killers. Foreign traffickers, mostly from Brazil and Colombia, are working with local gangs and taking advantage of the country’s porous borders with Argentina and Brazil; they are now using Montevideo as a base for drug transit operations. Although drug movements in the port of Montevideo are far less substantial compared to those in the ports of Rosario, Santos or Rio, it is becoming a centre for Europe-bound cocaine, smuggled from the Paraguay and Parana rivers, as well as other land routes. As such, cocaine seizures have constantly increased: 134 kg of cocaine were seized in 2015, 148 in 2016, 144 in 2017, 586 in 2018, and 12.042 kg in 2019. There was a noticeable spike in seizures in late 2019, when several large cocaine shipments were seized in Uruguay or after coming out of the country. One among them, a cargo ship seized in Hamburg, was a particularly eye-opening event: the ship contained four tons of cocaine with an estimated value of  € 1 billion, the largest-ever cocaine shipment seizure in Germany. Moreover, recent activities of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital, PCC), Brazil’s largest criminal organisation, seem to be reinforcing the problem. It is unknown how much power the organisation has in the country, but it is clear that PCC’s interest in Uruguay is increasing. In December 2019, a PCC cell was dismantled, and the police claimed that the group had recruited 84 criminals in Uruguay.

Drug trafficking and clashes among criminal organisations may well be the short-term cause of violence in the country; however, there are also long-term underlying causes that facilitate violence. Drug trafficking organisations use violence to appropriate the territory, clientele, routes, and other assets of their rivals. Generally, this type of violence occurs among criminal organisations that are active in the same territory, where simultaneously the state plays a limited role. Studies have shown that the absence of the state and of clear and effective norms facilitate the increase of violence. Hence, phenomena such as homicides related to organised crime, drug markets, and gangs can be understood as a consequence of a weak or non-existent state monopoly of power in specific territories.

Ungoverned spaces provide a safe haven for lethal criminal groups that pose a constant threat to individual security. These areas are not uncommon in Latin America: favelas and villa miserias are broadly uncontrolled and unregulated urban areas that exist in several countries in the region. As formal state structures do not provide public goods to certain segments of the population, other actors involved in illicit activities step in and take on the functionally equivalent role of the state by monopolising violence, asserting authority and identity, providing parallel justice mechanisms, and establishing informal economic opportunities.

Urban fragmentation and clustered violence

The metropolitan area of Montevideo includes 62% of the total population of the country on a surface that amounts to 10% of the national territory. It is in Montevideo where the biggest urban problems are, constituting the phenomena of urban violence as one of the most worrying social processes of contemporary Uruguay. With a homicide rate of 16.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018, approximately 54% of all homicides in the country occur in its capital. Additionally, and confirming previous research on crime patterns, homicides are not dispersed proportionally throughout the territory. Violence and crime often tend to cluster around a small number of places, people, and behaviours and Montevideo is no exception. According to official data, homicides are concentrated in specific areas within the city, with 44.4% of homicides occurring in only three sectional districts out of 25: Sectional 17 (Casavalle), Sectional 24 (Casabo-Cerro) and Sectional 18 (Piedras Blancas-Punta de Rieles). These districts have homicide rates higher than 30 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The consequence of high levels of violence not only carries a human and economic cost but also tarnishes basic state legitimacy, which in turn foments more citizens to act outside the law. When institutions are perceived to be unjust, weak, or ineffective, citizens withdraw their support, contributing to weakened social control mechanisms and higher levels of violence.

The population of these neighbourhoods not only suffers the consequences of high levels of violence but also copes with extremely precarious living standards. Social and territorial fragmentation and economic deprivation take on an unusual strength in these neighbourhoods. Social disorganisation theory argues that an extreme concentration of social disadvantages in neighbourhoods creates a distinctly different social and structural environment that facilitates crime.  Data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) shows that these neighbourhoods are some of the poorest in the city, with low income levels, low levels of education, little presence of health services, high levels of unsatisfied basic needs, significant levels of overcrowding, and limited provision of basic services, such as public lighting and sanitation. In short, these neighbourhoods have limited presence of the state and have characteristics that enable criminal organisations to prosper.

According to O’Donnell (1993), state theories are often based on the assumption that there is a high degree of homogeneity in both the territorial and functional domains of the state and of the social order that it provides and supports. As such, it is assumed that public policies have a similar impact and effectiveness throughout its population. In Montevideo, instead, deep economic and social segregation has generated urban fragmentation, thus creating territories where the Uruguayan state is no longer a guarantor of order and security. Marcuse (1989) introduced the concept of the “quartered city”, which refers to fragmented cities that mirror a deep sense of social division. Urban fragmentation facilitates the appearance of conflicts and violence as parts of the city suffer from a reduction of private investments and from neglected public services. These areas thereby become spaces of stigmatisation, which in turn encourages new waves of desertion of the middle classes abandoning those areas and deepening the social gap.

In Uruguay, most of the public policies that have been carried out to raise the welfare of the urban poor have neglected the problems of their integration with the rest of society. Policymakers assumed that, by improving the living conditions of certain segments of the population, citizens would be able to establish (or re-establish) meaningful links across existing social barriers. That, however, does not seem to be the case. Previous studies have shown how the socio-economic gap between wealthy and poor neighbourhoods has increased over the past 15 years: for example, the gap between the most and least educated households was higher in 2017 than in 2007. It would seem that Uruguay’s economic and social improvements have been more significant in neighbourhoods that were already better positioned, which implies a deepened gap between neighbourhoods during the same period of time when violence increased. The signs of deterioration are undeniable: Montevideo is witnessing not only a process of increasing violence and criminality, but also of increasing urban fragmentation – two developments whose link to each other we need to better understand to reduce violence.

In need of a present state

Structural disadvantages, urban fragmentation, disparities in public services, and the increase in violence have a common denominator: a weak and ineffective state.  To solve these issues, the state must recover its lost territory in specific urban areas, not only by improving its security services and imposing order, but also by improving the most basic services and reintegrating fragmented neighbourhoods into the rest of society. Strong institutions and effective policies are needed to neutralise the effects of rising violent crime. This strategy presupposes, above all, a significant increase of the presence of the state in the most vulnerable areas.

Each city and, indeed, each neighbourhood within a city has its own specific security risk factors that need to be addressed through careful policy-making. Local development entails the design of concrete, data-driven, and measurable policies by municipal and central government agencies, in addition to an effective coordination between the different levels of governance. For the Uruguayan state to be once again a guarantor of order and security, it is essential that innovative policy-makers in public security understand the cross-cutting nature of security problems and therefore focus their efforts on the development of holistic policies.

Gonzalo Croci is a PhD candidate at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at UCL and a consultant for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC). Gonzalo holds an MSc in Latin American Studies from the University of Oxford and an MPP from the Hertie School of Governance.

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