The Dominican Republic: Security challenges, government responses and recommendations for the U.S.

The upcoming withdrawal of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Haiti (MINUSTAH) threatens to add to the security, crime and drug trafficking challenges the Dominican Republic already faces. Here’s how the U.S. can help.


With the end of its mandate on October 15th, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Haiti (MINUSTAH) withdrawal from the still-unstable and impoverished country, the nation most concerned is the Dominican Republic, its neighbor that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. In May 2017, anticipating the withdrawal of the 2,400 person force, the Dominican government of President Danilo Medina announced plans to re-enforce the Haiti-Dominican border with additional troops to guard against the expansion of unauthorized immigration, contraband and other problems likely to stem the deterioration in Haiti post-MINUSTAH. But the threat extends beyond the Dominican Republic to the United States.

In addition to the challenges posed by Haiti, the Dominican Republic is also an important hub of drug flows from South America to both the U.S. and Europe, with an estimated 120 tons of cocaine, 15 percent of global production, passing through the country annually. The enormous quantity of money involved corrupts the nation’s institutions, while struggles between criminal groups to control the business contribute to violence.

The blessed and cursed location of the Dominican Republic

The expansion of coca production in Colombia and the cooptation of the Venezuelan state by criminal elements have increased the volume of drugs passing through the Dominican Republic. Drug intercepts by Dominican authorities have increased from 10 tons in 2014, to 13 tons in 2015 to 20 tons in 2016. Complicating matters, the collapse of Venezuela’s economy has driven an increasing number of Venezuelan refugees to the island, some of who have been involved in the drug trade or other illicit activity.

Nature has both blessed and cursed the Dominican Republic. The nation lies in one of the principal zones affected by tropical storms, making humanitarian assistance and disaster response for the country and its neighbors a key mission of the Dominican military. At the time this article was written, the June to November hurricane season for the region was just beginning, with a delay in the arrival of the El Niño weather phenomenon, leading experts to forecast a higher than usual number of hurricanes and tropical storms.

Beyond such challenges, the Dominican Republic is also strongly affected by the future of neighboring Cuba, and its relationship with the United States. Proud Dominicans claim with bravado that their beaches are much better than those of their communist neighbor, yet if U.S.-Cuban relations improve following Raúl Castro’s resignation in 2018, increased Cuban access to U.S. commercial and tourism markets will present competition for the Dominican Republic. Of course, it is early to predict such dynamics given President Trump’s reversal on the Cuba policy.

Finally, the Dominican Republic, which maintains diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) is arguably one of the leading candidates in the Caribbean to switch and diplomatically recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC), given the breakdown of the truce between the two Chinese rivals, as signaled by the 2016 recognition of the PRC by Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe in Africa in 2016, and Panama in June 2017. Recognition of the PRC by the Dominican Republic would likely bring a significant influx of Chinese construction companies and players, including Chinese military contacts and weapons sales, to supplement the significant but low-key Chinese presence in the Dominican Republic retail sector. As in other Caribbean nations, such a change would also likely have domestic repercussions, with the influx of construction workers and Chinese businessmen increasing the size of the country’s small but important ethnic Chinese community, whose growth and perceived special treatment by the Dominican government fueled major protests in Santo Domingo in July 2013.

While not commonly recognized, the Dominican Republic is physically closer to U.S. territory than Cuba. A mere 81 miles of sea, the Mona Pass, separates Punta Cana, Dominican Republic from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Undocumented immigrants, drugs, and other contraband that reach Puerto Rico can pass from this point into the U.S. without further customs inspection or immigration controls. Moreover, the Dominican economy is closely connected to that of the U.S. through the multilateral CAFTA-DR free trade agreement. On the dark side of that close relationship and proximity, Dominican gangs such as the Trinitarios in New York have become significant narcotics distributors on the east coast of the United States.

The 1.5 million or more Dominican immigrants living in the U.S. make important contributions to that country, from its economy, to music, to baseball, and through family ties. At multiple levels, both good and bad, what happens to the Dominican Republic affects the security and prosperity of the United States.

