Organized and Disorganized Crime

Muertos Legales and Ilegales in the Caribbean

by | Dec 28, 2012

Caitlyn Visek, who received a DRCLAS grant to go to the Dominican Republic, captured this image of three Dominican citizens on her trip there. A new citizen security strategy is helping ordinary citizens deal with crime.


In some countries of the Caribbean, crime has taken on a new face. It is true that criminal violence can hardly be considered a new phenomenon in the region. Puerto Rico and Jamaica entered a “criminogenic spiral” in the mid-1970s, while corruption and money laundering have earned Aruba and Suriname the unwanted epithet “mafia states.” But in the Dominican Republic, where my research is focused, murder for hire (sicariatos), kidnappings, score settling, gang confrontations and drug hijacking (tumbes) were not “business as usual” until very recently. The surge in this “new criminality” in the past few years triggered a political crisis in a nation where democracy is still in the process of consolidation. 

In 2005, as I helped the Dominican government develop a new citizen security strategy called the Plan de Seguridad Democrática, I learned first-hand about the surge of violence in the most densely populated and poorly served barrios of Santo Domingo. In Capotillo, a poor neighborhood with a long history of social protest and a more recent record of criminal violence, I spoke with Teresa, a lifelong resident of the barrio. “When I grew up here in the 1990s,” Teresa told me, “there was drug trafficking but no violence. The tigueres used to rob and do their businesses in other places, never to their people. We knew them. They belonged to the barrio.” Tiguere, a quintessential Dominican word, refers to young men who will do anything to survive in poor communities. The closest English equivalent is “hustler.”

Teresa’s feelings that things have changed is substantiated by the fact that today Capotillo ranks among the barrios with the highest rates of victimization and homicide in the National District, which include Santo Domingo (a terrifying 64 deaths per 100,000 for the zone that includes the barrio). Those who die are mostly poor young males, gunned down either by rival gangs or by the police. Incredible though it seems, police killings of suspects account for between 16 and 18% of total violent deaths in the country, an annual toll of 300 to 400 deaths nationally. The police report these fatalities as muertes legales or “legal deaths,” while the rest of Dominican society recognizes them as extra-judicial executions. In October 2011, Amnesty International released a report on homicides committed by the Dominican national police entitled, “Shut Up If You Don’t Want to Be Killed.” The muertes legales of largely anonymous victims of the police, coupled with other homicides, have contributed to the doubling of violent deaths since the year 2000.

Not surprisingly, I found that Dominicans attribute the upsurge in violence to the conspicuous presence of drugs and drugs dealers in the barrios. As Nestor, another Capotillo resident, put it, selling drugs in the streets has become, “normal, a daily activity. Retailing points are so visible that they identify themselves as ‘businesses,’ one right next to another, even near the police station. They are always there.” The ubiquity of drug sales was confirmed by the 2005 Barometer of the Americas survey, which asked Dominicans living in urban areas if they had witnessed drug dealing in the past 12 months; 27% responded affirmatively.

Experts on drug trafficking in the region note that the explosion of drug retailing reflects a change in the country’s position in the illicit international economy. Previously the Dominican Republic primarily served as a stop in drug transit from Colombia and Venezuela and extending to Europe, the United States and Africa. Now Dominicans take part in this drug consumption. As in Puerto Rico, transnational dealers pay local operatives in kind, fomenting the creation of internal micro-markets and making the selling of drugs a part-time job. For many barrio residents, such work blends with other trabajitos that make up the informal sector in which more than half of all economically active Dominicans work. In interviews, it often emerges that these bottom-rung, part-time drug workers do not even think of themselves as involved in narcotrafficking.

As pernicious as these trends are for the stability and security of poor communities, the drug business is becoming embedded in many local economies as a subsistence strategy for poor households. The circulation of drug money stimulates a myriad of other micro- and mid-level enterprises, some of them illicit but others not. When I asked the people of Capotillo about the November 2010 capture of a well-known local drug dealer, el Chino, many responded frankly: “The day that police arrested el Chino, economic activity in the barrio slowed down; many businesses closed for good.”

At the macro-level as well, analysts note that many Caribbean economies are driven by “dark market” capital that permeates the construction, retail and tourist sectors. These investments made it possible for criminal groups operating in the Caribbean to realize an estimated 3.3 billion dollars in 2002, over 3 percent of the regional GDP. Some of these criminal actors are well-known “entrepreneurs” in their countries before they are extradited and placed before a U.S. court. Such was the case of Quirino E. Paulino Castillo, a notorious Dominican drug don who also owned an agribusiness in a free-trade zone, a cement company and many other firms employing thousands of people in his native western province of Elias Pina. A civilian, Quirino had nevertheless been favored by the Dominican government with an honorific military rank. As investigators learned, his illicit businesses had showered benefits on a number of politicians, high-ranking military officers, and members of the national police.

