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.