The Dominican Republic’s Haiti problem

For many Dominicans, Haiti continues to be, directly or indirectly, the nations’ principal security challenge. Although international press coverage of the Dominican Republic’s treatment of Haitian immigrants has been strongly negative, many Dominicans feel that the international community does not adequately acknowledge how the sustained humanitarian crisis, criminality and weak governance in Haiti has burdened the Dominican Republic.

Dominican concerns about Haiti have deep roots in the Dominicans’ perception of their shared history. Within a year of Haiti’s 1804 independence, Haitian General Henri Christophe led a failed invasion of the Dominican side of the island, in which Haitian troops reportedly killed thousands of Dominicans and sacked the cities of Santiago and Moca. The Dominican Republic’s eventual achievement of independence in November 1821 lasted only two months before another Haitian invasion. For the next 22 years, the territory was subjected to a rule by Haiti widely considered harsh and exploitative, until Juan Pablo Duarte successfully freed the country from Haitian rule in February 1844. Haiti subsequently invaded its neighbor four more times before finally recognizing Dominican independence in 1874.

In the contemporary context, the situation of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic resembles that of Hispanic immigrants in the United States. Haitians, often undocumented, play an important role in the Dominican economy as providers of cheap labor in sectors such as agriculture (particularly the sugar plantations), construction and childcare. Nonetheless, Dominicans associate Haitians with a range of maladies in the country, including deforestation (with Haitians principally blamed for unauthorized cutting of Dominican trees to sell in Haiti as charcoal), contraband (including cocaine and other drugs), and disease (with outbreaks of cholera ascribed to poor sanitation within the Haitian immigrant community). Dominicans also see Haitians as contributing to the large informal economy in the country, which facilitates activities by criminal groups.

Today, the 10.6 million Dominican Republic population is believed to contain 800,000 or more Haitians. A 2013 Dominican Supreme Court ruling created controversy by denying automatic citizenship to those born on Dominican territory without at least one Dominican parent. A 2014 law which provided Haitians a path to citizenship, were broadly criticized for leaving stateless Haitians who couldn’t comply with its requirements—including providing specific documentation and providing it, for some, in distant locations—in the allotted time. According to the new rules, in 2015, the Dominican state began deporting those Haitians who could not, or did not regularize their status. Although the pace of deportations of Haitians has slowed, a key concern for Dominicans today is that the withdraw of MINUSTAH will lead to worsening economic conditions in Haiti and, with it, expanded crime and instability, and a possible political crisis in that country, all of which would sharply increase the flow of refugees to the Dominican Republic. Reflecting such concerns, a special commission was formed in the Dominican Senate in April 2017 to decide how to best respond to the potential spillover of migrants, and possible criminal activities from Haiti.

To protect the frontier, the Dominican military employs a specialized military organization under the Ministry of Defense, the Specialized Border Security Corps (CESFRONT), currently commanded by Brigadier General Sugar Frugis Martinez. In a single week in April 2017, CESFRONT stopped some 7,000 Haitians attempting to cross the border. In May 2017, the government announced it was training 1,000 additional soldiers to augment the force.

To complement the work of CESFRONT, in April 2017, the Ministry of Defense announced its intention to deploy battalions of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Brigades of the Dominican army to the principal towns along the Haitian border: Pedernales in the province of Pedernales, Jimaní in Independencia, Comendador in Elías Piña, and San Fernando de Montecrysti, itself, as well as building a new base facility in Pedernales to house the augmented forces.

The gateway drug island

With respect to drugs, the Dominican Republic is primarily a transit country for cocaine and other substances originating in Colombia, sometimes passing through Venezuela, and bound for the United States and Europe, with some temporary storage of drugs in the country as well. Nonetheless, a number of laboratories have also been discovered in the south of the country, including a large facility found in San Cristobal in 2013, and, in May 2017, the discovery of three laboratories in the north for the production of synthetic drugs, in Santiago and Puerto Plata.

