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The Dominican Republic's Uphill Battle to Root Out Corruption

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

Santo Domingo’s imposing courthouse, the Palacio de Justicia de Ciudad Nuevo, buzzes with activity and urgent conversation. Attorneys and judges stride through the halls in spotless black robes and bobble-headed caps, while defendants shuffle past with heads bowed, guided by police.

In a small office on the second floor, cramped between shelves of dossiers, a judge, who asked to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime about the high-level corruption cases that have dominated the country’s headlines in recent years. These seem to mark an unraveling of the impunity long enjoyed by high-profile individuals in the Dominican Republic, the judge said.

“We come from a culture where certain crimes were largely invisible. Street crimes, robbery, and the like were prosecuted. But corruption? Almost never," she said. "This is a new moment. Anti-corruption prosecutors have more resources now and the people want accountability."

*This story is the third 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 Attorney General’s Special Prosecutor for Administrative Corruption (Procuraduría Especializada de Persecución de la Corrupción Administrativa - PEPCA) has been busy. Since President Luis Abinader took office in 2020, PEPCA has brought a number of cases against government ministers, security force officials, and close family members of the former president, Danilo Medina.

The ex-president himself hasn't faced charges. But PEPCA's prosecutors have shown they aren't afraid to take on politically powerful suspects. And in a legal effort dubbed "Antipulpo" (Anti-Octopus), they have mounted cases against many tentacles of alleged corruption stemming from Medina's administration.

The Many Tentacles of Corruption

Juan Alexis Medina, the former president’s brother, stands accused of using his family ties to build a vast embezzlement network involving at least 22 government agencies and a number of former ministers. Another sibling, Carmen Magalys Medina Sánchez, has also been arrested on charges of embezzlement. According to PEPCA’s formal accusation, the criminal-political network stole millions in state funds.

SEE ALSO: Is Dominican Republic Making Gains in Anti-Corruption Fight?

“That’s why it’s called Antipulpo,” Heiromy Castro, an economist and expert on combating money laundering, told InSight Crime. “The case touches basically every ministry. There was a culture of impunity that allowed it to happen.”

The accusations of other big cases now before the courts indicate that corruption during Medina’s administration went far beyond the president’s office.

Prosecutors in a case known as Coral, and its offshoot Coral 5G, describe a separate corruption and money laundering network that operated during Medina's two terms in office (2012-2020) and was run by high-ranking security officials, including generals of the country’s army and air force. The network reportedly stole millions of dollars from the state, in part by handing out contracts to fake companies. The loot, which was laundered through real estate, luxury vehicles, and other goods, was valued at 4.5 billion Dominican pesos ($84 million).

According to prosecutors on yet another case named after marine life, Medusa, the Dominican Republic's former Attorney General, Jean Alain Rodríguez (2016-2020), ran a similar setup out of his office.

The Medusa indictment states that Alain Rodríguez "turned the Office of the Attorney General into the command center for criminal operations." Along with several of his staff, he allegedly used his position to commit fraud and steal resources meant for the country's investigative, justice, and prison systems. PEPCA estimates that the corruption network appropriated more than a billion Dominican pesos ($18 million). There are indications that the former attorney-general won’t go quietly, however. In March, prosecutor Wilson Camacho accused defendants in the Medusa case of trying to intimidate and coerce witnesses from behind bars. Rodríguez's attorneys told InSight Crime that their client is a victim of political assassination.

"In the Dominican Republic, justice is being used as a weapon to attack political opponents," they wrote in response to a request for comment.

SEE ALSO: Sweeping Corruption Probe Tests Dominican Republic’s Anti-Graft Fight

But the anti-corruption drive hasn't just targeted the former president and his party. Prosecutors have also gone after officials in current President Luis Abinader’s own administration, accusing them in a case dubbed Operation 13 of defrauding Dominicans of over 500 million Dominican pesos (around $9.1 million). The now-dismissed director of the National Lottery, Luis Dicent, faces charges that he masterminded the fraud scheme and, according to local media outlet Diario Libre's coverage of the case, pressured his co-defendants into participating.

The string of high-profile prosecutions has given many Dominicans hope that their justice system is serious about rooting out corruption. Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perception Index reflected this positivity, attributing it to recent convictions of the country’s political elite, and several locals across the island expressed optimism about the anti-graft drive, even if they disagreed with other aspects of the Abinader administration.

But international organizations and experts say that corruption is still deeply ingrained in every aspect of public life and will prove hard to tackle. The same Transparency International report that touted improvements in perceptions of corruption ranked the Dominican Republic 128 out of 180, warning that its public institutions remain fragile and the current progress could “quickly be lost.”

An April 2022 report by the US Department of State also found that real change is still out of reach. The report concluded that while “the attorney general pursued a number of cases against public officials, including high-level politicians and their families…government corruption remained a serious problem.”

