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Uruguay is not an island

Uruguay is experiencing the main political crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1985 and the trigger is so scandalous that it sounds almost like fiction for the serene and orderly country. Until now, two of the main government ministers, two undersecretaries, and the president’s chief advisor have resigned. However, this is not the end of the matter, as the president has tried to do, but the beginning of a long legal road that may lead the country to who knows where.

The bomb was detonated with the diffusion of audios in which the now former Foreign Minister suggested to his undersecretary to lose his telephone to hide his communications with the undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior from the Prosecutor’s Office. The information stored in the phone demonstrated that all the hierarchs related to the express delivery of the passport to the Uruguayan drug trafficker Sebastián Marset, arrested in Dubai, knew who it was.

Despite this, the Uruguayan authorities handed over the document in record time. This fact did not allow the Paraguayan government, which was processing the international arrest warrant among other causes for the murder of the main Paraguayan anti-mafia prosecutor in Colombia, to issue the warrant in time. And so the drug trafficker, with his brand-new passport, was able to leave the United Arab Emirates and vanish into hiding.

The enormous impact of the audio is that it dismantled the main argument that the hierarchs involved had been using for more than a year to justify the delivery of the passport. On August 22, 2022, while being questioned by the opposition for the issuance of the document, the then Foreign Minister affirmed before the Parliament that, in November 2021, when the passport was delivered, “nobody knew who Marset was”.

With these audios were also made public the communications in which the undersecretary of the Interior Ministry commented via WhatsApp to the former undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry that he was “a dangerous and powerful drug trafficker, and it would be terrible if he were to go free”. In addition, in a statement before the Prosecutor’s Office, the former vice Foreign Minister affirmed that the president’s main advisor told her that he destroyed the report with the communications between the hierarchs, a document that was part of the Foreign Ministry file, although the president has denied it to the press.

When the scandal broke out, the President was on tour in the United States. The foreign minister resigned immediately and as soon as the president set foot in the country, he accepted the resignation of the other three officials. In the long-awaited press conference, which the country had been waiting for 3 days and which lasted 16 minutes, including the answers to the only 4 questions the press was allowed to ask. Lacalle Pou, instead of clarifying the doubts, concluded that the case was in the hands of the justice system but that the passport had been issued legally.

After the dismantling of the argument that nobody knew who the narco was, the idea that the passport was issued correctly became the main narrative to justify its delivery. And as the hours went by, one by one the leaders of the different parties of the ruling coalition, who at the beginning had shown concern and, in some cases, evident discomfort with the audios, began to embrace this new argument that has become the government’s shield.

According to the president, the government had no other way out than to deliver the passport according to the regulations activated during the administration of José Mujica. However, although this regulation allowed the issuance of the document, the decree also established alternatives. One of them, for example, is that instead of issuing the passport, a document may be sent to allow the citizen to make a return trip to Uruguay. Another alternative is that in exceptional cases — evidently, this was one of them — the issuance is at the discretion of the authorities.

Therefore, contrary to what President Lacalle Pou claims, the government did not “have” to issue the passport, it “could” issue it, and it did so knowing that it was handing it over to “a dangerous and heavy narco”, according to the former undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior himself.

The facts are dramatic, but there is more. The meeting to define whether to present the communications in the interpellation was called by the president through his advisor. The indication was that those summoned should enter the Executive Tower through the building’s garage. The meeting was held a few meters away from the President’s office, and he was even present, although it is not clear whether he spent two, five, or ten minutes.

There are still many issues that have not been explained in this complicated and delicate matter. If there was no illegality, why did some top government officials, three of them the president’s friends, get entangled in so many contradictions and even destroy information? As the president says, the matter is in the hands of justice.

Nonetheless, in the absence of clarification and considering that we are talking about a dangerous and powerful drug trafficker, the doubts about whether this is the reflection of an act of corruption or, even worse, of drug trafficking infiltration in the Uruguayan state, do not seem unjustified. Especially considering that even before the current government, suspicious cases of links between drug trafficking and state officials have been emerging.

Despite everything, at this time, the governability of the country is not at stake. One year before the next elections, the coalition partners have decided to close ranks behind the president and the opposition has so far opted for moderation. The idea of impeachment of the president is hardly mentioned and everyone seems to agree that the justice system will be the one to decide.

This scandal, although the most serious, is not the first of this government. So far, 15 ministers have resigned or have been removed, and 7 for mismanagement, the largest replacement due to questioning since the return to democracy. In addition, undersecretaries and numerous technical positions have been replaced, among them the entire police leadership.

But it is the case centered on the president’s former head of security, the Astesiano case, accused, among other matters, of managing Uruguayan passports for Russian citizens with false identity documents, and which is also in court, which until now linked the president, in one way or another, to more scandals. Among them, the crime of abuse of office in the use of official channels to find out the destination of a trip of his wife after they had separated.

This succession of facts has led the ruling party to develop another argument, that of bad company. An idea in the form of a shield that seeks to safeguard the president from his entourage, blaming only those directly involved in the eavesdropping and messages in the different cases. At this point, however, it is difficult to believe that the president is surrounded and seems to be at the center of this matter. But this will be decided by the courts. What is clear is if Lacalle Pou is still president, it is evidently because, although serene and orderly, Uruguay is not an island.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Periodista, Máster en Periodismo de la Universidad de Barcelona y en Estudios Latinoamericanos de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid.


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