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Crime, Drugs, Sex and the Dominican Republic

Crime, Drugs, Sex and the Dominican Republic

by Ginnie Bedggood

Recent CNN coverage of the Dominican Republic as a drug runners’ haven has led to increased concern over the impact of this on tourism, one of the staples of the Dominican economy.

In truth, the Dominican Republic has always played its part in narcotrafficking, for at least the last 20 years. It was used as a transhipment point receiving drugs from Latin America for onward transmission to the US. This trade left all but the country's politicians and some high-ranking military officers largely untouched. The population if they knew about it at all shrugged their shoulders; the politicians and military involved pocketed their payoffs and those few foreigners caught smuggling were given long jail sentences.

The dawn of the new millennium brought a shift in modus operandi. This was facilitated by a Government which was elected on a populist platform and proceeded to impoverish the very people who voted it into power. The collapse of the Banco Intercontinental in 2003 threw the Dominican Republic into the sort of debt which will probably take the country fifteen years from which to extract itself. Baninter produced the crisis it did because the President at the time decided that creditors should be paid back in full rather than the amount stipulated in law; most of the larger creditors were his friends, family and supporters. At about the same time Latin American drug lords decided to pay off the politicians and military in kind rather than cash. As inflation spiralled upwards and the value of the peso fell by 100% those receiving 'kind' rather than cash needed to create a market in order to liquidate their 'assets'.

Sadly, thus it was that cocaine and particularly crack entered the barrios. The market was created by Dominicans on Dominicans. In the space of little more than 5 years the Dominican Republic changed from being drug-free to being just like everywhere else. With the added problem that law enforcement is both weak and corrupt - the current head of the DNCD (Drug Enforcement Authority) fired over 400 agents in the first few months of taking up the reins. According to CNN the total purge was far greater: the Head of the DNCD, General Ramirez Ferreira, ‘says he's just cleaned his ranks of about 3,000 corrupt drug agents, replacing them with young, untainted agents right out of school’. Untainted for now. The pressures to conform, or at the very least, to ‘look the other way’ are huge. But corrupt law enforcement is not the only problem – lack of interdiction resources also weighs heavily in the equation. Then there are members of the judiciary who have handed out some findings which beggar belief or at least lead to the conclusion that they, too, are beneficiaries of this growth industry.

Lower down the chain of command there can be no doubt that crime has increased in the DR directly as a result of the drugs industry. As in other countries, turf wars ensue in the barrios as rival gangs fight over puntos. Most of the gangs are armed, not always with legal weapons. Addicts are impelled to find resources for their next fix so theft and break-ins to homes have increased.

So what is the impact of all this on tourists, travellers and residents?

Amazingly, the vast majority of tourists who visit the Dominican Republic have a safe, trouble-free holiday and many return time and time again. Tourism and remittances from Dominicans living abroad are the major bulwarks of the economy and even dealers are aware that they upset this at their peril. Guests at some of the all inclusive resorts have suffered a few problems from addicts who need resources for their next fix, yet are residents of a country where half the population live on less than £1 a day. Such instances are rare. In February 2007 a French Canadian lottery winner discovered that the DR is not the place for the very nouveau riche who cannot resist the urge to display their winnings ostentatiously. He lost a finger when he was attacked by a man with a machete.

Taking organised tours is not a problem unless the traveller does not want to be surrounded by tourists; kidnapping can happen in the DR but it does not happen to tourists and rarely to foreign residents. It did happen to a US female resident of Samaná on the north east coast in September 2007 but was resolved speedily and in an exemplary fashion with no payment of ransom or physical harm to the victim and with the captors arrested three days after the crime which should have served as a deterrent. Unfortunately, a few weeks later some of those arrested made bail in what was perceived as an all too easy fashion.

