Violent eviction in Santo Domingo leaves scores living in a tent

On Saturday, 15 October 2011, Jodis Encarnación and his wife woke up, as they do every day, at 7am. Just like any other day, they got the children up and ready and they drove them to Jodis’ mother’s house on their way to work in the outskirts of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.   But as his shift as a taxi driver was only starting, Jodis received a desperate call from a neighbour. “The police are here, with bulldozers, they are knocking down all the houses,” the neighbour said.   The car journey back to Alto Brisas del Este, the community where Jodis lives, took him 15 minutes but by the time he arrived, his home was gone and with it, everything his family owned. In its place, there was only a pile of rubble.  “Our house was completely destroyed, there was nothing left. We were not even able to save a spoon, nothing,” Jodis told an Amnesty International team in Alto Brisas.   Jodis’ family is one of 72 who were violently evicted, without judicial order, by 300 police and military personnel. Video taken by community residents on the day of the eviction shows police and military officers, together with representatives from the local Mayor’s office taking away mattresses, fridges and clothes, and tractors knocking down the fragile stone and wood houses.   Eyewitnesses also said police and soldiers fired buckshot and teargas into the families’ houses to force them out. Police said one officer and one tractor driver were hurt by gun shots, but the circumstances surrounding this incident are still unclear.   In only a few hours, there was nothing more than a pile of rubble left in Alto Brisas del Este.   When the police arrived that morning, 28-year-old Jenny Pérez was alone at home.   She said police threw a tear gas grenade inside her house, forcing her to leave by the back door. Jenny then saw police officers rushing into her home and her beauty salon next door, taking whatever few possessions she had and destroying her means of living.“They saw I’m pregnant and one police officer said ‘turn around if you don’t want to get a bullet in your head’.” “They didn’t even give a few minutes warning, they didn’t even give us a few minutes to get our things, they just came in. They came in and took my husband’s graduation ring, clothes, everything they could carry in their bags,” she told an Amnesty International team. Even though Jenny and her husband now live in a rented house, they are still dealing with the physical and psychological consequences of the violent eviction and of having lost everything.    But they are some of the lucky ones.  Since the eviction, dozens of families from Alto Brisas del Este were forced to set up camp in a tent on a nearby street.More than 25 children, women and men live and sleep in the tent, which has little more than a couple of mattresses and an old couch that one family managed to save.   “When it rains, the street becomes flooded and so does the tent. The children sleep in mattresses and many of us adults sleep on chairs or even on cardboard on the floor,” said one woman while she cooked dinner for the group.   Where their homes used to be, a small police unit was installed. Community members say that, even after the eviction, they have been threatened and attacked.  They say that as recently as 26 October, police officers fired a teargas canister into their makeshift camp to warn them off returning to the land where their homes used to be. The community was originally set up over a decade ago on privately owned land, with, they say, the permission of the owner. However, in 1992, the area was declared to be of “public utility” by a presidential decree and in May that year, 19 families were forcibly evicted.It is unclear what the Alto Brisas del Este lands are going to be used for.Community members said they think the land will be used for a tourism-related development, while the Mayor of Santo Domingo del Este publicly stated that local authorities are now planning to plant trees in the area and create a natural protected area.Local organizations say the judicial process that followed and led to the most recent mass eviction failed to respect administrative procedures to carry out evictions in the Dominican Republic.The final eviction was carried out despite a pending court protection order that would have temporarily prevented it from taking place.National and local authorities have so far failed to help the community or provide alternative accommodation. On 27 October, Juan de los Santos, the Mayor of Santo Domingo del Este said local authorities will not give any compensation or alternative accommodation to the evicted families.Forced evictions such as this one are common in the Dominican Republic. In 2011 alone, and according to a local organization working on the housing issue, more than 100 communities were forcibly evicted from the lands they lived on across the Caribbean nation.Most evictions are executed without due process or consultation with the communities affected, to make lands available for the construction of infrastructure, tourism or industry. It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the population in the Dominican Republic lack security of tenure (75 per cent in Santo Domingo Province) and are effectively at risk of forced evictions. This is an argument used by the local authorities to justify their actions. According to a report recently published by Amnesty International, police violence and excessive use of force during evictions and public demonstrations are common in the Dominican Republic. In 2010, 977 people were injured by the police in the Dominican Republic, according to the Office of the Prosecutor General. Amnesty International also received reports of excessive use of force and inappropriate use of firearms by police officers during public demonstrations. Recently Amnesty International’s delegates in the Dominican Republic received the testimony of a student who was shot in her leg by police officers using live ammunition during a protest at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo. The organization also expressed concern at the decision taken by the Dominican authorities in early October to send military personnel to patrol jointly with police officers in order to fight crime and during evictions such as in Alto Brisa del Este. “Military officers are not trained to patrol streets for crime prevention and are using firearms which are not adequate for that purpose. That decision could lead to excessive use of force and exacerbate human rights abuses by public security personnel in the Dominican Republic,” said Javier Zuñiga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International.“We are not criminals. All we want is to live in peace and work. We deserve to live with dignity. We want to see justice and see our conditions improved, we are living in inhuman conditions,” said Jodis, from the tent that is now his home.