HomeInvestigationsCésar Peralta, the Best Middleman in the Dominican Republic's Cocaine Trade
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César Peralta, the Best Middleman in the Dominican Republic's Cocaine Trade

COCAINE / 7 SEP 2022 BY DOUWE DEN HELD AND ANASTASIA AUSTIN EN

On Christmas Eve 2018, the dancefloor was packed at Kuora Club, one of Santo Domingo’s most popular nightclubs. Hundreds had turned up to party that night with reggaeton star Arcángel, the evening's headlining act.

The partygoers likely didn't realize that holiday bash would be one of the club's last.

Kuora was owned by César Emilio Peralta, alias “El Abusador” (The Abuser), allegedly once one of the Dominican Republic’s most innovative and powerful drug traffickers. He owned or controlled at least four other nightclubs in Santo Domingo, among almost two dozen businesses

*This story is the second in a three-part investigation looking at how the Dominican Republic became a crossroads for the transnational cocaine trade between North America, South America, and Europe, involving local kingpins, international drug traffickers, and venal politicians. Read the full investigation here.

The club’s dancefloor had served as a who’s who of Dominican society for years. Ángel, a former employee, told InSight Crime that on any given night, politicians could be found rubbing shoulders with athletes, movie stars, and drug traffickers.

SEE ALSO: Profile of César Emilio Peralta, alias ‘El Abusador’

Peralta’s nightclubs were also known for extravagance. A local patron of another Peralta club, called Flow, said that in its heyday a table there cost around 10,000 Dominican pesos ($185), and a bottle of liquor cost five times more than at the corner store. “Luxury sports cars packed its parking lot,” he said. 

Those days are long gone. One lonely guard, paid by the Dominican authorities, has replaced the expensive cars outside Kuora. Another one of Peralta’s clubs is now an office building, while a third has been abandoned altogether, with 'For Sale' signs fading in the harsh sun. Through the cracks at the boarded-up Kaprich, another club once owned by Peralta, piping can be seen hanging from the ceiling with bits of insulation strewn about the floor. 

Peralta was at the top of the Dominican Republic’s criminal underworld for several years, but by mid-2019, the tide had turned against him. All his businesses closed after he was formally identified as a significant foreign narcotics trafficker under the United States’ Kingpin Act. He was arrested in Colombia in December 2019 and extradited to Puerto Rico in December 2021, where he is currently on trial for drug charges.

Cocaine Trafficking Networks in the Dominican Republic 

It is not known exactly how and when César Peralta entered the drug trade. But he first drew attention as a drug trafficker in the 1990s and soon joined the network of a noted kingpin, Rolando Florián Féliz

At the start of that decade, Colombian traffickers began using the Dominican Republic as a stopping point along the route to the United States. The Colombians needed contacts with local knowledge and resources to receive the shipments, stash them, and send them onwards later. Florían Féliz fulfilled this role for the then-powerful Cali Cartel and regularly transported loads of cocaine through the island. He became the first of the Dominican kingpins.

Despite Florían Féliz being jailed in 1996 and later murdered in prison, he inspired a generation of Dominican traffickers that became progressively more sophisticated, brokering their own deals with Colombian counterparts and selling shipments on to American and European clients.

The man Peralta chose to work under, Quirino Paulino Castillo, was a standout among this new generation. An army captain and entrepreneur who owned dozens of gas stations and other businesses, Paulino Castillo successfully trafficked many tons of cocaine into the United States and collaborated with a number of other important traffickers before his arrest in 2004. Peralta rose through the ranks of Paulino Castillo’s organization, and likely learned enough to fill the void left by members of Castillo’s upper management team as they were apprehended by authorities.

By 2015, Peralta had firmly positioned himself as one of the main drug traffickers in the Dominican Republic and the entire Caribbean. By the time he was arrested in 2019, he was reportedly moving around 25 tons of cocaine a year, as well as laundering money and trafficking Colombian women. Such quantities led US federal authorities to compare him to infamous Mexican cartel boss, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo."

Peralta’s success rested on three principles: collaboration with other crime groups on the island, cooperation with foreign organized crime, and the appearance of doing legitimate business.

The Art of the Deal

Peralta wasn't the first trafficker to build ties with domestic rivals. While the island has seen some violent drug feuds, criminal networks in the Dominican Republic have been cooperating with each other for decades. 

