SANTO DOMINGO — At first glance, Marino Vinicio Castillo RodrÌguez doesn’t look the warrior. Dressed in an impeccable, tailored suit, he’s the epitome of a successful second-generation attorney and grandfather.
But when Castillo talks about his fears for his country of nine million inhabitants, the humor drains from his eyes. He said the Dominican Republic is at risk of being overwhelmed by organized crime syndicates from Colombia, Mexico and even Europe.
As a leading law-and-order crusader and now the anti-narcotics adviser to President Leonel Fernández Reyna, Castillo has been monitoring and assessing the country’s shifting crime landscape since the early 1990s when Colombian traffickers were using the Caribbean to channel drugs into Florida.
“We have clear evidence that the Sinaloa cartel is developing a structure here and we have representatives of European crime groups including from Russia, Ukraine, the Balkans and Italy,” said Castillo, interviewed at his office in Santo Domingo. “Our situation is becoming very grave. The crackdown on the cartels in Mexico and Colombia has pushed the problem to the little islands of the Caribbean, and the cartels are using us as a bridge for smuggling narcotics into America and Europe.”
Judging by the record drugs seizures and the rise in drug-related homicides, the problem is growing. Dominican authorities appear to have largely halted drug loads being flown into the country and dumped from low-flying light aircraft for pickup — a preferred delivery method for many years.
DNCD reports drug-running flights down dramatically
In February, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador in Washington, Anibal de Castro, trumpeted that air interdiction success before a Senate committee, saying “releases of drugs from aircraft in the country” had virtually been eliminated.
The decisive factor, said the diplomat, had been the deployment of an OH-58 helicopter equipped with night vision and eight Brazilian-made Embraer Super Tucano patrol aircraft, bought with the assistance of a $93.7 million loan from Brazil’s government development bank.
Roberto Lebron Jimenez, spokesman for the Direccion Nacional de Control de Drogas (DNCD), said that before the Dominican military took possession of the new aircraft, authorities reported about 200 clandestine drug-running flights into the country per year. Now, he estimates there are just a handful.
However, the drug traffickers have shifted to the sea, exploiting 1,100 miles of Dominican coastline and taking advantage of the country’s strategic role as a container-traffic hub linking the United States, Latin America and Europe.
The coastline is hard to lock up. Traffickers use private leisure craft, fishing vessels and often speedboats capable of carrying more than 4,000 pounds of cocaine at a time. Drugs are brought in from Central and Latin America, then dispersed to the United States — often via Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — or to Europe in commercial maritime traffic. Smaller loads are smuggled out by “mules” or in air cargo.
“We are a haven for international tourism, have five major international airports and seven major commercial seaports all with a huge amount of container traffic. And we share the island with Haiti, which is a failed state and where the Colombian cartels have been operating for a quarter of a century,” Castillo said. “It is impossible for us to search each and every container. The volume is just too great.”
Dominican cocaine seizures are skyrocketing
Recent seizures illustrate the growing problem. In 2011, Dominican authorities confiscated 6,715 kilograms of cocaine — a 48 percent jump from the 4,527 kilos seized the year before. During a two-week period in December 2011, according to official statistics, DNCD police intercepted 1.3 tons in four shipments of cocaine.
The international flavor and the mixing of crime syndicates come through frequently with each major seizure and raid. On Feb. 7, Dominican anti-drug authorities arrested 29 people, including five Puerto Ricans and 17 Russians as well as Colombians and Dominicans, and seized 122 kilos of cocaine tagged to be shipped to Puerto Rico.
Two luxury villas, several apartments, a cargo ship, a speedboat and an airplane were confiscated as well. The cocaine, found in a villa located in the exclusive Casa de Campo resort near La Romana, was to be loaded onto the Carib Vision, a vessel ostensibly used to transport molasses. The load was destined for Puerto Rico when it was intercepted, the DNCD’s LebrÛn said.
On Dec. 15, anti-drug police seized 1,077 kilos of cocaine from a 24-seat Challenger jet about to take off from La Romana on the southeast coast. The aircraft had registered a flight plan for the Belgian city of Antwerp. This time, the police arrested Dutch citizen Johannes Nicolass and British citizen Edgar Rowson, right before the scheduled takeoff.
And last October, DNCD members confiscated 1,098 kilos of cocaine hidden in medical equipment bound for Le Havre, France, from a vessel at the multimodal port of Caucedo.
Sinaloa cartel behind drug trade, say officials
The amounts of cocaine being seized — thought to be only a fraction of what gets through — are worrying enough. What weighs heavily on Castillo’s mind are signs that the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest crime syndicate, has targeted the country for expansion. “We are not in a position to cope with this,” he said.
Dominican officials blame the Sinaloans for the slaying last August of three Colombians and a Venezuelan in Santiago, 96 miles north of Santo Domingo. The killings were thought to be a reprisal, and the corpses were found in the upscale district of Cerro de Gurabo near where a Spaniard had been killed a few days earlier.
Castillo confirms a link to the murders with the Sinaloa cartel, but declined to go into details. He said the presence of the Sinaloans was brought home to authorities when a Mexican national, LuÌs Fernando Bertolucci Castillo — also arrested last August — acknowledged he was a member of that cartel and was in direct contact with drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The first public acknowledgment by the Dominican government of the Sinaloa presence came in February when Anibal de Castro told the U.S. Senate, “the Sinaloa cartel is seeking to create a route to Europe using the Dominican Republic.”
The Mexican crime presence is not new entirely, Castillo said. In December 1999, Dominican police seized three drug transport planes owned by Mexican drug lord LuÌs Horacio Cano.
Castillo said he’s now aware that the Sinaloa cartel controlled a company which in 1999 bought (and has since sold) four state-owned sugar mills during a privatization process. The mills — at Haina, Boca Chica, San LuÌs and Consuello — were all located near seaports, and had access to landing strips.
Anti-drug authorities target Cibao region
What’s different now is the level of activity, the alliances being formed with local crime gangs, and indications that the Sinaloa cartel intends to operate locally. “They are buying property, from oceanfront residences to hotels and businesses,” Castillo said.
DNCD officials said the main focus of the Sinaloa cartel is in El Cibao, the northern region that’s home to nearly half the country’s population as well as its second-largest city, Santiago de los Caballeros.
The officials claim that local crime groups, including the Samana crime gang led by Avelino Matias Castro — currently wanted for allegedly ordering the assassination of a Dominican journalist — provide logistical support while helping the Sinaloa cartel to secure precursor chemicals needed for the production of amphetamines.
The Mexican presence introduces a new dangerous element, said Castillo, noting the Sinaloa cartel’s notoriously violent history as well as its ability to corrupt.
Like its Caribbean neighbors, the Dominican Republic has seen a jump in violent crime and homicides in recent years. From 2001 to 2009, the country’s homicide rate nearly doubled to 23 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In addition, drug addiction among Dominicans is growing — a consequence, officials believe, of local crime groups being paid by Colombian and Mexican cartels in cocaine as well as cash. Last year, the country recorded 4,173 seizures of crack cocaine alone.
For Castillo, the battle is on. “But we need a lot more help,” he said.