Long famed for being a peaceful haven in South America, Uruguay is experiencing what some analysts and international organizations call 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 country of 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 petition calling for a referendum on tough policies against crime.