Child smuggling runs rampant along Haiti-Dominican border
OUANAMINTHE, Haiti — The long-legged young man in a black jacket and shorts carries a child under each arm, given to him on the Haitian side of the border. He steps into the calm waters of the Massacre River and in less than 10 strides, without getting wet above the knees, he's in the Dominican Republic.
It's market day on the border, a chaotic scene where thousands of buyers and sellers pour into this bi-national market, and it provides the perfect cover for the smuggling of children. The young man pushes past stalls, dodges wooden carts, looks back as if pursued, until he reaches a house where arms extend from an open door to receive the children.
Above the river, Dominican border guards, soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers are tasked with keeping the peace and preventing this human trafficking via the river and bridge that links both nations. None of them react.
It took the young smuggler less than five minutes to ferry the children into the Dominican Republic, an easy, well-timed and completely illegal maneuver that repeats again and again on what is supposed to be the most surveilled border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
"It's a game," said Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, readily acknowledging to The Miami Herald that smuggling is an economic driver between both countries. "A lot of people are trafficking. They make money. Everyone along the frontier is benefiting. It's the sole source of revenues. And everyone accepts it like that."
After the earthquake — which killed an estimated 300,000 people — Haitian and Dominican leaders pledged to protect children from smugglers. But an investigation by El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald found that the problem has only worsened, with reporters witnessing money being passed to border officers, the brazen smuggling of children, and traffickers even offering to sell children for sex, cooking or laundry.
The newspapers also found that:
Both countries have long known their 200-plus-mile border is too porous to prevent trafficking, but have done little to tighten security — even at the four busiest checkpoints, which include the Massacre River crossing. When the countries have cracked down, business interests in both capitals, Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince, complain that commerce suffers, which happened Monday when Dominican authorities closed the border crossing, inciting tear gar and stone throwing.
"Every time the government tries to control the frontier or clean it up, there are protests; unions are upset. It's a form of manipulation by the big shots of Port-au-Prince and the big shots of Santo Domingo," Bellerive said. "Once the frontier shuts down, it's a political crisis."
Traffickers say they routinely bribe Haitian and Dominican border guards to get kids through. There have been only two convictions in four years although Dominican authorities created a special unit to combat the problem.
Despite assurances from Dominican authorities that they crack down on trafficking and child abuse, nearly two dozen smuggled adults and children said they traveled unhindered through checkpoint after checkpoint without being asked for papers. Haitian children are often abandoned in the countryside; other kids are held hostage until their families can cover trafficking fees. Reporters often saw cops ignore kids begging in dangerous intersections or never questioned grown men walking hand in hand with child prostitutes in Boca Chica.
Since the earthquake, more than 7,300 boys and girls have been smuggled into the Dominican Republic by traffickers profiting on the hunger and desperation of Haitian children and their families. In 2009, the figure was 950, according to one human rights group that monitors child trafficking at 10 border points.
The busiest of all border points is the Massacre River Bridge, linking Ouanaminthe in Haiti with Dajabon — also home to the Dajabon market, which provides cover for traffickers, especially on Fridays and Mondays when Dominican authorities open the iron gate in the middle of the bridge and thousands of merchants and buyers pour in.
No immigration papers are required on market days, and verifying if a child is traveling with a parent or guardian is selective. Immigration authorities in both nations say they try to stop kids who look out of place, well dressed or alone.
Saintlus Toussaint, the Haitian immigration officer in charge on the bridge checkpoint, said after the quake an average of 15 children a day passed illegally on the bridge into the Dominican Republic. He said arrests were made, but did not have figures handy. Toussaint concedes challenges remain.
"I can control the bridge, but not what's underneath it," he said, referring to smugglers using the Massacre River. "I cannot go into the water and arrest them."
Clarine Laura Joanice, a team leader with Heartland Alliance Haiti, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to prevent child trafficking, said workers who try to curtail traffickers on the river face threats, beatings. "They have attempted to beat the monitors with rocks."
On the Haitian side of the bridge, the smugglers cut deals inside makeshift huts. Just outside on a mud-laden field, Dominican and Haitian motorcyclists offer to cross anyone for a fee, no papers needed; others offer children. Standing on a bridge, Alix offers to sell a Herald reporter a 15-year-old girl.
He gives no price, but said the girl previously lived with a Dominican doctor and his Haitian wife in Santo Domingo, and they had bought the teenager for $5,000 Haitian gourds, or $125.
"The couple mistreated the girl and the girl cried to return," said Alix, who offered to go get the teenager. "You can give what you want. She can wash, and she can cook."
Two smugglers interviewed by the Herald say they charge, on average $80, to deliver a child to any Dominican city on foot or by car. The cost includes bribing officers in both nations. "I paid between 300 to 400 pesos ($8-$11) for each checkpoint," said one trafficker, who asked not to be identified because he could be arrested.
Young go-betweens along the river were seen by reporters receiving cash, the equivalent of $1, in the open and in front of border guards. The young intermediaries stopped accepting cash once they noticed journalists taking photos and videos. But NGO monitors told the Herald that the go-betweens later gave the money to Dominican guards with the Specialized Corps for Borderland Security, or CESFRONT.
In late August, Herald reporters witnessed two women — who had crossed the river into the Dominican Republic — hand CESFRONT guards money one block from the water. Guards chased the women and beat them. When the reporters confronted one guard, he said: "I was trying to break a bill into change." The guard ran off.
Asked why the guards pummeled them, one woman said "the soldiers had already asked for a bribe but wanted more."
Another smuggler explained that he used "road-runners," bag-men on motorcycles, to hand guards cash ahead of a smuggler's caravan once in the Dominican Republic. Another offered a better trick: Dress kids in school uniforms pretending they are on a field trip.
"Dominican authorities here have always allowed the flow of illegal migrants, children and adults, young men and women. They encouraged it," said Father Regino Martinez, director of Border Solidarity, which works to prevent child smuggling. "It's corrupt and paid for."
Francisco Jose Gil, then-CESFRONT chief, repeatedly said that guards are not on the take, and any bribery was an isolated incident, comparing it to "mischief." Gil and other government officials said the Dominican army deploys on market days more than a dozen fixed and mobile checkpoints along 300 kilometers of highway between Dajabon and Santo Domingo, hoping to curb illegal immigrant smuggling.
But at least 20 undocumented adults and kids — who entered the Dominican Republic in the last six months after paying smugglers — told the Herald that guards did not stop them when they passed through those posts, and in the few instances that the guards did stop the caravan, no one asked to see the required immigration documents.
Once across the Massacre River, Herald reporters watched as the smuggled children were hid in clandestine shanties in Dajabon. One of these shanties is a block from the river and also functions as a sex motel, a neighbor complained.
"At night, the moans of pleasure mingle with the cries of children," said a neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous because he lives by the shanty. "It is very sad not to know what is happening with these children, whether or not they are with their parents."
After midnight, motorcycles and buses park, lights off, on the dark street outside the shanties. The children are led out. Some motorcyclists carry two or three children sandwiched between the driver and an adult. From there, they speed down the main highway to Santiago de los Caballeros and Santo Domingo.
In September a Herald reporter asked Pastora Rodriguez, who operates a shanty, if she knew the children she housed were undocumented.
"Their escorts have passports," she said.
"But do the children have them?" the reporter asked.
"I don't know," Rodriguez answered, walking away.
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