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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Uruguay is losing its reputation as a Latin American success story

smallcaught in the middle A politically polarized Brazil and an economically dysfunctional Argentina, Uruguay looks like a model country. More than 95% of electricity comes from solar, wind, water and biofuels. Same-sex couples can marry. Residents can buy marijuana from pharmacies. In international comparisons, Uruguay is ranked as the most peaceful and least corrupt country in South America. Other leaders holed up in palaces; Uruguay’s president, Luis Lacalle Pou, worked in a glass office overlooking an apartment building.

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That glittering reputation has recently dimmed. In February, Alejandro Astesiano – until recently Mr Lacalle Pou’s head of security – was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for influence peddling, criminal association and leaking state secrets. Prosecutors said Mr. Astesiano sold fake birth certificates to the Russians so they could obtain Uruguayan passports. Mr Astesiano has also been investigated for espionage, including targeting opposition senators (which he denies). Meanwhile, there has been a recent spike in criminal activity. Many wondered whether the country would remain a law-abiding exception in violent areas.

Conservative Mr Lacalle Pou was deeply embarrassed by the downfall of Mr Astesiano, a former policeman. He said he had no indication that his former bodyguard was up to no good. But in the two decades they have known each other, Mr Astesiano has run into numerous offenses with the law, including police investigations into allegations of fraud and theft.

This is not the only difficulty facing Mr Lacalle Pou’s government. In 2021, the tourism minister resigned amid corruption allegations, which he has denied. That year, accused drug lord Sebastien Masset escaped capture in Dubai after Uruguayan officials issued new passports. In December 2022, the deputy foreign minister resigned over the case. In January, the environment minister resigned after falsely claiming to have a business degree.

Mr Marset is believed to have played a role in the events that turned the country into an international crime hub. According to investigative agency InSight Crime, criminal gangs transported assault weapons and ammunition between Argentina and Brazil through Uruguay. Illegal fishing fleets are taking advantage of the loose controls in the capital Montevideo’s Freeport.

Organized crime researcher Nicolás Centurión said the security situation had been deteriorating for decades. But covid-19 has exacerbated the problem. With flights grounded, gangs turned to stacking Andean cocaine on containers bound for Europe via Montevideo. Uruguay’s murder rate has nearly doubled over the past decade, reaching 11.2 per 100,000 inhabitants by 2022.

Mr Lacalle Pou may be able to recover from these recent scandals. According to Rafael Porzecanski of Opción Consultores, a pollster, corruption is not widespread in Uruguay. In February, the president fired the police chief who had been linked to Mr. Astesiano. Parliament is grilling the government over Mr Marset’s escape. Even so, crime remains a top concern for voters. Mr Lacalle Pou cannot run again, but the stink could jeopardize the conservatives’ chances in next year’s election.

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