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The arrest of the Uruguayan president’s head of security in an alleged passport scam marks the country’s second such scandal and raises questions about whether official corruption has too long gone unnoticed.
Alejandro Astesiano was arrested on September 25 on charges that he led a criminal ring that provided fake birth certificates stating that Russian citizens had Uruguayan parents, according to the country’s Attorney General’s Office.
Prosecutors stated that Astesiano met with his co-conspirators at his office in the Executive Tower, which serves as the official workplace for the president of Uruguay. While investigators have so far found around 20 instances of Russian citizens gaining Uruguayan passports in this way, there could be many more.
“There are hundreds or perhaps thousands of falsifications of Uruguayan documents,” prosecutor Gabriela Fossati told El País this week.
SEE ALSO: Can Uruguay Adapt to Its New Role in International Drug Trade?
While President Luis Lacalle Pou denied any knowledge of the case before Astesiano’s arrest, the two men had known each other for many years. Astesiano had previously been investigated more than 20 times over the past two decades, including multiple times for fraud, according to El País.
The Interior Ministry has also opened an investigation into whether Astesiano’s case history was tampered with as President Lacalle Pou was reportedly informed in 2020 and 2021 that his head of security had faced no prior legal cases against him.
Authorities were well aware of issues concerning the country’s processes for awarding new citizenships, according to Ricardo Gil Iribarne, former president of the government’s Transparency and Public Ethics Board (Junta de Transparencia y Ética Pública – JUTEP).
“Irregularities reported for at least two years by officials of the National Directorate of Civil Identification (Dirección Nacional de Identificación Civil – DNIC) in the procedures for the nationalization of children and grandchildren of Uruguayans supposedly born abroad were ignored,” he told InSight Crime.
This is the second case related to passports to trouble Lacalle Pou’s government. Uruguayan drug trafficker Sebastián Marset was held in Dubai in October 2021 after being caught traveling with a false Paraguayan passport. He contacted authorities at home, he was swiftly given a new Uruguayan passport and disappeared. His current whereabouts are unknown.
The Attorney General’s Office has since ordered an investigation into how Marset was granted his passport, according to Uruguayan media reports.
While Uruguay continues to improve its position on international rankings tracking government transparency, several investigations have troubled the government of President Lacalle Pou this year.
Besides these two passport-related investigations, the wife of Uruguay’s education minister was arrested in February on money laundering charges related to the long-running Odebrecht corruption scandal.
And more questions have arisen surrounding the men protecting the president. While Lacalle Pou has denied any knowledge of Astesiano’s criminal record, Uruguayan media Radio Sarandi published a full investigation about the members of the presidential guard in September 2021. Besides Astesiano, his second-in-command was once under investigation for being part of a police unit that reportedly carried out extortion and demanded bribes. A third member of Astesiano’s unit was similarly removed from the Montevideo police force on suspicion of pocketing money seized from a robbery.
SEE ALSO: Behind the Manhunt for Sebastián Marset, Founder of the First Uruguayan Cartel
For Gil Iribarne, the lack of recognition of corruption within Uruguay’s political system has led to a lack of basic preventive measures being enacted and warnings being ignored until it is too late.
While he praised the fact that Uruguay remains the least corrupt country in Latin America, according to Transparency International, he stated that “corruption exists in Uruguay, as it does all around the world, but if it is not recognized, you cannot work to resolve it.”
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