Dominican Republic: President-elect increases narcotics fight

By Dialogo
May 30, 2012

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Danilo Medina, who narrowly won the Dominican presidency on May 20, said he wants to strengthen penalties against drug traffickers and crack down on street crime by investing in the national police and armed forces.
Medina’s campaign was built largely around continuing the work of current President Leonel Fernández, who was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term. Both are members of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD).
Fernández has overseen a successful period of economic growth, fueled largely by tourism, while building up capacity of the armed forces, particularly in the fight against drug trafficking.
The country is a major transshipment route for South American cocaine on its way to nearby Puerto Rico and, increasingly, to Europe. Earlier this year, government officials warned that members of the feared Mexican Sinaloa cartel had been working in the country to establish narco-trafficking routes.
During the campaign, Medina, who will take office on Aug. 16, said he favored stricter penalties for narco-traffickers and hitmen. He also pledged to weed out corrupt government officials who allow drug traffickers to operate with impunity.
The country has made progress in combating trafficking under Fernández. The Dominican Republic, which was once a favored stopover point for illicit drug flights, has invested in small fighter planes to cut down on illegal air traffic.
This year, authorities have seized several large shipments that were entering the country by sea. In April, authorities confiscated 1,500 kilograms (about 3,300 pounds) of cocaine arriving by go-fast boat. In the weeks leading up to that seizure, agents from the National Directorate for Drug Control (DNCD) intercepted two other cocaine shipments, weighing around 1,400 kilograms (about 3,100 pounds) in total.
Key to further reducing drug trafficking, Medina said, is investing in the armed forces and national police.
“You have to combat it in two ways. You have to combat organized crime by establishing policies that will be directed at impeding the impunity that these drug traffickers have,” he has said, according to a copy of his speeches provided by his campaign. “Secondly, we need to ensure members of the armed forces are given better living conditions.”
Medina stressed raising the salaries of police officers and members of the armed forces, who are tempted to involve themselves in drug trafficking due to the lucrative deals offered by criminals.
A police officer or military agent “can receive 20 years worth of their salary in just one operation,” he said.
Police officers earn a starting monthly salary of around $5,300 Dominican pesos (US$135.95), hardly enough to cover basic expenses.
Medina said more jobs, especially for teenagers and young adults, would help cut down on trafficking. He added drug trafficking coupled with high unemployment rates created a “breeding ground” for criminality.
The way out of the trap, Medina said, is economic progress.
“I want to build a middle-class society. That is my main goal – to have a population that is able to go shopping, to have the capacity to consume,” he told CNN en Español in an interview after he was declared the election winner.
Medina’s campaign message, that he was the “safe choice,” resonated with voters, according to political analysts and exit polling. Voters who cast ballots for Fernández in 2008 overwhelmingly chose Medina. He retained 90% of the party vote, according to an exit poll by Santo Domingo-based ASISA Research.
Medina beat Hipólito “Papá” Mejía of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) in a tight race, winning 51.2% - 46.9%, enough to avoid a runoff election in June. Four other minor party candidates received less than 2% of the total vote.
Unemployment was the biggest issue for voters, said Dan Guzmán, an analyst with ASISA.
“Both candidates said they would create the same number of jobs,” he said. “But there was concern about Mejía’s past.”
Mejía served as president from 2000-2004, a period of economic ruin in which the unemployment rate spiked to 19% and the second-largest bank collapsed amid scandal.
Fernández has overseen years of strong economic growth and helped turn the Caribbean nation into the most visited tourist destination in the region.
“For me, personally, I think the country has improved with Fernández,” said Raúl Castillo as he voted for Medina in the small city of San Cristóbal on May 20. “I expect Danilo will govern similarly.”