MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — First more than a half ton of cocaine was seized from a plane at a French airport. Then a shipping container with 4.6 tons of the drug was found in Hamburg, Germany, where authorities estimated its street value at a staggering $1.1 billion.
The departure point of both shipments: Uruguay, South America’s smallest Spanish-speaking country, one that seldom makes the headlines for international drug trafficking.
The shipments in May and July set off alarms in the country and led its customs director to resign. Then German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that Uruguay had become a world drug trafficking hub in recent years. Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic said they had noticed a change in cocaine trafficking patterns from Uruguay.
Amid secrecy, senior government officials met with customs agents and exporters to find out what was happening. One participant said it appears that in Uruguay’s bid to speed up trade and lower export costs, customs controls have been neglected and the roving eye of the global drug trade — always searching for weak points — found an easy shipment point in this country of just 3.4 million inhabitants, where exports represented 12.6% of its gross domestic product.