Vol. 1, No.7 April 29, 1999

 

INVISIBLE MAN

By John McLaughlin

"The Government's human rights record improved slightly, although serious abuses remain. Principal problems include an increase in extrajudicial killings by police, police beatings of suspects, poor prison conditions, arbitrary detention of suspects and suspects' relatives, and the security forces' refusal to obey judicial orders. Discrimination and violence against women, trafficking in women and girls, prostitution, abuse of children, discrimination against the disabled, abuse of Haitian migrants and their descendants, and instances of forced labor and child labor are serious problems."
--US State Department's Report on Human Rights Practices in 1998 in Dominican Republic, released February 26, 1999 (excerpted from introduction)

"There are no human rights violations in our country."
--Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, February 27, 1999 (excerpted from speech on state of the Republic, delivered annually before National Assembly)

He was sitting outside a colmado, finishing a beer by lamplight with a few friends. From there he heard the roar of the truck, the frantic scattering of residents, and the two shots that sucked the breath out of the entire community and left it in dead silence.

He ran as quickly as he could, relying on memory and instinct to guide him over the bumpy dirt terrain. It was still early evening, about 8 o'clock, but the late November sun had set hours before. He stopped short when he saw, not too far away, two flashlight beams slicing through the pitch darkness.

On the ground lay a body, still as a rock. On either side, a soldier, equally still, moving only occasionally to check the thickening circle of residents hesitantly but steadily approaching the scene.

Hormiga, as he is known in the batey community of Buenos Aires, moved in as well. The closer he came, the more his apprehension-- his fear of being detained by the Guardia, as has happened to other Haitian immigrants in this community, on this night and on countless nights before-- changed to cold, palpable sickness, as he saw ever more clearly the truth of the whispers slipping through the crowd. Elias Delavis, a young Haitian man like him, one of thousands of immigrants that cross the border each year to try to hack out a living beneath the pitiless Dominican sun, lay dead, face down in the dirt, the blood from the bullet holes in his neck and upper back steadily pooling around him.

Before long, another military vehicle broke into the community, as recklessly as the first, and scattered the crowd, Dominicans as well as Haitians. Hormiga kept within earshot, however, well enough to make out the commands of the newly-arrived officers. And to see, even in the dark, the machine-like efficiency with which the orders were carried out. Elias Delavis' body was bagged in two large rice sacks, and lifted into the back of the truck. The engine roared again, the soldiers mounted into place, and the patrol vanished the body into the night.

* * *

A mound of sand in the road. It had been there for days, waiting to be shoveled into the holes that vending trucks and rain had eaten out of the dirt route. Some work had been done over the weekend, but on Monday, November 23, the night the Guardia raided Buenos Aires, the leftover sand still sat in place.

Elias Delavis lived at the end of this road, in a tin-roofed blue wooden house he shared with three other young men. Twenty-eight years old, single, working in tobacco and rice fields to earn something to send back to his family in Haiti, he fit the profile of the immigrant well. Several months earlier, he had moved to this quiet, rather unremarkable pocket of the municipality of Laguna Salada, about an hour west of the city of Santiago. Like many batey communities, it garners little attention from ordinary passers-by, except perhaps as a spectacle of poverty. But to someone like Elias Delavis, the surrounding fields-- which he could see across the river that ran just a few paces from his house-- held enough promise to make him willing to endure living without electricity, running water, and even latrine access. Of course, he had heard from people on both sides of the border, there was always the threat of the Guardia. But he would keep a low profile, he decided, and take his chances.

That Monday night, having been paid earlier for his work in the fields, he set out in the dark to make a purchase at the nearby colmado. Just a small one, only a dollar and a half's worth of rice or beans or bread. Hormiga doesn't remember exactly what was bought, but he does recall Elias Delavis paying with a thousand-peso bill (about $60 US), and the grumblings of the vendor in making change for it. Returning to his house, he was surprised by a soldier-- according to Ramon, a Dominican resident-- and took off running towards his home, towards the river bed where many Haitians seek shelter during the all-too-frequent raids in this community. He was quick, but so too was the soldier, who kept hot pursuit just a breath behind. Reaching the sand, he lithely dodged it and turned the curve. The unsuspecting soldier met with the sand and tumbled to the ground, cursing loudly. Recovering quickly, with the young Haitian still only meters away, he drew to one knee, leveled his gun, and brought Elias Delavis down with two fatal shots.

When the body was taken away, the community, Dominicans and Haitians alike, could only seek consolation among themselves, and could only speculate as to the motives behind such a cold-blooded killing.

"The Guardia always say 'Haitians are dogs,'" said Ramon, standing in the same curve in the road, reflecting on the long history of raid-related abuses in this community. As happens in other bateys, the soldiers come at night, break down doors, shake people out of bed, extort money, and detain people regardless of age, family commitment, or legal status. And there are the moments when the brutality seems to defy belief. Last May, a young mother was separated from her child in the act of nursing it, detained and deported. Seven years ago, in a confrontation with a Haitian resident, a soldier demonstrated a temper as lethally short as that of the soldier who stole Elias Delavis' life, shooting the resident through the chest at point blank range. "But they treat them worse than dogs," Ramon continued. "You don't kick dogs. And you don't do this," he said, gesturing to the spot where the blood had stained the ground.

But the incident of this November is about much more than a temper snapped by a bit of sand in the road. It's about more than an instance where one soldier went beyond the informal (although publicly confirmed in late 1998, as reported by the US State Department) Dominican Police policy of shooting fleeing suspects in the legs. It's about more even than the life and death of Elias Delavis.

