SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- More than 1,400 Dominican military soldiers are patrolling streets alongside police officers after a wave of robberies and assaults that has left the country searching for answers to a rising crime rate.
President Danilo Medina, who took office in August and promised to improve security, last month ordered the military to join the national police in patrolling busy streets and high-crime areas. But the deployment has sparked a debate over what role the military should play and the effectiveness of the country’s massive police force.
“The armed forces is acting in coordination with the national police as part of a larger citizen safety plan as ordered by the president,” said Diego Pesqueira, a police spokesman.
Police said the combined patrols have led to a near immediate drop in street crime just one week after the military was deployed, although Pesqueira said specifics were not available.
Street crime and a rising murder rates have become the No. 1 concern for residents, according to polls.
In the past 20 years, the murder rate has nearly doubled to 25 homicides per 100,000 residents, a rate more than five times higher that of the United States. Robberies and thefts have also increased.
In recent months, motorcycle-riding thieves, working in tandem, have carried out brazen armed attacks at busy intersections, robbing drivers and passengers of the ubiquitous private shared taxis. The crimes prompted the U.S. Embassy to warn citizens and visitors to “exercise extreme caution.”
Citizens and elected officials have called for any means necessary, including using the armed forces, to improve safety.
As a result, camouflaged soldiers, wielding machine guns, are walking the sidewalks of residential neighborhoods, standing by at busy intersections and stationed at a makeshift camp in the middle of a popular public park.
“I’m in favor of having the soldiers here because the criminality is reaching a point where something needs to be done,” said Máximo Jiménez Mella, 47, who added that two family members have been mugged in the past year. “Obviously, the police alone are not enough.”
Historically, the Dominican government, like others in the Caribbean, did not separate the functions of the military and police, said Dominican sociologist Lilian Bobea, who has addressed the subject in two books.
“In the D.R., the major justification for having such a huge military force was the argument of ‘the Haitian threat,’” she said. “But with the dissolution of the army in Haiti, the hypothesis of conflict disappeared, so new threats came: drug trafficking, organized crime and illegal migration.”
Nonetheless, the military has often been called in to assist the police, she said.
“In a country with a history of military predominance and with a defective police force, the attempt to reform the police is jeopardized by the use of the military as a complementary or interchangeable force,” she said. “In other words, it affects the professionalization of the police.”
Dominicans have expressed a deep distrust of the effectiveness of the 35,000-member national police force, which critics say is underpaid and poorly trained.
A 2012 United Nations report found that only 38 percent of citizens feel safe, one of the lowest ratings in the region. And the National Commission on Human Rights last year found that residents complained of police involvement (or the involvement of people dressed as police) in at least 7 percent of the 14,000 reported robberies and attacks.
Each year, police kill hundreds of people in what human rights groups have labeled extrajudicial killings.
The human rights commission reported that from 1997 through mid-2012, police killed 4,069 people. That means police killings are responsible for an average of 15 percent of yearly homicides, Amnesty International said.
Police officials say they are justified killings, the results of exchanges of gunfire with criminals. In remarks made in May, Police Chief Maj. Gen. José Armando Polanco Gómez discussed the criticism of the use of force by calling it “a double moral. “
“On one hand, [people] want the police to act in a certain way but after [the police] does what a large portion of society demands, then they attack the police,” he said. “We’re going to do what has to be done.”
Police did not return calls from the Miami Herald seeking further explanation of the comments.
Civic groups and other officials, including Santo Domingo’s outspoken district attorney, said the use of the military has the potential to exacerbate human rights abuses.
“Military officers are not trained to patrol streets for crime prevention and are using firearms which are not adequate for that purpose, said Chiara Liguori, Caribbean researcher for Amnesty International. “Public security cannot be addressed by saturating the streets with army and police personnel but by ensuring that the police really have the [needed] resources.”
The police have long been criticized by human rights groups, both Dominican and international, for a lack of oversight and myriad abuses.
“What is needed is integral reform to the police force. … The police say they have 35,000 officers. Why do we need to call in the military?” asked Rosalía Sosa Pérez, executive director of the influential non-partisan civic movement Citizen Participation.
Sosa has led calls to fully reorganize the police force, calling attention to the poor working conditions, the low pay and the lack of training.
“We have 18 different types of police, from the tourism police to the transit police, etcetera. We need to evaluate what they do and then decide what is really needed. That’s where it starts,” she said.
The Medina administration said the government has started the arduous process of police reform as part of its larger, long-term citizen security plan.
In the meantime, the military is being called in to address the immediate situation, Medina’s press office said.
On a recent morning in the popular Mirador del Sur park, soldiers gathered with police under the shade of bright orange flamboyant trees.
A few hundred feet away, soldiers cordoned off a section of grass where they’d erected two military tents, powered by a generator.
The soldiers, emerging from the tents carrying machine guns, received little attention from the joggers, bikers and dog walkers that filled the park.
“It does feel a little spooky to have soldiers in the streets,” Jiménez said. “But I think it’s better than having to worry about getting assaulted in your car.”