Dominican Republic crime scene

While homicide rates in the Dominican Republic are middle of the road compared to the rest of the region, deaths are highly concentrated and hidden in poor sectors of the country's capital, reflecting the failure of years of security policy and the increasingly organized nature of crime in Santo Domingo.

"The night they killed Tito Moya, they were the same ones who had been arrested and released by police a while ago. That day I had been sitting on the balcony and I saw one of them put his gun in the mouth of the other in front of my house and then I heard a shot that sounded like a firecracker. The sound was close by and I heard repeated shots, but nothing else happened. After a while I went to the window and saw the dead body sitting there in the chair with the bullet wounds." (Gauley, Santo Domingo resident)

Stories like this do not appear on the front page of the morning papers. They are part of a sinister narrative circulating in the neighborhoods undersupplied with the most necessary social service: security. There, violence is commonplace, complex, imposed, justified and contained within the borders of areas occupied by the socially, economically and politically disadvantaged.

In regard to lethal violence, the Dominican Republic sits in the middle compared to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2010, it had a homicide rate of 24.9 per 100,000, far below those of Honduras (82.1), El Salvador (66), Jamaica (52.1), Trinidad and Tobago (35.2) and Belize (41.7), but above Mexico (18.1) Brazil (22.7) and Panama (21.6), according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2011 Global Study on Homicides.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Dominican Republic

However, as in many of these countries, violence in the Dominican Republic has turned into something systematic. Indeed, 2004 was a watershed in terms of security, reflected first in climbing, and then consistently high rates of homicide and crime (despite fluctuations), especially in urban areas of the country. Major changes also occurred in the patterns of what until then was considered "common crime," with the appearance of kidnappings, the rise of micro-trafficking and contract killings, and the emergence of gangs fighting each other and the police. Killings perpetrated by police maintained a consistent pattern, representing between 16 and 18 percent of violent deaths in the country.

Given these trends, it is not surprising that by 2010 insecurity was of primary concern among residents of Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, with 54.1 percent considering it the most serious problem facing the country, followed by drugs (40.4 percent) and inadequate electrical services (32 percent), according to a government survey. The progressive deterioration of public safety, as perceived by residents in the District, is confirmed by comparing these results to those of 2006, when the problem of unemployment (61.3 percent of respondents) and the high cost of living (53.4 percent) superseded concerns about insecurity (49.5 percent).

These perceptions are not unwarranted, when looked at in the context of the trajectory of violence in the country, as shown in the table below.

Trends in Criminal Violence in the Dominican Republic from 2008-2011 (Rates based on number of deaths per 100,000 residents)

dominicanhom2

Source: Created by author, based on figures from the Dominican Attorney General's Office and the Cartography and Statistics Department of the national police.

Government Response: There is Still Much to (Un)do

In 2005, then-President Leonel Fernandez launched the first explicit public safety strategy, the Democratic Security Plan (PSD). Prior to this initiative, the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) President Hipolito Mejia headed the reform of the organic police law and the Code of Criminal Procedure. Formulated in very comprehensive terms, the security strategy proposed "to contribute to the reduction of violence and crime in the country, through comprehensive, transverse and participatory interventions."

Despite registering a significant reduction in violent deaths and crime in critical zones of the metropolitan area in its first two years, the PSD failed to consistently impact violent crime, and for this reason rates still remain high. Caution must be exercised in celebrating small reductions in rates of homicide, crime and violence, as these do not necessarily constitute an infallible indicator of success. Often the absence of violence is due to the rise of a criminality that is more vigorous, embedded and better organized, rather than chaotic.

SEE ALSO: How Caribbean Organized Crime is Replacing the State

Despite the emphasis on police reform, it never materialized, due to internal resistance from the subjects of the reform. The disorganization of the state, reflected in a lack of interagency coordination, was another major challenge, coupled with a lack of political commitment from the ruling party (little budget allocation and no momentum in efforts to purge the security and justice sectors of corrupt and abusive members).

When examining examples of successful public security policies in Latin America, a common feature is political will. This political will is not an abstract figure; it is made clear in several very specific ways: 1) adequate and focused budget (Medellin and Bogota); 2) capacity for inter-institutional coordination (all cited cases); 3) inclusion of key strategic actors (Nicaragua); 4) long-term strategic vision (Chile); 5) institutionalization of processes aimed at ensuring continuity (consistent examples are the Bogota and Medellin municipal governments); 6) flexibility to adapt operational strategies to changes in patterns of crime (Brazil, with the Police Pacification Units); 7) provision of critical factors such as criminal intelligence, technology, and constant training of human capital and technical experts (Chile and Nicaragua ); and 8) understanding the environment and quickly learning from past lessons (Jamaica).

Earlier this year, the administration of current Dominican President Danilo Medina -- who is from the same party of former President Fernandez -- launched a Citizen Security Plan for the second time. The new strategy, with an allocated budget of $28 million, focuses on the weakest link in the security system: the precarious force that the police have become. While overhauling this body is a critical factor in restoring state legitimacy as a provider of security, citizen insecurity is also affected by many other factors that require equal attention: the transparency of the justice sector, the establishment of a robust and rigorous criminal intelligence system, and reducing impunity for corrupt members of security, justice and human rights bodies.

In short, the new policy being implemented must take into account past mistakes and successes, and above all, will test the political will of the current government and Dominican civil society to enforce its laws. There is still much to do in the field of citizen security, which requires undoing old structures and institutional cultures and practices, if Dominicans can hope to one day benefit from a state security policy that is consistent, comprehensive, credible, effective and adequate.

*Lilian Bobea has a Ph.D. from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and an M.A. from SUNY Binghamton, New York. She is a Caribbean Security specialist and a professor at Bentley University, Massachusetts and FLACSO, Dominican Republic. See her previous work for InSight Crime here.