As in other countries of the region as well, the drugs passing through has led to a small but growing local drug market in major cities such as the capital Santo Domingo, and Santiago, with distribution largely in the hands of local gangs, contributing to urban crime and violence.

Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel has operatives in the country for purchasing drugs, and some agents from another cartel, the Jalisco New Generation, have been detected as well. On the supply side various foreign criminal bands including Colombia’s Gulf Clan are present in the country, although the Mexicans are believed to have largely displaced the Colombians as partners of local drug groups.

While the Caribbean has periodically had important local drug bosses of its own such as the Puerto Rican Jose Figuroa Agosto who smuggled drugs through the Dominican Republic, the majority of drug flows through the country appear to be handled by small intermediary groups. While Dominican gangs play an important role in the distribution of drugs in the New York/New Jersey area and elsewhere in the East Coast of the United States, their counterparts in the Dominican Republic, such as the Trinitarios, Latin Kings, Bloods, Los 42, Metálicos, Ñetas, Mercaderos, Dorados and Rastafarys have generally not involved themselves in the international drug trade in a significant, organized fashion.

With respect to interdiction, prior to 2009, the Dominican Republic lacked an effective capacity to challenge aircraft transiting its airspace. During the 1990s and 2000s, narco-flights regularly carried drugs from the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Venezuela to the Dominican Republic, even landing on the nation’s highways to offload their cargo to local counterparts. In 2009, however, with the country’s acquisition of 8 Tucano interceptor aircraft from Brazil, the incursions decreased. Nonetheless, some analysts ascribe the change to the deterrent effect of the crash of one narco-flight and to the dismantling of a major international illicit network led by Jose Figuroa Agosto that had previously moved drugs by air, principally from Venezuela.

The enhanced protection of Dominican airspace also contributed to the adoption of a new tactic by narcotraffickers, “bombing,” in which the narco-flights would transit to the edge of Dominican airspace, often near the southernmost island of Beata, and drop the drugs into the water, where they would be picked up by local fishing boats or other watercraft. Today, such activities are less frequent, with maritime transport coming to dominate as the principal vehicle for moving drugs into the Dominican Republic. While the majority of drugs coming to the Dominican Republic are believed to arrive via go fast boats, those departing for Europe, the U.S. and other destinations are moved in a variety of ways, by both air and sea.   An important portion are believed smuggled in container ships, with local facilities in the Dominican Republic for modifying commercial shipping containers to have false bottoms for concealing drugs.

The principal anti-drug law enforcement organization of the Dominican government is the national counternarcotics directorate (DNCD), headed by Vice-Admiral Edmundo Felix Pimentel. The organization was created in May 1988, to focus on large-scale, generally international drug operations, as well as prevention, while its counterpart in the national police, DICAN, focuses on local micro trafficking. In practice, however, the lines between the activities of the two organizations are sometimes blurred.

The DNCD enjoys a relatively good relationship with U.S. authorities, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, (DEA), that works closely with specially vetted DNCD units. The DNCD also has a Joint Information and Coordination Center (CICC) that mirrors similar facilities in Air Force and Navy headquarters, for use in coordinating interdiction operations.

While the corrupting effect of transnational organized crime reportedly impairs the effectiveness of the DNCD and other authorities in the counter-drug fight, including a reluctance to share information with other agencies, in recent months, the organization has registered a string of significant successes, including the seizure of 860 packages of cocaine in San Pedro de Macorís in June 2017, 1,065 packages of drugs in El Seibo in May 2017, and 425 packages of drugs in San Cristobal in February 2017.

Beyond their contributions to the DNCD, the Dominican Armed Forces, under Minister of Defense Ruben Paulino Sem since August 2016, also plays an important role in counter-drug operations.

The Dominican Navy, under Vice Admiral Miguel Peña Acosta, plays an important role in maritime interceptions, with the largest Navy in the Caribbean other than Cuba, with 33 vessels, including 12 newer interceptors and 13 older patrol craft, operating from eight ports including its principal bases in Santo Domingo and Las Calderas, coordinating with the U.S. Coast Guard to cover high-threat drug transit zones such as the Mona Pass between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The Navy also coordinates with the DNCD with regard to the operation of other small craft such as go-fast boats seized from narcotraffickers.

