On August 4, 2008 Dominican navy officers executed seven Colombians in the town of Paya, near Baní on the southern coast of the island, in order to steal the 1,300 kilos of cocaine that these traffickers had brought ashore. The subsequent scandal and investigation revealed navy involvement and leadership in narcotics-trafficking and migrant-smuggling organizations. (The kilos of cocaine, together with $15 million Dominican pesos [about $435,000], were never recovered.) The incident was significantly public and scandalous to warrant investigation by a presidential commission, prosecution of the perpetrators and conviction of sixteen of the twenty-two defendants, and reassignment and then forced retirement of the Chief of Staff of the Dominican Navy, Rear Admiral Julio César Ventura Bayonet.

Ventura Bayonet previously had been director of the Dominican counter-narcotics agency (Dirección Nacional de Control de Drogas; DNCD) in the mid-1990s. He was appointed navy chief in August, 2007; was replaced in February, 2009; and was retired by President Leonel Fernández in February, 2010. In the years preceding the removal of Ventura Bayonet, corruption and impunity in the navy benefitted migrant smuggling as well as drug trafficking. The voyages organized by migrants themselves and by some local captains departed in secret to avoid pay-offs, and the voyages organized by large-scale migrant smugglers routinely paid-off navy officers at various levels.

This situation and the decades of corruption that preceded it were inherited by Ventura Bayonet’s successor, Rear Admiral Homero Luis Lajara Solá. Lajara Solá, whose father had once been navy chief, was appointed at the end of February, 2009. He began his command with a pledge to end corruption and to restore the navy’s dignity and commitment to its mandate. Lajara Solá endeavored to transform the navy’s institutional culture through purges of corrupt officers, anti-corruption awareness campaigns, training programs, merit awards for officers who refuse bribes, and a monitoring program that includes biometric registry and background checks. He also formed an elite unit and vastly improved the navy’s land, sea, air, and technology assets. The navy fleet, which was 20 percent operational when Lajara Solá took command, was fully operation by the end of 2010.

The navy also became proactive in the interdiction of migrant voyages and in the investigation and disruption of organized smuggling. According to its annual report (in which the numbers may be inflated), between March 2009 and February 2010 the navy interdicted approximately 150 illegal migrant voyages and arrested 95 organizers and 35 captains. Subsequent press releases announce ongoing disruptions, and my informants among migrants and yola captains likewise attest to the navy’s increased activity. They report that yolas under construction are frequently located and burned and that officers no longer accept pay-offs to permit yola departures.[1]

When the Dominican navy is active, it locates and burns yolas that are built without permits in clandestine locations.
Photographs courtesy of Marina de Guerra de la República Dominicana.

The changes in institutional culture also include renewed and enhanced cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard and other law-enforcement and military entities in the United States, primarily for the purposes of impeding drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, and money laundering. This partnership is epitomized by the U.S.-funded construction of a naval base on Isla Saona, an island in the southeastern Dominican Republic. The U.S. military’s Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) initiated the project and provided $1.5 million through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, established by the U.S. State Department in 2009. The Dominican Maritime Operations Center was also created with SOUTHCOM support and includes the Cooperating Nations Information Exchange System (to be succeeded by Collaborative Sensor and Information Integration), which gathers radar and sensor data for shared use in Caribbean defense and law enforcement.

In March, 2011 Lajara Solá was promoted to Vice Minister of the Armed Forces and was replaced as Chief of Staff of the Dominican Navy by Rear Admiral Nicolás Cabrera Arias. The cultural changes and accomplishments continue under this new command (which, in turn, is under Lajara Solá), but historically corruption in the Dominican Republic has increased and decreased in accord with who is in charge at various hierarchical levels, including the presidency. A change in navy command after subsequent rotations or the election of a new president can easily result in a renewal of the corruption that facilitates migrant smuggling and drug trafficking.

The navy’s current enforcement and anti-corruption initiatives also occur within the context of more comprehensive corruption and dysfunction at the national level. The arrest of migrant smugglers, consequently, does not result in convictions and incarcerations. The navy interdicts, makes arrests, investigates, and transfers its suspected yola captains and organizers to the judicial branch, but the prosecution of these cases is not pursued. Suspected smugglers are detained for up to three months while awaiting hearings, but due in part to judicial corruption they are released without trial and generally return to business as usual.


[1] Dominican Republic, Marina de Guerra, La Marina de Guerra del nuevo milenio. Memoria 2009 (Santo Domingo, 2010), 79 and 84-85. For examples of news coverage, see Diógenes Tejada, “Marina de Guerra incauta 60 yolas en cuatro meses,” Hoy digital (May 15, 2010); and Soila Paniagua, “Marina detiene 1,831 personas y 228 embaraciones en 21 meses,” Hoy digital (December 10, 2010). Press releases in the “Noticias” section of the Dominican Navy website announce interdictions: .

Under Dominican Law the construction of a boat requires a permit. Dominican Republic, Congreso Nacional,  “Ley sobre policía de puertos y costas” (number 3003), Chapter 10 (August 4, 1951).