"What I have seen in judicial cases is that the drug traffickers are good friends. They party together, go to clubs together,” a judge who wished to remain anonymous told InSight Crime.

Peralta’s string of party venues served him well, offering his kingpin peers places to socialize and finalize business deals.

“They all know each other, and if necessary, they all work together,” said a senior law enforcement official in Santo Domingo, who also wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.

This collaboration reached such levels that specialized criminal networks could provide specific services to the top traffickers. For example, Peralta retained the services of Rámon del Rosario Puente, alias “Toño Leña,” who specialized in moving vast shipments of drugs between South America, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and New York. del Rosario Puente was extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges in April 2021. 

Who’s Who in Dominican Republic Drug Traffickers

Conventions
Indicted
Convicted
Freed
Dead
    César Peralta is arguably the most successful Dominican trafficker in recent decades but he did not operate in a vacuum. He built his operation on top of those pioneered by his predecessors, forged business contacts within the Dominican diaspora, and learned his craft from some of the country’s most prominent criminal figures.
  • César Peralta rose from a small-time drug distributor in the 1990s to one of the most important traffickers in the Caribbean. At his height, he was a crucial link between cocaine suppliers in Colombia, such as the Urabeños, and distributors in Puerto Rico and the US mainland. Peralta allegedly had close ties to the regime of former Dominican president Danilo Medina. He was arrested in 2019 in Colombia and was extradited to Puerto Rico in December 2021.
  • A former Army captain, Castillo developed a drug trafficking network between Colombia and the United States, which used the Dominican Republic as a transit point. He was able to gather high-level military and civilian protection to cover his drug trafficking operations. With a fortune estimated at $62 million (2 billion Dominican Pesos), he had business interests in numerous legal sectors, seemingly to launder his ill-gotten gains. Arrested in 2004, he was extradited to the US and jailed on drug trafficking charges. He was freed in 2014.
  • Considered the first drug kingpin in the Dominican Republic, Florián Feliz moved tons of drugs for Colombia’s Cali Cartel toward Puerto Rico and the mainland United States. While the US sought his extradition, he was jailed at home in 1996, although he tried to escape on as many as five different occasions. In 2009, shortly after being granted a conditional release, he was killed by a prison official in controversial circumstances.
  • Figueroa Agosto made his career trafficking drugs between Colombia and Puerto Rico, via the Dominican Republic. After escaping jail in 1999, he evaded Dominican authorities for over a decade, buying luxury properties, having surgeries to change his face, and even escaping from police during a high-speed car chase. In 2010, he was caught, along with a dozen members of his organization, living lavishly in Puerto Rico. He was released in 2020.
  • Toño Leña was part of Peralta’s inner-circle of allies, trusted with overseeing the logistics of transporting tons of drugs between Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and New York. He acted in a similar role for Junior Cápsula as well as running his own trafficking operation. He was arrested in 2018 and extradited to the US in 2021. He was sentenced to 15 years in 2022. Since then, he has seemingly given up information against Peralta, providing details about their drug trafficking collaboration.
  • Another lieutenant of both Peralta and Junior Cápsula, Cotto was wanted by the US for being a lynchpin in moving drugs from South America, through a range of Caribbean destinations, and onto southern Florida. He allegedly helped Peralta in a number of ways, including organizing drug shipments and arranging ways to launder money. In 2016, he survived an assassination attempt in the Dominican Republic. He surrendered to authorities in 2020 and is awaiting extradition to the United States.

International Appeal

The Dominican Republic’s geographic location makes it a natural platform connecting criminal economies in South America, North America, and Europe. Peralta used this to his full advantage.

In Colombia, he reportedly brokered a successful partnership with the Urabeños, one of the most important criminal groups in the country. The group calls itself the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), but authorities refer to it as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo). Peralta's lawyer, Joaquin Perez, told InSight Crime that he did not believe Peralta was connected to the Urabeños.

Peralta exploited strong connections to criminal networks within the Dominican diaspora in the United States, and according to US authorities, his organization also trafficked drugs to Europe, now arguably the biggest market for cocaine smuggled through the Dominican Republic. 

European organized crime groups who don't have direct contacts with Colombian suppliers often reach out to traffickers from transit countries like the Dominican Republic, Alberto Areán Varela, Caribbean coordinator for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Container Control Program, told InSight Crime.

