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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Soldiers Take Over the Streets

Diógenes Pina

SANTO DOMINGO, Aug 28 2006 (IPS) - When a grim soldier in the capital of the Dominican Republic ordered him to get out of his car, Manolo could only obey and hold his tongue. It was the second time in a week joint military and police patrols had pulled him over for a search at around 10 p.m.

The Dominican government’s tough new crime-fighting measures came into effect Jul. 24, sending some 15,000 police and soldiers to patrol streets and avenues in major cities and putting a significant damper on nightlife.

The move is a response to rising homicide and overall crime rates. According to official statistics, 9,300 murders were recorded between 2001 and 2005; 790 of the victims were women. Records show that 1,086 murders were reported in 2001; by 2005 the number had risen to 2,382.

“We are living in an undeclared state of siege,” Elsa López, director of the Social Sciences Department at the Technology Institute in Santa Domingo, told IPS.

The Leonel Fernández administration has issued decrees that cut off alcohol sales at midnight from Sunday to Thursday, and at 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The measure has affected supermarkets, bars and restaurants.

The National Hotel and Restaurant Association published an open letter asking the government to ease up on the restrictive regulations, complaining that sales have dropped by 25 to 40 percent.

“Tourism is our economy’s bread and butter, and one of the Dominican Republic’s main attractions is its high-quality culinary variety,” reads the letter.

The restrictions deny “Dominicans and foreign visitors a chance to go to a restaurant after an evening social or business event, which is a common custom in cities all over the world,” the Association complained.

Last year, 3.7 million tourists visited the Dominican Republic, and officials estimate this number will reach four million this year. By the end of 2006, the government will have invested 25 million dollars to promote the country as a tourism destination, with 16 million dollars of that budget going towards international advertising.

“These measures could be reviewed in the future,” Arturo Villanueva, vice president of the National Hotel and Restaurant Association, told IPS. “Businesses that do not serve alcohol could keep their doors open,” if the government should decide to revisit restrictions.

The country’s National Statistics Office (ONE) shows that violent death rates have risen from 14.39 percent in 1999 to 26.41 percent last year, in a population of 8.5 million people.

As part of the crime-fighting initiative, the government has formed joint police and army teams to patrol streets throughout the country.

Prior to these measures, just over 3,000 police walked the streets – 10 percent of the country’s 31,000-strong law and order force.

To increase the number of patrol officers, the government declared that security for public buildings, provided by the police for decades, would be handled by army, navy and air force troops.

Likewise, security for public officials, both elected and appointed by the executive branch, is now the responsibility of soldiers instead of police.

The regulations had an immediate visible effect as heavily armed soldiers appeared on the streets of Santo Domingo and other cities.

“Even though we’re not at war, the streets are full of soldiers,” said López. “People can’t even go out anymore.”

In the first month, 10,303 people were arrested for alleged outstanding warrants, of which there are 28,382 registered throughout the country, according to an Armed Forces Secretariat report.

During the same period, 29,525 vehicles were inspected; 1,179 were impounded because they lacked the proper documents.

While some sectors are calling for a review of the measures, President Fernández declared that the government would stand strong against violence and crime, and said statistics from security organisations show that crime has gone down over the last four weeks.

“The joint patrols across the country have had an immediate, significant and positive impact,” he said, after heading a several-hour-long meeting with the Citizen Security Council, comprised of representatives from the Armed Forces, the National Police, the Interior and Police Secretariat, the National Drug Control Office and the Attorney General’s Office.

“We need to put human life first in this country, and the measures are working. So we need to consolidate them rather than make them flexible,” said Fernández.

But militarisation is not a solution to crime, say experts. Instead, neighbourhoods and communities themselves must be involved in their own security.

Tirso Mejía Ricart, ex-director of the National State Reform Council, argues that “getting communities active in their own security” would bring better results.

“Neighbourhood residents know where the criminals are,” and would act more effectively if they could count on protection from security bodies, he said.

Inadequate health, education and housing services and unemployment are major crime factors, note critics of the new measures. “I don’t think militarisation is going to get us anywhere,” said López.

Government “should focus on increasing funds for basic services, because they are closely associated with improved quality of life,” she said.

The Dominican Republic invests 2.1 percent of its gross domestic product in education, while the unemployment rate has remained above 16 percent over the last five years.

“It’s not fair to blame these establishments for the upswing in crime, or paint hundreds of thousands of people as potential criminals or bums if they go to restaurants at night for business, a social event or just to have fun,” complained the National Hotel and Restaurant Association.

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