Authorities in the Dominican Republic have dismantled one of the country's most sophisticated crime syndicates, but the exploits of its leader, who is still on the run, have caught the attention of US authorities, bringing a renewed focus to the Caribbean nation's role in the drug trade.
Once a small-time dealer, César Emilio Peralta, alias "El Abusador," came to run a drug trafficking organization that allegedly counted professional athletes, government officials, security forces and a Mexican cartel among its collaborators. The group is believed to be responsible for transporting drugs to consumer markets in the United States, Puerto Rico and Europe.
Among the more than two dozen people arrested were three top members of the so-called Peralta drug trafficking organization: Baltazar Mesa, alias “Baltazar,” or “El Maestro”; José Jesús Tapia Pérez, alias “Bola Negra,” “Boludo,” or “Juan Carlos López”; and Sergio Gómez Díaz, alias “Sergio René Gómez Díaz.”
Former Major League Baseball (MLB) players Octavio Dotel and Luis Castillo were also accused of having links to Peralta's drug trafficking and money laundering ring. Castillo has denied any wrongdoing, his lawyer told the Associated Press.
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Peralta -- dubbed the “cocaine king” -- and his group operated from their base in the capital city of Santo Domingo, where they also laundered drug money using nightclubs owned or controlled by Peralta, according to authorities.
“Cesar Emilio Peralta and his criminal organization have used violence and corruption in the Dominican Republic to traffic tons of cocaine and opioids into the United States and Europe. Treasury is targeting these Dominican drug kingpins,” said Sigal Mandelker, US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
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In recent years, the growing importance of Venezuela as a regional cocaine hub and increased US-backed anti-drug efforts in Mexico and Central America have led to a resurgence of the Caribbean trafficking route as an alternative, which has fostered the rise of figures such as Peralta.
About a decade ago, Peralta was operating as a petty street dealer. But as the Dominican Republic's major traffickers were captured, a path emerged for Peralta to climb the ranks, according to the country’s former anti-drug chief, Rolando Rosado Mateo, Univision reported.
US authorities have linked Peralta to cocaine shipments totaling at least 1,120 kilograms that were smuggled into Puerto Rico and the United States between 2008 and 2017, according to details of his extradition order reported by Listín Diario. In one recording obtained by authorities, Peralta reportedly describes how he trafficked 20 kilograms of cocaine per week into Puerto Rico by plane.
The Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest and at one time most powerful organized crime groups, supplied Peralta’s organization with cocaine, prescription drugs like oxycodone, and the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, according to the Dominican Republic's Attorney General Jean Alain Rodríguez. The group then trafficked the drugs into the United States, according to Univision.
Relations among criminal groups in Mexico and the Dominican Republic have strengthened in recent years, which has put figures like Peralta in the crosshairs of US authorities.
Corruption among the highest ranks of the Dominican Republic’s security forces and government officials has historically helped criminal actors like Peralta facilitate their operations and evade capture. The alleged capo has been arrested at least twice in the past on drug charges but was freed by authorities despite seemingly clear evidence of his crimes.
As his wealth grew, Peralta acted as a nightclub entrepreneur, owning several clubs that he used to launder money from sex and drug trafficking.
At home, he wasn’t afraid to flaunt his riches on social media. In one WhatsApp video, Peralta purports to show off a collection of at least a dozen luxury watches ranging in price from $10,000 to $500,000, according to Univision. He also reportedly owns various high-end properties, yachts and luxury cars, including a Ferrari and Mercedes Benz.
Peralta’s wife, Marisol Mercedes Franco, has connections to the Dominican Republic's political class. She is the sister of Berlinesa Franco, the current executive director of the National Institute for Early Childhood Care (Instituto Nacional de Atención Integral a la Primera Infancia -- INAIPI), and she is reportedly close to sitting President Danilo Medina, according to Univision.
Peralta's father-in-law is also well known in the Dominican Republic. Franklin Franco was alleged to be a renowned drug trafficker in the 1980s and is considered by some to be the country’s first major trafficker. He allegedly attended Peralta’s birthday celebration just last year, according to a report from journalist Nuria Piera.
Over the years, the Dominican Republic has become a key transit point in the international drug trade. US authorities estimate that 90 percent of cocaine transiting through the Caribbean* and bound for markets in North America and Europe moves through the nation at some point in the trafficking chain, according to a 2019 report from the US State Department.
It remains to be seen what the renewed focus on Peralta and his drug trafficking organization means for criminal dynamics in the Caribbean. For now, Peralta and several of his group’s leaders continue to sidestep justice.
*This article was updated to clarify the amount of cocaine transiting the Caribbean that US authorities estimate passes through the Dominican Republic.