“It was six minutes past five in the afternoon,” Flor de Lis, a 23-year-old Dominican, recalls vividly. Seven years have passed since she arrived at the paradisiacal beach of Barahona after a friend deceived her into going there, but she remembers everything “as if it were yesterday.” On that day in 2015, at that precise moment, her “happy childhood” turned into a living hell. What was supposed to be a day of swimming in the Dominican town of Boca Chica (just over half an hour from Santo Domingo) like so many other days before, became half a year of abuse, rape, beatings and other mistreatment. Her friend, a recruiter for a sex trafficking ring, abandoned her in front of a bar and a stranger told her why she was really there. “You were brought here so that you could sleep with men for money and give them drinks,” the stranger told Flor at 5:06 p.m.
But Flor de Lis’ face will not be the image tourists see when they search the internet for the Dominican Republic as a vacation destination. Instead, gorgeous beaches and all-inclusive resorts will appear. But Flor and many others like her — young girls and teenagers to have sex with — are a lure for numerous visitors from within and outside the country. Flor de Lis was not at that bar alone, and such bars with nearby hotels are common in the country. She was sexually exploited at a brothel owned by a politician; 10 other minors and six adults were there with her in the same situation, forced to have sex with both Dominican nationals and foreigners, “lawyers, officials, serious people that you see around or at a meeting without knowing all the harm they have caused.”
The sexual exploitation of minors occurs in every corner of the Dominican Republic.Alba Rodríguez, director of Save the Children
“The government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons, but it is undertaking significant efforts,” says the latest annual baseline report on this problem, prepared by the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic. “Inconsistent with international law, the [2003 Smuggling and Trafficking in Persons] law required a show of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense and therefore did not criminalize all forms” of this crime, the authors explain. That law has been under review since 2019, but last February, the Comprehensive Law on Trafficking in Persons, Exploitation and Smuggling of Migrants bill was withdrawn from the approval process in the National Congress because, according to its detractors, it opened the door to the indiscriminate entry of undocumented Haitian immigrants, by recognizing the right of foreign survivors of sex trafficking to not be deported. The bill also sought to “manage their regular permanence in the country” and provided for family reunification.
The tabled bill would be a step forward in acknowledging and protecting survivors in the Dominican Republic. “It eliminates the requirement for minors to demonstrate coercion in order to be recognized as victims of trafficking,” explains Alba Rodríguez, the director of Save the Children in the Dominican Republic. In the proposed law, consent would not be “considered valid… it would never constitute a reason for exemption from criminal, civil or administrative responsibility for the perpetrators or accomplices.” The bill also develops prevention and institutional support mechanisms for the survivors in more detail than the previous one. While the Dominican Republic’s legislation is from two decades ago, sex trafficking rings evolve much faster in their recruitment and exploitation strategies, deploying new technology to avoid detection, such as using online vacation rental platforms to offer their selection of girls. They no longer even need to have a fixed location that the police can monitor; all they require is a cell phone to be able to connect with clients and deliver the girls to their door.
Flor de Lis was “very young” — a teenager — when she was separated from her family. She didn’t know where she was. “And I had to do it. I was far from home. I was abused a lot. I didn’t want to be with the clients, and they beat me; and when I had sex with a client, they took my money, they wouldn’t let me make a phone call, they wouldn’t let me go out. Sometimes they didn’t even give me food because I didn’t want to sleep with the men.” She can’t and won’t hold back the tears as she recalls what happened to her. She was forced to sleep with about eight men a day. She was beaten if she refused to perform fellatio, if she failed to excite the man on duty, raped with various objects, nearly beaten to death with pipes, forced to drink and take drugs to endure all that violence every day.
“They destroyed your life because they only thought about their own pleasure. They told you that if you didn’t do something right, or if you didn’t get on top of them, they were going to beat you, fuck you or do something worse. Sometimes they would take you to the mountains and throw you down, and they would beat you and rape you there without even saying anything to the man in the bar, because that’s the only way they wanted to do it.”
“The sexual exploitation of minors occurs in every corner of the Dominican Republic,” says Rodriguez. “In Sosua, Boca Chica, behind any grocery store in Santo Domingo, in the industrial zones,” she says. A report by the U.S. embassy in the Dominican Republic reaches the same conclusion: “It happens in the streets, in the parks and on the beaches. Traffickers use catalogs to sell victims to potential customers, using private homes, rented apartments and extended-stay hotels to house the victims.”
“Society has normalized sex with minors, but it remains invisible in communities, neighborhoods, families,” says Rodriguez. “There is a widespread belief that girls and teenagers cause these situations and seek out these relationships with adults. That gets in the way of protecting minors who, by definition, can never give consent because they are minors.” Such arguments explain why the sexual exploitation of girls is hardly ever reported, adds Major Julio Balbuena Valenzuela, the deputy chief of Dominican National Police’s Department of Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Persons. “People thought that they were rebelling [running away].”
