Once a haven of peace, Uruguay unnerved by spike of violence

Montevideo (AFP) –


In Montevideo's Cerro neighborhood, a working-class area of the Uruguayan capital, the anguish is palpable after the deadly shooting of Antony Macaris, a teenager with a promising future in golf.

The 18-year-old was shot dead outside a friend's house on April 24 by two thugs who demanded his rucksack.

He had been the pride of the local golf club where he ran a program to teach youngsters in this poor western district, just a short drive from the city center.

"He had a chance to get ahead and he took it. But this place didn't let him," said Nelson Perez, the club's vice president.

"It is the worst thing that could have happened," he told AFP, saying that for many youngsters, sport offered "a way out."

"We are going to redouble our efforts to give these kids a hand. They're not going to beat us."

Early on Monday, a 22-year-old delivery boy was shot dead, this time at a minimarket in Montevideo's upscale Pocitos neighborhood as he tried to protect the cashier from a gunman who wanted to rob the till.

Both youngsters were the latest victims of a growing number of murders in Uruguay, which has a population of 3.5 million and has long been considered a haven of peace in volatile Latin America.

According to Observatorio Fundapro, which monitors security issues in Uruguay, there were 147 murders in the first four months of the year, compared with 81 in the same period in 2017 -- an increase of more than 80 percent.

Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi said the wave of violence meant it was likely the death toll would increase beyond that of 2017, when 283 people were killed.

- 'A sense of guilt' -

In 2016, figures released by InSight Crime, which monitors violence in 19 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, showed Uruguay occupying 15th place in terms of murders per 100,000 people.

With longer-term statistics showing the murder rate rising from 5.7 per 100,000 to 8.4 between 2005-2015, there has been growing criticism of the ruling Frente Amplio (Broad Front), which took power 13 years ago and has been accused of being soft on crime.

"For a period under this administration, there were difficulties in understanding the nature of repression, which was something to do with philosophical and ideological questions," explains Uruguay's former police chief Robert Parrado.

"When this is translated into reality, the word 'impunity' arises and a sense of guilt about exercising authority."

The Frente Amplio has included several former guerrilla fighters from the radical leftist Tupamaros movement that took up arms against Uruguay's "bourgeois state" in the 1960s and 70s -- among them Jose Mujica, who served as president from 2010-2015, and Bonomi, the current interior minister.

Parrado, who is also a psychologist, believes the state has lost ground, giving criminals a sense that they have "much more freedom."

"We need to assess whether there is a strong rule of state of law. Just looking at the numbers doesn't tell you anything," he says, indicating the need to look beyond them to see what is driving this wave of violence.

- Growing safety fears -

Uruguay's reputation as a peaceful haven does not necessarily correspond with how people themselves feel about security.

In the 2017 Latinobarometro survey, 43 percent of Uruguayans flagged street violence as the most common problem, and only one in five said they were not worried about becoming a victim of such crime.

"We are convinced that the increase of violence in Uruguay is not due to the strengthening of criminal gangs but due to disputes between them," Bonomi recently told parliament.

Official figures show that 60 percent of murders are related to the settling of accounts between criminals, mainly over drug trafficking.

But the signs were already there.

In Uruguay, taxis have long had reinforced glass partitions separating the driver from his fare; security measures have been stepped up around football matches and other sporting events, and petrol stations are banned from taking cash during the night.

And now, incidents of thieves using gas canisters to rob automatic cash dispensers have become an almost daily occurrence.

- Deadly domestic violence -

Another issue worrying the population is the high number of women killed in incidents of domestic violence -- legally known as "femicide."

So far this year, 13 women have been killed with another three cases under examination. In 2017, there were 30 such cases.

The year before that, there were 24, or 1.3 per 100,000 women -- putting Uruguay seventh out of the subcontinent's 16 countries, according to the Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Teresa Herrera, a sociologist working with the Uruguayan Network Against Domestic Violence, said the numbers hadn't changed since 2004, but warned that if this year's trend continued, the figure would end up being "more than 30 women."

With the opposition calling for the interior minister to stand down, the government has little answer other than to point to Uruguay's relative stability in relation to the high crime levels of its neighbors.