As noted previously, the Dominican Air Force, under Major General Napoleon Payan Diaz, with its previously mentioned 8 Super Tucano aircraft, combined with new radars and command and control systems, has in recent years decreased the air transit threat.

The Armed Forces are also considered relatively good with human intelligence, where corruption is not an impeding factor. Coordination between the services is relatively good during real-time intercepts to ensure that targets of interest are not lost as they pass from the deep-water to the littoral to the on-shore environment.

Finally, the country is also combatting transnational organized crime with its Financial Intelligence Unit, and with a new law against money laundering, passed in June 2017. The law strengthens oversight and expands it to different kinds of institutions and transactions, based on recommendations from the international Financial Action Task Force (GAFI). Although the law will give the Dominican government new tools to identify and pursue money generated by illicit activities, it will be some time before its impact can be effectively evaluated.

The challenges of insecurity and corruption

Despite the significant volume of drugs flowing through the country, the level of violence in the Dominican Republic, with 15 homicides per 100,000 people, is relatively low compared to other transit countries such as the Northern Triangle of Central America or Venezuela, and has steadily dropped in recent years. Nonetheless, insecurity in Santo Domingo, Santiago, and other major urban areas is a continuing problem felt by citizens. In a 2015 survey by the respected firm Latinobarometer, crime and insecurity was listed by 26 percent Dominicans as the number one problem in the nation, far more than any other challenge including corruption, unemployment and narcotrafficking.

In the context of such perceived insecurity, in 2013 President Medina deployed military personnel into urban areas to work in conjunction with police, and in 2017, expanded the number of military personnel dedicated to that task in Santo Domingo and Santiago through the interagency Task Force Ciudad Tranquilla (CIUTRAN), under Coronel Ricardo Castillo Terrero.

At the same time, the significant illicit flows through the Dominican Republic, including both money and drugs, has contributed to high levels of corruption in law enforcement and other government institutions. In 2015, a leading Dominican prosecutor claimed that the Dominican police were involved in 90 percent of organized crime cases in the country. Three thousand police were dismissed for misconduct from June 2013 to March 2014 alone. Showcasing the extent of the problem, in 2015, the head of the national police’s counter-narcotics division (DICAN) Carlos Fernández Valerio, was arrested for stealing 950 kilograms of cocaine from confiscated stockpiles. The conviction of appellate judge Awilda Reyes for accepting bribes for court decisions in favor of high-level criminals illustrates the presence of corruption in the judicial system as well.

In his 2012 campaign for the presidency, Danio Medina promised to make the fight against public corruption a central focus, and since assuming office, has taken important steps in this area. When he first assumed office in 2012, Dominicans joked that Santo Domingo’s high-end restaurants lost business because government functionaries no longer wished to be seen there. Yet a culture of kickbacks and patronage remains deeply entrenched in government institutions, continuing to undermine citizen confidence in the government, and to impede its response to public security challenges such as narcotrafficking. In a 2015 survey of Dominicans by Latinobarometer, more than 53 percent of citizens said that they perceived that the government had made little or no progress against corruption. Recent cases such as that of Coronel Rafael Collado Urena, accused of diverting 980 kilograms of cocaine previously seized by authorities, highlights both government efforts against corruption, but also that much work remains to be done in the fight.

Recommendations for the U.S

The strong U.S. interest in the success of the Dominican Republic is complemented by the deep-rooted positive orientation of the Dominican Republic—at both the state and popular level—toward the United States. As a result, the U.S. continues to have in the Dominican Republic a highly receptive and cooperative partner to pursue initiatives in security cooperation and other areas. But the end of MINUSTAH will add a new challenge to that relationship.