Experts suggest that this administrative corruption trickles down and has created an environment of impunity in the Dominican Republic, where the line between the upper and underworld elite is blurred.   

“They all go to the same places,” a senior international security expert told InSight Crime. “You’d be amazed at how many criminals drink together with politicians and businessmen. They all find each other within two minutes.”  

Stumbling Blocks

Accusations made in a string of recent court cases illustrate these links across the political spectrum. 

In September 2021, congressman Héctor Darío Féliz Féliz hid alleged drug kingpin, Juan José de la Cruz Morales, alias “Wandy,” in his car as investigators arrived to arrest him, according to official reports. 

Féliz Féliz cannot be arrested due to his political immunity. This seems to have been a quality Wandy looked for in his friends, since according to prosecutors his drug trafficking network directly contributed to the political campaigns of Dominican legislators. Prosecutors also linked two other congressmen from Abinader’s Modern Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Moderno - PRM) to the same drug trafficking network.

Féliz Féliz’s case is far from an outlier. Another lawmaker, Rosa Amalia Pilarte López, is married to alleged drug trafficker, Miguel Arturo López Florencio, alias “Miky López.” Prosecutors accuse Miky López of having led a network that not only trafficked ecstasy, but also provided money laundering services for other criminal networks. Some of his alleged "clients" are linked to Puerto Rican drug trafficker, José Figueroa Agosto, and the Odebrecht corruption scandal, according to the indictment.

In some cases, Dominican political figures have reportedly crossed the line from associating with criminals to becoming directly involved in crime. 

In 2021, active congressman for the province of Santiago, Miguel Gutiérrez Díaz, was arrested at Miami airport and charged with trafficking cocaine. He was not the first. In 2020 authorities extradited a congressional candidate and indicted a seasoned electoral campaign director, both on drug trafficking charges. The latter was accused by the US Attorney General’s Office of working directly with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel

What’s more, criminal networks have allegedly infiltrated the very justice system meant to hold them accountable. In 2020, two judges were dismissed following accusations they received payments from a convicted drug trafficker. 

The country’s top drug traffickers are suspected of also seeking influence with former presidents and presidential candidates.  

Accused drug trafficker César Emilio Peralta, alias "El Abusador," was recorded claiming to have financed the 2016 campaign of former President Danilo Medina, who admitted he took the money but said he didn't know it had come from drug trafficking. 

Similar allegations stretch back years. Accused drug trafficker Figueroa Agosto allegedly helped finance the 2008 presidential campaign of another center-left candidate, Miguel Vargas Maldonado, who ultimately lost the election. Vargas denied having any ties to the man.

Another of Peralta’s former employers, Quirino Paulino Castillo, claimed that, between 2002 and 2004, he spent millions on the electoral campaigns of President Leonel Fernández. Leonel Fernández responded by praising his own administration's achievements, but did not directly address the allegations against him, according to a copy of his response published in Dominican media.

These repeat claims of drug money supporting presidential candidates indicate a systematic problem and shine a light on the country’s weak campaign financing laws, which can be used to provide broad cover for those seeking to buy political influence at the highest levels of the executive branch. 

Police For Sale

Elements within the Dominican police, who are charged with investigating crimes, may also be compromised.

In 2014, the then-attorney general revealed that former police officers participated in contract killings, often for drug traffickers. The same year, the head of the now dismantled Central Antinarcotics Directorate (Dirección Central Antinarcóticos - DICAN), was accused of stealing almost a ton of cocaine and was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

A year later, Yeni Berenice, then-chief prosecutor for the National District, where Santo Domingo is located, claimed police and military were involved in 90 percent of organized crime cases. In the years leading up to this claim, hundreds and sometimes thousands of officials were dismissed at a time for allegedly having connections with crime groups.

Evidence suggests that little changed after 2015. Both Miky López and his son were on the National Police's payroll until 2020, according to the National Police itself. More recently, in November 2021, authorities arrested over a dozen police officers who were charged with participating in a tumbe de droga (a robbery targeting other drug traffickers), according to a press release by the Attorney General's Office.

“Many policemen participate in organized crime. This is due to the low salary they receive and a lack of clear rules,” the president of anti-corruption watchdog, the Dominican Anti-Corruption Alliance (Alianza Dominicana Contra la Corrupción - Adocco), Julio César De la Rosa Tiburcio, told InSight Crime in August 2021.

“There is no way for organized crime to be successful without the participation, support, and involvement of authorities,” he added. 

*InSight Crime attempted to reach out to all named defendants or their representatives for comment. Apart from the representatives for César Peralta and Jean Alain Rodríguez, all either declined to comment or could not be reached.

*This story is the third 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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