SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Crime has been cut by about 50% since the end of May, when President Danilo Medina deployed 3,400 soldiers to streets across the country to patrol alongside police officers, officials said.
Medina brought in the military after a violent crime spree that included several high-profile attacks and assaults occurred in broad daylight on busy urban areas.
In Santo Domingo, gun-wielding motorcycle riders have robbed cars, taxis and minibuses, often pointing a handgun through an open window and demanding everything from graduation rings to cellphones to cash. The sheer number of such robberies has led Dominicans to deem them “express attacks.”
“I won’t get in a [shared taxi] anymore. It’s not safe,” said Marisol Benítez, 33, who works at a shopping mall kiosk and relies on public transportation. “The delinquency in the streets is worse than it has ever been.”
Statistics from the United Nations show that the country’s homicide rate has nearly doubled in the past two decades to 25 murders per 100,000 residents. While that rate is not nearly as high as some other Latin American countries – such as Honduras, where the homicide rate stood at 85.5 per 100,000, according to the Violence Observatory at the National University – it has shocked Dominicans who have seen security deteriorate.
Medina’s administration is responding to the crime problem with a comprehensive citizen security plan that includes reforms to the 35,000-member National Police force. But while that plan is being implemented, the military was deployed to assist the police and combat the immediate scourge, Medina’s office said.
The result has been somewhat unsettling: Camouflaged soldiers carrying machine guns walking alongside joggers and bikers, standing guard on busy public streets and setting up makeshift camps in public parks.
Some civil society and human rights groups have criticized the use of military in policing functions, raising fears that it could lead to human rights violations and weaken the police force.
But Minister of the Armed Forces Sigfrido Pared Pérez defended the decision on June 24, calling crime a national problem and adding Dominicans support the use of soldiers to keep the streets safe.
“When this phenomenon affects the behavior and lifestyle of the ordinary citizen, it becomes a responsibility of the Armed Forces,” he said.
Pérez said polls show 80% of Dominicans support President Medina’s decision to send soldiers into the streets.
“Sectors that oppose – and sometimes it’s only theoretical opposition – don’t understand that nearly all the countries in this region use the Armed Forces to support police when there are moments of need,” he said.
Indeed, Dominican researcher Lilian Bobea said Caribbean countries have long seen little distinction between the roles of the military and the police.
“Basically security forces in the Caribbean were constituted as constabularies, where the separation between military and police functions was considered unnecessary or irrelevant by the political leadership,” she said.
But in the past decade, the Dominican Republic has changed its laws concerning the roles of the police and the military. Those changes sought to separate the two institutions, but it left open the ability for the president to order the military to support police.
Bobea said she opposes the use of the military, in part, because Dominican politicians have abused the power in the past.
“The thing is that this practice is very popular among Dominicans because they know that the military is more disciplined and professional than most of the police components,” she said. “However, it is a catch-22 situation.”
Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have come out against military patrols, while Santo Domingo’s outspoken district attorney, Yeni Berenice, also disapproves of the idea.
“What the government should be focusing on is comprehensive police reform,” said Rosalía Sosa Pérez, executive director of Citizen Participation, a non-partisan civil society group.
Pérez said the country’s increased role in the narcotics trade has led to deployment of troops. The country has been identified as the principal transit point in the Caribbean for South American cocaine being sent to Europe and the United States.
“This island and others in the Americas are where there is drug consumption and trafficking taking place,” Pérez said, “and that increases criminality.”