Another case demonstrates how drug lords move freely among the region’s elites as well as how fluid the Caribbean’s borders have become for well-connected criminals. José Figueroa Agosto, a Puerto Rican drug trafficker, became a fugitive from U.S. justice in 1999 after evading Puerto Rican authorities and a 229-year sentence following the killing of a Colombian drug capo. For more than a decade, Figueroa lived in the Dominican Republic, where he readily penetrated various branches of the state and the upper echelons of Dominican society. Vested with multiple identities, each backed with false documents provided by government officials, the capo was persona grata at several respected Dominican banking institutions. He became a major player in island real estate, owning some 300 properties, most listed not in his own name but in the names of respectable members of the business and entertainment industries. At the time of his arrest he had security clearances that allowed him to enter restricted areas of the military intelligence and the D.N.C.D. or National Directorate of Drug Control. These permits facilitated his use of official transportation and allowed him to smuggle drugs and money in and out of the country.

Figueroa was not the kingpin of a vast, hierarchically structured group like Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel or the Zetas, but that did not keep him from establishing a ring of traffickers. This ring linked the smuggling of cocaine and heroin from Colombia and Venezuela with its commercialization and the laundering of its profit in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. His criminal activities ranged from drug smuggling, money laundering, fraud and racketeering to murder and kidnappings. More than ten years passed until finally, in July 2010, Puerto Rican authorities informed their Dominican counterparts about Figueroa’s whereabouts. Surprisingly, the kingpin was not tipped off. His capture, along with that of 64 other members of his criminal network, culminated in a search that involved the FBI, the D.E.A, the D.N.C.D. and police from both countries.

As the cases of Quirino and Figueroa illustrate, transnational criminals use their wealth to influence “legitimate” private and public actors and gain access to power. They are able to buy judges, launder money, and so on. In the Dominican Republic as in Puerto Rico, drug traffickers have succeeded in penetrating the police and other security forces, a fact admitted publicly by presidents and cabinet ministers. Miguel Pereira, a former head of the Puerto Rico Police Department, recently acknowledged that, “drug trafficking touches all spheres of Puerto Rico; we have the influence of drug trafficking in all our branches of government, at all levels of our society.” Pereira’s assertion came after the Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed that in October 2010, eighty-nine police officers were indicted on drug trafficking charges for providing security to drug dealers. In the Dominican Republic, the reach of organized crime can be seen in the still- unresolved “caso Paya,” in which a group of seven Colombians and Nicaraguans were found executed in August 2008. Investigators uncovered the involvement of members of the Dominican Coast Guard, supporting a Capotillo resident’s claim that, “narcotrafficking is a force more powerful than the Dominican state.”

My current research explores the orientation of criminal actors toward the state, a phenomenon that I call statetropism (a neologism based on the concept of heliotropism). Unlike common or “unorganized” criminals who avoid the state, the new criminality builds a network of alliances within and around the state, putting it in the untenable position of trying to deter crime while simultaneously being exploited by an organized criminal elite.


From global to local

My work suggests that organized crime is becoming an embedded, rather than an externally imposed, feature of Caribbean societies. Thanks in part to their high and middle-level contacts and their influence in the political and economic arenas, these criminals permeate formal and informal institutions and social groups. They create niches and opportunities for organized crime to flourish. At the same time, these criminal entities operate within an already globalized context that promotes the widening, deepening and speeding of illicit trade. The peripheral economies of the Caribbean, located between the points of drug production and consumption, offer unregulated spaces in which organized crime can flourish.

Given this context, what can a relatively poor country like the Dominican Republic do, having limited institutional and intelligence capabilities and lacking consisent public policies, to confront drug lords who command resources that dwarf the government’s anti-organized crime budget? I have no simple answer to that question. I can only say that pressure must be brought on political elites to push them beyond rhetoric to embrace democratic security policies that include social welfare as one of their pillars. Only popular pressure, exerted over time, can reform the very discredited police and justice systems of the Caribbean.

Perhaps part of the solution rests at the very local level in barrios like Capotillo. In spite of social fragility, these people still share an instinct for community as well as high levels of resilience. The residents of these barrios are not waiting for miracles; they are struggling to find a new balance within a fragmented landscape as they pursue ways to strengthen what academics call “social capital.” I’ll give the final word to Teresa: “The barrio doesn’t make us, we make the barrio.”

Spring 2012Volume XI, Number 3

Lilian Bobea is a Dominican sociologist and holds a PhD from Utrecht University in Holland. She is a specialist on Caribbean security, citizen security, civil-military relations and police reform. She has written several books and numerous academic articles on those subjects and is a professor and researcher at FLACSO, Dominican Republic, as well as a consultant. She can be contacted at:

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