The Dominican Republic is boasting its lowest murder rates in years, but these figures could merely be concealing a larger threat from more sophisticated manifestations of organized crime.
The Dominican Republic -- and especially the capital province of Santo Domingo -- has displayed a startling turnaround in crime levels in recent years. Santo Domingo province is seeing a 15-year low in homicides, with about 13 homicides registered for every 100,000 people, according to recent figures by the Attorney General's Office.
Nationwide, the murder rate fell to about 15 per 100,000 during the first six months of 2015, compared to 18 during the whole of 2014, which was a 12-year national low.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Homicides
This abrupt change may be perplexing to some. A rise in cocaine trafficking through the country did bring about steep increase in violence, with the murder rate more than doubling from 2001 to 2003. From 2003 onwards, this figure oscillated between 21 and 25.6 per 100,000, according to numbers from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with rates only beginning to fall after 2012.
So, what is behind this unprecedented drop in the island nation's homicide rate? Here are three leading theories.
A Successful Security Strategy?
Crime analysts in the region have come up with a number of theories to explain this trend. The first is that the drop in murders is a direct consequence of an improved security strategy. In 2013, President Danilo Medina ordered the Dominican military to patrol alongside police troops in areas with high crime rates. The police claimed that this resulted in a swift fall in crime rates.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Dominican Republic
However, in an article examining illegal groups and corruption in the Caribbean, which is due to be published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, sociologist Lilian Bobea refutes the idea that the country's notoriously violent security forces might have forced the decline in crime. In Latin America, a strong police presence has historically only fueled fatalities, while military presence is hardly a novelty in the region and is not enough to justify recent developments in the Dominican Republic, Bobea argues.
An Amnesty International report on police abuses in the Dominican Republic makes a similar point, detailing how police killings are on the rise in the country. "Hard-line policing methods are contributing to escalating violence," the Amnesty report states -- by implication, this makes it unlikely that the police and military conducting joint patrols would explain the overall improvement in the Dominican Republic's murder rate.
The second theory suggests that the Dominican Republic is seeing less murders because Colombian and Mexican criminal groups -- and specifically the Sinaloa and Zetas cartels -- have taken control of drug trafficking routes through the country.
"Whenever the Mexican transnational trafficking organizations, establish their dominance over a drug market a drop in murders [ensues]," crime expert Daurius Figueira told InSight Crime.
Figueira sustains that, while Colombian criminal group the Urabeños were the dominant trafficking organization in the Dominican Republic for a while, they have handed control of their trafficking networks over to Mexican organizations and become their affiliates. The Mexicans have applied a rigid order -- which Figueira labels "Pax Mexicana" -- over their associates, including state agencies and local criminal groups such as Los Trinitarios and Los Tigres. The new Mexican model has supposedly enforced peace among different criminal factions in the Dominican Republic, as well as lining their pockets.
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A similar pattern can be observed in Puerto Rico, which has also seen the recent incursion of Mexican cartels. Although the past few years saw an increase in violence alongside a rise in drug trafficking, the year 2014 had the lowest murder rate in over a decade.
Police Killings Down, Murder Rate Down
Despite these developments, however, the most prominent factor behind the Dominican Republic's recent decline in homicides may actually be a drop in police killings.
Bobea's research shows that at the same time drug-related violence was going up -- representing over a fifth of all murders in 2007 -- almost a third of killings throughout the country were being perpetrated by the police. But over the past four years, the number of homicides committed by national police fell from 4 and 3 murders per 100,000 to 1.65 in 2013, according to the sociologist's statistics.
Why did these numbers fall? It is hard to believe that a notoriously repressive police that has routinely purged its ranks with little success has miraculously cleaned up its act.
This may be due to what could be considered a "Pax Policia." Bobea proposes that corrupt security forces -- who are known to extort drug dealers -- have managed, for the most part, to subjugate petty criminals, resulting in less violence by authorities. Considering that 90 percent of organized crime is allegedly perpetrated by the Dominican police and military(not to mention that the majority of contract killings are attributed to former police), this theory may especially explain the noteworthy crime decrease in the Santo Domingo province, which Bobea explains is a hub for police extortion.
But this is not the first time that police killings have plummeted unexpectedly, suggesting that something more sinister may be behind the drop in deaths. Bobea points out that only in 2002, the newly-instated head of the National Police Jaime Marte Martinez revealed an "overnight" nosedive in extrajudicial killings from 171 in 2001 to 103 per year. Far from being a positive sign, Bobea says this sharp fluctuation is an indication that police are consciously deciding when they need to ratchet up the violence and when they should impose "peace."
"This for me is the most irrefutable evidence that we're dealing with a rational decision and that it can be controlled," she told InSight Crime.
The calm before the storm?
Although the Dominican Republic is experiencing relatively low homicide rates at the moment, it does not look like this trend will last. Figuiera believes that this calm stage wil end, once local criminal groups inevitably enter into conflict with the Mexican cartels over drug trade profits.
Whether or not this indeed lies in store for the Dominican Republic, it is certain that what Bobea labels "statetropism" -- or the tendency of organized crime to erode the state -- has the potential to continue to weaken and corrupt state institutions in the Dominican Republic.
In some ways, corrupt state agents are becoming traffickers in their own right. Examples abound of low and high-level officials following in the footsteps of the former Dominican army captain Quirino Paulino, who in 2005 was extradited to the United States for money laundering and trafficking 30 tons of cocaine. Among these is the theft of over a ton of cocaine by the head of the country's anti-narcotics police (DICAN) in early 2015, leading to assertions that the country's security forces have in fact become its leading drug trafficking operators.
Such prospects do not bode well for a country that looks set to play a central role in the global cocaine trade for the foreseeable future. Although current statistics may mean relative peace for the time being, it could only be a matter of time before they creep up again.