Today I am writing about a subject that is both very serious and very tragic, but also extremely important for someone considering studying abroad in the Dominican Republic. I had wanted to write about this sooner, but, at the advice of my program director, waited until such time as emotions were cooled and more was known. In part because this is a blog for Clark University rather than a personal one, I will do my best to stay away from any interpretation of events (although I have formed my own opinions about what happened) and present the facts as they are allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
It was Friday, the 28th of October when, while finishing up some homework in the PCUMM library in Santiago Dominican Republic, I got a mass text from my program supervisor informing us in the program that an “estudiante de apoyo” (support student) had died and his “velario” (wake) would be that evening. No mention was made as to the circumstances of his death. This student had been very close with our program director and every one of us had met him personally several times. He was 23 years of age. Shocked that this had happened, and wanting to show solidarity for the family, I quickly went home, put on some nice clothes, and continued on to our program director’s house where her husband, Marcos, was waiting to take those of us who could get there to the wake. When I arrived, I immediately asked Marcos what had happened. “Él fue matado por la policía” was his response. The police killed him.
At the wake, the immediate family of the deceased sat on a couch with the Mother trying to console her. The sight of her frail body contorted with grief and her anguished cries of “Mi hijo. Mi hijo” (My son. My son.) were difficult to bear. Worse still, was the dead and hopeless look in her eyes when circumstances or sheer exhaustion forced her to keep silent. The sight of those eyes is something that will be forever burned into my memory. In the corners, people traded accounts in subdued tones of how the death had occurred. “He was trying to steal a car and shot at the police when they tried to arrest him” some said. “He was the king pin of a drug cartel and was killed in a police stake out” said others. But most there, especially friends and family, felt that he was an innocent victim of police brutality.
The official statement by the police is that the student in question had been under investigation for some time for possible connections with drug related activity. They claim to have intercepted a letter written by him extorting a man for 5 million pesos (about $125,000). As to the circumstances surrounding his death: the police claim that when they cornered him with two “accomplices” at the edge of town, the three violently resisted arrest with (at least one) firearm and all three were killed in the ensuing firefight. (Listin Diario, Oct 29th 2011). If one does believe this fantastic account, then perhaps the police were only doing their job.
The students at PCUMM, however, will give you a very different story. The morning after the wake, several others in my program and I went to a public vigil/protest of police brutality led by the support students of PCUMM. In the course of the protest, we marched through the streets of Santiago shouting slogans such as “Policia National: una banda criminal” (National Police: a criminal band) and “Policia no me mata” (police don’t kill me [mercifully the police force in Santiago isn’t prone to reverse psychology]). After the protest, I asked one of the support students for her take on the events. “He would never have been involved in criminal activity” She said (paraphrased from the original Spanish). “He worked with the support students, maintained a very high gpa, and kept a steady job. Even if he were the sort of person to be involved with drugs, which he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have had the time. The police got the wrong person, killed him, and now they’re lying to cover their tracks. He was a victim of police brutality.”
If so, he wouldn’t be the first. The Dominican police force is notoriously apt to shoot first and ask questions later. A study by Amnesty International finds that a full 10% of the homicides in the Dominican Republic are committed by the police. The comparative statistics for the United States and the United Kingdom are 3% and <1% respectively. (“Amnesty: Killings by Dominican police ‘alarming”’ CNN.com). According to Javier Zuniga, the director of Amnesty International in the Dominican Republic, “Dominican Police have been responsible for an alarming number of tortures and killings, many of which go uninvestigated by the government.” (“Amnesty International accuses Dominican police of killings,” The Washington Post.com)
In this specific case, the truth is that I don’t know what actually happened and therefore I’m not going to pass judgment one way or another. What I can say is that this is a very tragic event and that all of our hearts go out to the family of the deceased in this difficult time. Importantly, it should be pointed out that this post isn’t meant to discourage perspective applicants from studying abroad in the Dominican Republic. It is simply meant to present them with as accurate of an illustration as possible of what life is actually like here, and to remind them of the inherent dangers that exist in any excursion to a developing nation. In addition, I would like to encourage any readers to take a moment after you are done reading this post to call or email your mom or dad and tell them that you love them. I know that I did after the wake and, as this narrative aptly demonstrates, you never know when you’ll get that opportunity again.