At a minimum, the U.S. should maintain its commitment to the success of the Dominican Republic by expanding, or at least continuing the level of spending from previous years, for Department of Defense and State security cooperation programs in the country. Such commitment will require particular effort, especially in light of broad reductions for Latin America programs in President Trump’s 2018 federal budget, but it can be done. On the military side, sustained or increased funding for the Dominican Republic should arguably include resources for professional military education programs in institutions critical for building Dominican institutional capabilities and strengthening relationships, such as the Western Hemisphere Institute for National Security (WHINSEC). Indeed, the Dominican Republic is unique among U.S. partners in seeking to send all of its new officers to the U.S. leadership course at WHINSEC each year—an impressive display of faith in U.S. professional military education and the Dominican relationship with the U.S.

Joint training activities such as the recently completed New Horizons exercise, in which 450 U.S. military personnel worked with their Dominican counterparts to provide medical services to 11,000 persons and built three clinics and a vocational school in the provinces of Azua and San Juan de la Maguana, are additional examples of the type of activities that contribute to Dominican capability, address specific needs in the country, and strengthen the U.S.-Dominican relationship, and thus should be continued.

The U.S. should also continue to work with the Dominican Republic through exercises, training activities and material support to strengthen is disaster-response capability, in the face of the very real continuing threat of hurricanes and tropical storms, and to coordinate with the Dominican Republic and multilateral institutions such as the Central American Armed Forces Conference (CFAC) for the coordinated response to such challenges. Although the Dominican Republic is frequently on the path of such storms, its relatively large and capable armed forces makes it a valuable hub for a regional response to such events.

The U.S. should look for opportunities to expand the already good cooperation with the DNCD and others in the areas of intelligence sharing and joint operations, including drug interdiction in Caribbean waters and airspace.

The U.S. should further continue to work with the Dominican Republic to combat corruption in the National Police and other public security forces through intelligence, vetting assistance, other technology support, and help with institutional reforms that allow corrupt security and other officials to be quickly removed. An important, and often overlooked element of such reforms is the implementation of databases and a system of controls to ensure that personnel removed for corruption, whether ultimately jailed or not, are publicly tracked to ensure that they are not employed again in the military, public law enforcement organizations, private security companies, or another part of the security sector.

Where possible, the United States should support Dominican efforts to address its security issues in multilateral forums such as the previously mentioned CFAC (where it participates as the only Caribbean member), as well as the Conference of American Armies (CAA). The latter is a particularly important opportunity for both the Dominican Republic and the U.S. In November 2017, leadership of the CAA passes from the U.S. Army to the Dominican Republic for the organization’s next two-year cycle. Successfully executing the events and projects associated with the CAA is an enormous administrative undertaking for which the United States has the recent experience, and resources, as well as hosting the CAA’s permanent administrative committee, the PESCAA, whose mission is to support the CAA lead nation in its administration of the cycle. It is in the U.S. interest to help the Dominican Republic succeed in its leadership of the CAA during the incoming cycle, as it uses that leadership to expand coordination among member armies, and to deepen awareness among them regarding security issues of importance to the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean community.

Regarding Haiti, while the U.S. should not condone the mistreatment of Haitians within the Dominican Republic or deportations en masse of Haitians from the country (which decreased in 2017), U.S. public diplomacy should respect the Dominican Republic’s handling of its internal immigration affairs, consistent with the nation’s own laws and constitution, and should be prepared to help the country respond to a possible greatly expanded influx of Haitians and cross-border criminal activity, given the withdrawal of the MINUSTAH peacekeeping force from Haiti.

With respect to the collapse of Venezuela, the U.S. should include the Dominican Republic in a dialogue with Colombia, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela’s other neighbors regarding how to address an expanded outflow of refugees and expanded criminal activity from the country that could affect those neighbors, particularly as the Venezuelan regime’s elimination of the last vestiges of democratic opposition, including imposition of an unconstitutional constituent assembly, threatens to expand violence and move the country further toward civil war. As part of such regional coordination regarding Venezuela, however, the U.S. should also insist that the Dominican Republic do more to publicly support the restoration of democracy in the country, including participation in international sanctions or other actions as appropriate.


Dr. R. Evan Ellis is Research Professor of Latin American studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.

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