Anger Boils on Streets: Police blamed for 250 killings
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- A grieving Edwin Núñez stood before hundreds of relatives, friends and acquaintances in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city to read from a crumpled piece of paper.
Just 18 hours earlier, the woman he had loved since elementary school, the mother of their 4-year-old son, was shot by a uniformed police officer in what has become a common occurrence in escalating clashes between the national police force and civilians.
Now he uttered the scribbled words he hoped would reach the ears of this country's president.
``No. 1, I no longer have love,'' the 30-year-old widower said in a trembling voice. ``No. 2, I no longer have a wife. No. 3, I am now only half the man that I was, all thanks to a body of order, I mean, disorder.''
The death of his wife, Wendy, occurred early this month amid civic strikes that have turned into violent episodes in recent weeks as protesters take to the streets to rebel against electricity blackouts that can last up to 20 hours. At least six people have died, two police officers have been wounded and hundreds of citizens have been arrested.
But there are deeper causes for the discontent sweeping through this Caribbean nation. Among them are a lack of potable water, poor infrastructure and public services, and -- perhaps worst of all -- a police force that last year killed at least 250 people, according to the U.S. Department of State's annual human rights report released in February.
``Now, Mr. President, you must search for the truth,'' Núñez pleaded as he stood by his wife's final resting place. ``We all know this was an assassination. Don't throw cold water on a population that is boiling over with anger. Justice -- the people ask for that. Show us dignity.''
The electrical outages ordered by President Hipólito Mejía,
who was elected last August, are part of a package of economic adjustments,
known as paquetazo. The
adjustments include new fees for electricity, which used to be subsidized, and higher taxes on gasoline and food.
They are designed to improve the economy, but they have resulted in protests that have exacerbated the political tensions in the Dominican Republic.
PRELUDE TO VIOLENCE
Núñez's wife, Wendy Altagracia Gatón Tejada de Núñez, 28, was returning to her neighborhood of Libertador de Herrera shortly after 10 p.m. June 5.
The streets were littered with debris and the air was filled with smoke. But the disturbance that erupted earlier that evening had settled down, and only a handful of police remained at the scene.
As Edwin Núñez waited outside for his wife, he saw a police officer shoot toward a group of women. A crowd quickly gathered to find out who was hit. Witnesses said two officers picked up the body and threw it into the back seat of a police unit. They told the crowd it was a tire, not a body.
But Gatón's purse had fallen, and word spread quickly.
``The police wouldn't give us any information,'' Núñez said. ``They didn't want us to see the body. They didn't want us to know if she was dead or alive. I hoped she was still alive. I wished, but I knew she wasn't.
Officials later said a police officer admitted the shooting, saying the deadly fire ``accidentally escaped.''
Such explanations have added fuel to conflicts that have spread
across the Caribbean nation. The most violent outbursts have taken place
in the Santiago region,
including Salcedo, San Francisco de Macorís, Licey al Medio, Jaibón and Navarrete. There, hooded protesters have blocked highways and forced passenger buses to stop and evacuate so they could set them on fire.
Protesters also have called for the removal of Chief of Police Pedro de Jesús Candelier Tejada and the prosecution of law enforcement officers they say are committing lawless acts.
They accuse the police force of human rights violations, illegal entries, arbitrary arrests, extortion and a disregard for life.
Of the six recent deaths resulting from police gunfire, Candelier has acknowledged negligence only in the death of Gatón Tejada de Núñez. The others, he said, were the result of trading fire with drug traffickers and other offenders.
``There are times when police officers have to defend themselves,'' Candelier said. ``In Wendy's case, it was not necessary to shoot. The officer responsible for that is in jail, and he must pay for what he did.''
Another problem is the vast number of illegal weapons on the streets. Police confiscate 20 to 25 firearms a week in raids and routine checks, authorities said.
REPORTS OF ABUSES
Many of the abuses cited by residents have occurred during the
police actions. The allegations are supported by several international
reports, including the U.S.
Department of State's.
``Serious problems remain,'' the report says. ``The police continued the practice of making frequent sweeps or roundups in low-income, high-crime communities in which they arrested and detained individuals arbitrarily. The alleged objective of the roundups is to fight delinquency.''
The day after Gatón was buried, Candelier's police force
descended on another poor neighborhood in the capital. But this event in
Guachupita was part of a
government-sponsored ``Battle Against Poverty.''
IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Candelier's component of the program is dubbed ``Un Día con el Barrio (A Day with the Neighborhood).'' Designated neighborhoods get a day of free medical care, traditional music and reduced food prices. Hundreds show up for the event. The police chief makes celebrity-like appearances.
He takes children in his arms, kisses women on the hand, and listens to complaints from the elderly. The lucky ones who get a sympathetic ear about their ailments get a free trip to the department's medical center for treatment. Officers also clean up the streets and upgrade decrepit homes.
Candelier, 46, is the son of a chicken farmer. He served 28 years in the military and was a two-star general when he was appointed to the police chief post nearly three years ago by former President Leonel Fernández. Today, he supervises a force of 28,862, including police officers, physicians and engineers.
Asked why his services were retained by President Mejía, Candelier said: ``Perhaps my work was evaluated and the president realized I was doing good things.''
But the road to reconciliation with the population likely will be long and hard.
For Núñez, who had been trying to shield his son from the pain, the most difficult part of the tragedy was about to begin.
``Papi, I saw on TV that my mother is dead. Is it true?,'' Joao Marcos Núñez asked his father. ``Am I going to be only for you now? Why are the police so bad?''
The elder Núñez couldn't find the words to explain. ``I didn't have an answer.
``There is no way I can answer that.''