Uruguayans turn tough on crime to tackle growing violence

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Long famed for being a peaceful haven in South America, Uruguay is experiencing what some analysts and international organizations describe as an "epidemic" of violence.

Homicides in Uruguay increased by 46 percent last year, reaching an official rate of 11.8 per 100,000 people. The figure is far below the alarming homicide rates, often fed by drug wars and gang violence, in countries like Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. But Uruguay's homicide rate is now higher than most South American nations and is at a record high for the small country of about 3.5 million people.

Many Uruguayans have decided that drastic measures are in order. In less than a year, some 407,000 people — about a sixth of eligible voters — have signed a formal petition calling for a referendum to implement tough policies against crime. It will be held at the same time as the presidential election in October, amplifying crime as a campaign issue.

The initiative seeks life imprisonment for crimes such as multiple murders, contract killings and the rape and murder of minors. It would also give the military a greater role in domestic security by creating a 2,000-member national guard, eliminate probation for serious crimes and allow night raids with the approval of a judge.

The government announced this week that Uruguay saw 414 homicides last year, up from 283 in 2017.

Uruguay's figures are low when compared to countries like Mexico, Brazil and El Salvador, which have 27, 30 and 50 homicides per 100,000 people, respectively. But Uruguay's rate now is double that of neighboring Argentina and triple that of Chile. And some fear it will only worsen.

Montevideo police chief Mario Layera told local newspaper El Observador that the country was on course to become as violent as El Salvador, which has one of the world's highest homicide rates as a result of gang violence.

The referendum drive was led by Sen. Jorge Larranaga, a member of the opposition National Party. It faced opposition from the government and indifference from most other opposition leaders.

But the public was enthusiastic.

"(They'd say) I won't vote for you, but I'll sign this," he said. "The people have had enough. They want it to stop. Many signed because this is the strongest stand against crime and the government's security policy."

Diego Sanjurjo, a political scientist who specializes in security issues, said the violence stems from a sharp increase in thefts and other property crimes.

"That makes illegal markets grow and ever more people are involved in them," he said. "There are more people robbing, which increases the probability of a homicide. And it also increases the people who settle their conflicts outside the law: The criminals kill one another."

He blamed the ruling Broad Front party for failing to address rising violence as a major problem, saying it "clearly underestimated crime."

Officials at the Interior Ministry in charge of security issues declined to comment.

Rising crime has been a weak point for the ruling party since it won power in 2005. Initially, the party rejected complaints, saying they were fed by sensationalist press accounts.

With time, explanations shifted. Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi recently said that homicides are on the rise as a result of turf wars among criminals, as well as 2017 changes in a new criminal code that reduced the number of crimes for which offenders can be held in pre-trial detention and made it easier to negotiate shorter sentences via plea bargains. It was meant to speed up an overwhelmed judicial system and prevent hundreds of inmates from being kept behind bars without conviction.

"Uruguayan criminals believe they will not be caught and that if they are, they will be released shortly," he said.

President Tabare Vazquez won 2014 elections after promising to lower violent robberies by 30 percent. But official figures showed a 53.8 increase in violent robberies in 2018 compared to a year earlier.

Even the president's family has been affected by the crime wave.

"One of my grandsons had his cellphone taken from his hand by two people on a motorcycle while waiting for the bus. One of my sons was victim of a breaking and entering," Vazquez said at an official event.

Graciela Barrera says that she'll never forget the day in 2009 when someone came into her poultry shop and gave her the news that her son, Alejandro, had been shot dead by a group of thieves. After a year of mourning, she began an association that helps the families of victims and visits inmates, trying to raise awareness about the pain caused by violent crime.

Like many other crimes, the killing of Barrera's son, is still unsolved. But as an anti-violence advocate, Barrera did not sign the anti-crime petition. She agrees with the idea that criminals feel immune to law enforcement. But she also believes that the focus should be on improving education and revamping overcrowded prisons that have been compared to torture centers.

"We have an education problem. Thousands of young people grow up without putting any value on life," she said. "And we have a problem of impunity that leads to continued killings."

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