March 21, 2023

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Uruguay’s passport scandal forces reckoning on corruption

5 min read

A scandal over fake passports in Uruguay has ballooned into accusations of political espionage and corruption that could threaten the nation’s reputation as a beacon of stability in Latin America.

It started in September with the arrest of a personal bodyguard to President Luis Lacalle Pou, Alejandro Astesiano, on charges that he led a criminal ring that for a fee issued counterfeit Uruguayan passports to foreigners, including possibly Russians fleeing their country after its invasion of Ukraine. Astesiano has denied the charges against him.

Since then, the scandal has expanded, after online chats obtained from Astesiano’s phone during the probe were published by a local newspaper, La Diaria. One set of exchanges suggested that Astesiano leveraged his government contacts to sell software developed by the interior ministry to wealthy business executives, who then used it to track opposition senators — an allegation he has denied.

These controversies have raised questions around whether corruption within Uruguay’s political system has gone unnoticed. The focus has now shifted to what Lacalle Pou will do to safeguard the rule of law and hold accountable those implicated.

“This is a key moment for Uruguay,” said Ricardo Gil Iribarne, a former anti-corruption official who spearheaded the country’s transparency and public ethics board under the previous leftwing administration. “It is much more than the passports,” he said.

According to investigators, Astesiano, a former policeman, used his close relationship to the president to obtain fake birth certificates that said the recipient had Uruguayan parents, therefore allowing them to claim citizenship.

Ex deputy foreign minister Carolina Ache Batlle
Deputy foreign minister Carolina Ache Batlle resigned on December 19 amid questions about how a man wanted for drug trafficking had obtained Uruguayan travel documents © Andres Cuenca/Reuters

Prosecutors believe dozens, possibly hundreds, of Russians have obtained Uruguayan citizenship since 2013, according to a media briefing by chief prosecutor Gabriela Fossati. The scheme has drawn more attention since the start of the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine, which has prompted a wave of emigration from Russia, in part to Latin America.

One of the principal lines of investigation is whether the passports were intended to be used to “obtain visas to the United States” or allow holders to move freely in Europe, where Uruguayans can enter without a visa for up to six months in most countries, prosecutors said during a court hearing regarding the case.

Lacalle Pou, 49, has denied any knowledge of his security chief using his position to allegedly sell false documents for up to $120,000 per passport. He has promised a full investigation with his co-operation: “We are calm about the actions taken so far,” the president said.

But the leaked messages from Astesiano’s phone have further complicated the case for the government, threatening to implicate members of Lacalle’s cabinet. Pressure has been building for more officials to hand over their phones so investigators can investigate further.

Uruguay’s interior minister, Luis Alberto Héber, denied wrongdoing during a Senate hearing in November. Astesiano has said in a hearing that he did not have access to the state’s software — which is only meant to be used by authorised officials — and was merely bragging to his clients. The prosecutor’s office said that “there is no certainty” that Astesiano had access to such software.

At the same time as these controversies were unfolding, other messages leaked from a separate probe by the country’s economic-crimes prosecutor have appeared to implicate high-ranking officials from the foreign and interior ministries in providing an accused drug trafficker in South America, Sebastián Marset, with travel documents.

Marset, 31, who reportedly leads the First Uruguayan Cartel (Primer Cartel Uruguayo, or PCU), is wanted by Interpol for allegedly transporting 16 tonnes of cocaine between Paraguay and Europe via Uruguay and remains on the run. He was detained in Dubai in 2021 while travelling with a forged passport from Paraguay. A new Uruguayan passport was swiftly issued to Marset in 2021 that allowed him to leave the United Arab Emirates legally.

Uruguay’s foreign and interior ministers appeared alongside members of the ruling coalition and other authorities at a press conference to discuss the passport granted to a wanted drug trafficker
Uruguay’s foreign and interior ministers appeared alongside members of the ruling coalition and other authorities at a press conference to discuss the passport granted to a wanted drug trafficker © Dante Fernandez/AFP/Getty Images

In messages released as part of a public information request made by the Uruguayan opposition, officials from the interior and foreign ministry stressed he was “very dangerous” and questioned the processing of his passport, although it was ultimately approved.

Deputy foreign minister Carolina Ache Batlle resigned on December 19 amid the fallout, and ​​the attorney-general’s office is investigating how the documents were issued, according to Uruguayan media.

Leaders of Uruguay’s leftwing opposition have called for both the interior and foreign ministers to resign. “If it is known that he [Marset] was a dangerous drug trafficker and still the steps were taken so that he could access a national passport, there is incredible negligence,” Fernando Pereira, president of the Broad Front party, said on December 14.

Political scientist Vicky Gadea said the long-term costs could be “extremely high” for the country’s relatively young democratic institutions if the revelations are not properly addressed and those involved not held to account.

“There’s a perception among those living in Uruguay that we’re on a level with some of the most solid democracies anywhere in the world,” Gadea, said. If people “start to question how our democracy works”, it could take years to recover trust and hurt the country’s international reputation, she said.

Uruguay remains the least corrupt country in Latin America, according to Transparency International. Polls consistently show the population of about 3.5mn has widespread public faith in the justice system.

“We’re the best student in a class of badly behaved children,” Gil Iribarne said, referring to the Latin American region. Uruguay could “fall to the levels” of other countries where there is growing distrust in state institutions, like Brazil and Colombia, if these cases were not properly investigated and the public reassured.

Critics say Lacalle Pou has tried to minimise the seriousness of the revelations and distance himself from those involved at a time when he must be firm. The government argues it is letting justice play out and a verdict will be reached. The presidential office did not return requests for comment.

“Uruguayans want to see there are consequences to actions,” said Gil Iribarne, “The public still care and they’re getting angry.”

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