European crime groups don’t even have to travel to the island. “Madrid is where meetings often take place,” Areán Varela explained.

Beyond Peralta, the Dominican Republic’s reputation as an international oasis for drug trafficking has attracted plenty of criminals. 

The country "has a lot of pull factors: not just the climate, the roads, and a cheap city, but also the access to luxury, the ability to change your identity, to be able to be seen, or to disappear,” the senior law enforcement official told InSight Crime.

Recent cases of foreign criminals in the country include a Dutch national, who was shot three times but survived in the resort town of Las Terrenas in January 2022. In another example, eight members of Italy’s Clan Contini mafia were arrested in 2020. They had been living in the country for years, owned businesses, and sent their kids to Dominican schools. 

“Most people entering the country just want to enjoy it, but some settle here as liaisons for international criminal structures,” Diego Pesqueira, spokesperson for the Dominican national police, told InSight Crime.

In fact, the presence of criminal expats may be growing, in part due to the early reopening of the Dominican Republic's tourism industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There has always been European organized crime in the Dominican Republic. But with the country being one of the few places to remain open during the pandemic, there has been an increase in organized crime figures settling down here,” said the law enforcement official.

Make Money, Not War

The Dominican Republic has relatively low levels of organized crime-related violence, especially compared with many other waypoints for the cocaine trade.

Of the 841 murders recorded between January and September 2021, only 83 were linked to drug trafficking and drug use. The Dominican Republic’s 2021 homicide rate was estimated to be 10.3 per 100,000, lower than that of most of its neighbors in the region.

The business-first attitude of the island's underworld may provide an explanation for the relative peace. 

SEE ALSO: InSight Crime's 2021 Homicide Round-Up

“The people at the top don’t look like drug dealers. They take on the role of businessmen and are credible, they do business with banks and even with the government,” one money laundering expert, who requested to remain anonymous as she was not authorized to speak on behalf of her organization, told InSight Crime.

César Peralta’s clubs and other businesses allowed him to launder drug proceeds but also gave him an introduction to the Dominican elite. 

In phone calls recorded before he fled to Colombia in 2019, Peralta complains about how powerful figures, including former president Danilo Medina Sánchez, had betrayed him even though he helped them achieve their positions of power. 

Peralta can be heard saying in reference to Medina, “if he is going to continue with the persecution of my people, of my family and everyone else, I’ll also talk.”

The links between Peralta and Medina are clear. Medina admitted in July 2020 that he had received electoral campaign contributions from Peralta but said he did not know that the money came from illicit activities. This was despite the fact that Peralta had already been arrested for drug trafficking on multiple occasions.

Peralta’s connections could not save him once the United States took an interest. While US authorities had been investigated Peralta since 2017, his time began to run out following his designation as a significant foreign narcotics trafficker under the Kingpin Act in August 2019. His businesses were seized and he fled to Colombia. Using a false Colombian ID with a different name, he operated in both Venezuela and Colombia for months, allegedly having a direct relationship with the Urabeños.

It’s not clear exactly why, but Peralta’s luck ran out. By the time Colombian police arrested him in Cartagena in December 2019, he wasn't just hiding from authorities. Having escaped an attempt on his life in Barranquilla just weeks before, he was also on the run for other criminal networks, possibly the Urabeños.

The Void Is Filled

Peralta’s arrest does not appear to have reduced drug trafficking through the Dominican Republic. Other networks have taken over, and the continued discovery of record quantities of drugs on the island show the Dominican route remains popular.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that Dominican transnational criminal organizations “have expanded their capabilities to have command and control originating in source zone countries and orchestrate the transportation of multi-ton quantities of drugs through the Caribbean with final destination of Northeastern cities in the United States and in Europe.”

"They are no longer simple transport networks," Areán Varela told InSight Crime. “They buy, they stockpile, and they sell.” 

The Dominican Republic’s president, Luis Abinader, has declared war on drug trafficking in the country, and record seizures during his administration have been applauded, including by the US State Department. However, corruption and collusion between elites and organized will complicate Abinader's campaign to squash the drug trade.

*This story is the second in a three-part investigation looking at how the Dominican Republic became a crossroads for the transnational cocaine trade between North America, South America, and Europe, involving local kingpins, international drug traffickers, and venal politicians. Read the full investigation here.

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