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 United Nations
peacekeepers are tasked with keeping the peace and preventing this human
trafficking via the river and bridge that links both nations. None of them
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 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 busiests 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 gas and stone
“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, even though Dominican authorities created a special unit to combat
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 Dajabón — also home to the Dajabón 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 and
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 gourdes or $125 US.`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
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 Martínez, 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
180 miles of highway between Dajabón and Santo Domingo, hoping to curb
illegal immigrant smuggling.
But at least 20 undocumented adults and kids — who entered the
Dominican Republic in the past 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 Dajabón. 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
In September a Herald reporter asked Pastora Rodríguez, 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,” Rodríguez answered, walking away.
umbers.html How series was reported and numbers tallied
In February reporters and photographers from El Nuevo Herald and The
Miami Herald began investigating claims that children were routinely
smuggled from Haiti into the Dominican Republic, a long-standing problem
that became an epidemic following the earthquake that killed an estimated
300,000 people in January.
The journalists persuaded traffickers to talk — if we did not use their
names. We agreed as a last resort because we felt it was important to get
the story out. We verified their stories, often via aid groups that work to
persuade traffickers to quit the trade and get the children off the streets.
The reporters also worked to verify the stories given to us by children by
talking to relatives, caregivers and church groups.
A second hurdle entailed trying to put a figure to the smuggling. Our
journalists used a 2002 UNICEF report that focused on the scale of the
problem as a guidepost. They interviewed non-governmental organizations that
investigate trafficking claims, talked to religious organizations, the
governments of both countries, a UNICEF child protection specialist and
examined U.S. State Department reports.
One NGO, Jano Sikse Border Network (RFJS), which monitors human
smuggling at 10 border points keeps a monthly head count, which tallied
about 7,320 children “illegally trafficked” through September. In 2009,
the RFJS tallied 900 kids for the year. Spotters eyeball kids being taken by
river, land and bridge with no identification. Astonishingly, one RFJS
worker said traffickers often allow him to count kids. The RFJS reported
1,575 cases in January, right after the quake, and the numbers continued to
increase, until July when only 32 cases were reported, but the figures are
back on the rise, with 195 cases reported in September.
Another NGO, Heartland Alliance Haiti, screens children who may be
potential victims of smuggling at four border crossings. Between April and
September, Heartland screened more than 12,500 children and 21 percent
traveled unaccompanied or with other children.
The governments of both countries don’t keep figures on children and
acknowledged there is scant political will to tighten its borders. Christina
Torsein, UNICEF child-protection specialist, said prior to this year, an
average of 2,000 Haitian children were trafficked annually, and not just to
the Dominican Republic.