* * *

"The military commander of the zone guaranteed that the soldier or soldiers found guilty of having killed the Haitian national will be sanctioned in exemplary fashion."
--La Nacion, 11/25/98

"General Juan Antonio Sosa Valdez guaranteed that the case would not go unpunished, because he is a person that does not permit actions such as this."
--Listin Diario, 11/26/98

"We can confirm that a shooting certainly occurred, that the official who commanded the patrol, Second Lieutenant Valentin Pena Cabrera, is in detention, and that the case is being investigated."
--Official statement, Dominican State Department, Hoy, 11/27/98

"This act, which we deplore, deserves to be investigated in meticulous fashion, and is an act contrary to the will of the Government, of the high command of the Armed Forces, and of this Department of Migration, whose work adheres to national laws, international norms, but above all adheres to the respect of individual rights."
--Danilo Diaz, Director of Migration, La Nacion, 11/28/98

"The secretary of Foreign Relations, Eduardo Latorre, indicated that the shooting was being investigated, and that when they have the results, the public will be informed."
--El Siglo, 11/28/98

* * *

Gathering his wits, Hormiga set off in search of the body. He took a companion, a barrel-chested man named Daniel, a man who also lived near and knew Elias Delavis. It was already past 9 o'clock, but they could not afford to wait until morning.

They went first to the fortaleza in Mao, where all raid detainees in this area of the country begin their captivity. But the body had already been transferred to the hospital, they were told, a few kilometers away. The pair of men took to the street again, and waited impatiently to hitch another ride, as they would have to do all night. The hospital staff confirmed the presence of the body in the building, but denied their request to see it until they presented an order from the fortaleza authorizing them to do so. Like all things bureaucratic, that document was marvelously slow in processing itself, and by the time the men returned to the hospital, the body had already been moved to Santiago for an autopsy. Furthermore, hospital staff informed them that it would cost almost $40 US to bring the body back to Mao, more than a week's wages for field hands such as them.

Hormiga, as his nickname would indicate (it means "Ant" in Spanish), remained determined, and industrious. The next day, he talked with a local radio announcer, and the word went out over the air. Soon print journalists appeared, and then a representative from the Haitian embassy. Stories cropped up in all the national newspapers. Two days later, a general from the fortaleza in Mao arrived to discuss the matter with the community but left in a huff when Hormiga and others asked about the money Elias Delavis had on his person when he was killed, the change from his purchase at the colmado.

The money might have been used, Hormiga explained, for funeral expenses. In its absence, he turned to the community, which was able to provide for half the cost of a coffin. The local mayor, Luis Manuel Diaz, provided the rest.

Eventually, however, after days of waiting, Hormiga returned the empty coffin to Mr. Diaz, with his apologies. The hospital authorities in Santiago claimed that after the autopsy was completed, the military officials repossessed the body. And since then, despite all his efforts, he hasn't been able to get a straight answer as to where it is.

Sad to say, it's no surprise. On an official level, all matters Haitian in the Dominican Republic are elusive, illogical, duplicitous. In the sixteen articles (from five different periodicals) that appeared in the eleven days following the murder, Elias Delavis was identified by five different names, not one of which matches his name as it appears on his death certificate, a copy of which Daniel possesses. The Secretary of the Armed Forces, Admiral Ruben Paulino Alvarez, claimed on November 28 that the soldiers "acted in their own defense and to avoid being attacked," but neglected to explain how Elias Delavis managed to attack the soldiers with his back turned to them. And the case, despite all the hard-hitting rhetoric at the outset, seems to have been treated like a potential Pandora's box that the Government has surreptitiously weighted with an anchor and dropped into the sea, sinking it further into oblivion every month.

The body may in fact never be found. The latest article related to the case appeared on December 4, 1998, and perhaps it will be the last. The guilty parties have slipped safely behind the curtain of invisibility, held high and firm by the Armed Forces, the Department of Migration, and the executive office itself. And sad to say, it will happen again. If not in Buenos Aires-- where the Guardia has carried out regular raids, even since the murder-- then somewhere else, in another one of the many batey communities where an estimated 500,000 Haitians live in excruciating but invisible poverty. Another life will be stamped out and the evidence swept up into the air.

"There simply is no justice," said Hormiga and Ramon, side by side, as if representing the two factions of their community, even of this country, typically divided by rhetoric that places ethnicity above all, but united in practice faced with the terrible unbridled freedom of the Guardia. It's a phrase that could be heard in all parts of the community, from many people, when asked about Elias Delavis. It's a phrase that will echo in the empty space in his house, and in the house of people like Hormiga who knew him, and even in houses of those who did not but who bed down each night with the memory of others who have disappeared into the darkness that creeps under the door.

NOTES FROM THE EDITOR
Four more Dominican citizens, two women (one pregnant) from Sabana Grande de Boya, and two men from Santo Domingo, were deported to Haiti during the month of April by migration officials who "mistook" them for Haitians. Migration officials seized their government-issued IDs, alleging that they had been forged. Days later, after the citizens managed to return from Haiti, they denounced the case and challenged the Government to prove that they are not Dominicans. As of this writing, Migration officials have refused comment. Two other Dominican women, also from Sabana Grande de Boya, were deported under similar circumstances in March.

More than one hundred undocumented Dominicans were arrested on April 24 as they tried to enter Puerto Rico. It is estimated that at least three times that number entered Puerto Rico successfully this month.

 

CROSSING is published by John McLaughlin and the Centro de Reflexion, Encuentro y Solidaridad: ONE RESPE, for further information please contact: a.badillo@codetel.net.do