For dedicated travellers used to ploughing an independent furrow more caution is now advisable than was necessary ten years ago. Independent travellers are likely to want to go off the beaten path and into the back of beyond. This is still doable but best done in groups and not alone. Alternatively the services of someone known and trusted can be used as guide or translator; but this means 'known and trusted' not a motoconcho driver who happens to be following you as you stride out on foot. It might be that he does not understand the traveller's love of walking (most Dominicans don't walk when they can catch a concho) but he could be an opportunist and the easiest way to avoid problems is to prevent them. Probably the safest means of independent travelling is to hire a car and a driver; many chauffeurs have legal weapons permits and will protect the traveller in the event of difficulties.

The most noticeable impact of drug associated crime has been on the residents of the DR. Expat residents are not singled out for special attention unless their behaviour is perceived as an open invitation to become a crime victim. Petty thieves seem to operate in an equal opportunity mode with Dominicans being victims far more frequently than expats simply because more Dominicans live in the DR than do expats. What is for certain is that, for those who have a choice, choice of location and adequate home protection measures are a must. Not that this is so very different from other parts of the world. The difference lays in the weak, under-resourced and sometimes complicit law enforcement agencies.

Nor should it be forgotten that some of the expat population are active participants in the drugs industry, either as users or, even more lamentably, as dealers or exporters. Stiff prison sentences are usually meted out to those expats who abuse the trust of the host nation by involving themselves in the drugs business but it is a fact of life that where corruption exists it is always possible to buy one’s way out of trouble.

Whilst the numbers of expat residents complicit in the drugs business is relatively small, far greater numbers of both expat residents and foreign tourists arrive on the shores of the Dominican Republic looking for cheap sex. The Dominican Government is working to change the perception of the DR as a sex tourism destination and there is now far greater willingness to arrest and prosecute foreigners who abuse the nation’s children. Such abusers may convince themselves that they are contributing to the economy of the DR by ‘buying’ a child for a week and may point to the willingness of a few Dominican parents to enter into such a negotiation, but in reality they are fooling no-one but themselves. The poverty which impels crack users to steal is also relevant to those families who sell their child’s ‘services’. Both are opportunistic in the sense that removal of demand would work wonders in reduction of supply.

Foreign predators are not just breaking Dominican law but many are breaking the laws of their homeland which cover offences carried out on foreign soil. And there is a growing band of expat residents prepared to involve themselves in reporting such activity to international law enforcement agencies. After all, the Viagra brigade predators are not difficult to spot. A pair of overweight North American or European men aged in their 60’s or 70’s having the time of their lives in a bar while accompanied by a couple of bored or scared 13 year old Dominican girls (or boys) can frequently be a telltale sign.

Not all foreigners ‘looking for love’ do so ‘in all the wrong places’ – not all are child molesters. The adult sex industry thrives despite the best efforts of the Dominican Government to promote the DR as a family destination. Tourists who have been here before have noted that the putas are getting pushier particularly in certain locations like Sosua on the north coast and Boca Chica in the south. Many ply a second trade as pickpockets. Some tourists and residents of these towns have found that whilst rejecting the overt massage of the service first offered they have inadvertently become victims of a covert massage as wallets are extracted from back pockets.

None of this straight talk about crime should deter travellers from visiting this island which has so much to offer. It is true that the drug problem has escalated from 'none at all' to 'quite a bit' in a very short space of time and that the law enforcement authorities have been chasing fast in order to stand still. However, the Government has now called on US help to prevent the drugs arriving in the DR and some spectacular interceptions have been made. It would, perhaps, be churlish to comment that if the demand for illegal substances in the US did not exist in the first place, there would be less need for the supply. A few of the expat residents in the DR have indeed decided to sell up and move on as a result of unfortunate experiences like robberies; however, this is not the majority and indeed new expat residents move to the DR every week. These are not always fully informed about what they are moving to and thus they are more likely to become victims than those who have researched and understand.

All of the above information needs to be set within the context of what is happening in the rest of the world. The Dominican Republic is no different from other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America so there is no need to remove it from the holiday destinations list! And for DR expat residents, life is not on a par with certain other Latin American countries where more of a fortress mentality is necessary! Vigilant travellers will have a happy experience and will return, as many do, for multiple visits. Some, such as yours truly, may end up living here.

And, no, I'm not leaving!

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