But in Flor de Lis’s case, her father reported her disappearance. Indeed, Flor was the only one of the 11 minors who were being prostituted at that same brothel whose parents alerted the authorities. When Flor tricked a client (and relative of the brothel owner) into letting her call her aunt, she could only say that she was fine; as a result, “the gentleman” locked her in a room, but it was enough time for the investigators to trace the phone call.
“Some Spanish and Dominican clients arrived, and they didn’t give me anything to drink; they only asked me questions, they talked on the phone and signaled to each other, they looked at each other,” she recalls. Then one day, when the owner grabbed her arm, one of those men stood up and said: “Don’t move. Flor de Lis, don’t move, your father sent us to rescue you.” When she heard her real name, the one that had been stolen from her, she knew that those “gentlemen dressed as customers” knew who she was. “I almost fainted. I just thought, ‘Thank God, he’s a policeman.’” They were all taken to social services, and the brothel was shut down, to the chagrin of many neighbors who protested violently in front of the bar. The local press reported that community members were upset about what they considered to be the unfair singling out of a respected local politician.
The corruption and complicity of officials in human trafficking crimes continued to be a concern and impedes law enforcement activityUS Embassy in the Dominican Republic Annual Trafficking Report
Emotion wells up in Flor de Lis as she describes the undercover operation. Valenzuela explains that this represents progress in the fight against sex trafficking. Undercover officers allow the police to investigate trafficking from the inside and rescue the victims. In cases where no complaint is filed, or it is withdrawn —sometimes because of threats, other times because the traffickers pay the families to desist — the police can gather enough evidence to support the case and prosecute the perpetrators. “There are convictions, but they are not exemplary,” he laments. Nor was it in the case of Flor de Lis, who says that the friend who recruited her and her exploiters (the bar owner and the pimp) remain free “and continue to do the same thing.” As Flor says, “they are powerful people. Everything can be bought here,” she says.
“The corruption and complicity of officials in human trafficking crimes continued to be a concern, preventing law enforcement activity during the year,” the U.S. embassy report says. “The government did not report the status of a 2017 sex trafficking case involving police officers and members of the military.”
In 2021, 29 sex trafficking victims were officially recorded, six adults, 21 girls and two underage boys
In 2021, 29 sex trafficking victims were officially recorded, including six adults, 21 girls and two underage boys. The majority (24) of the victims were Dominicans; there were also three Haitians and two Colombians. As for investigations and prosecutions, the 2022 annual study (the latest available) reveals that there were 68 investigations into trafficking cases, involving 89 implicated persons, the previous year. “A total of 98 people were prosecuted in relation to a total of 55 cases of sex trafficking, forced labor and pimping,” the document details. In 2021, there were six convictions — four for sex trafficking and two for pimping.
Wounds that heal but leave a scar
In the absence of a new law, the Dominican government, with the support of UNICEF, prepared guidelines for action in human trafficking and migrant smuggling cases that affect children and adolescents. But no matter how many protocols and declarations of intent are made, Flor de Lis trusts almost no one. A friend deceived her, a politician prostituted and raped her; for six months, many respected men violated her. When she finally escaped that hell, she was taken to a National Council for Children and Adolescents center, where she received help, but she needed additional support from the NGO International Justice Mission (MIJ). “They took me to the doctor, did tests, gave me medicine. Thank God I didn’t have any [sexually transmitted] diseases,” she said. Then, she met psychologist Luz del Alba Antonio Rojas, who was working at MIJ at the time (the organization no longer works in the Dominican Republic) and is now a project coordinator at Save the Children. Flor calls her “an angel.”
The psychologist says that Flor de Lis has already experienced the stages of recovery that survivors typically undergo. The first step is accepting and acknowledging that they were trafficked. “Many are not even aware of it. Therapy helps them stop having nightmares, learn to trust others and establish “normalized relationships with other people.” When they come out of the exploitative situation, “they are a shell of a human being…. They have to work on their self-esteem for years, and they may never fully recover it. For that, they need professional help, which they do not always get, and which depends, to a large extent, on NGOs.
That was the healing process for Flor de Mayo (an assumed name), 40, another survivor who was tricked into sex work when she was offered a job as a waitress in her city. Instead, she was kidnapped, raped on at least one occasion and witnessed the exploitation of young girls. That was in 2009, when she was already an adult and the mother of four. But it was only recently that she realized that what happened to her—and the minors she rescued when she decided to run away and take them with her—was the crime of sex trafficking. She has not had therapy and still finds it difficult to tell her story, which is full of silences, vulnerability, abuse, need and desperation. She fears being recognized as a victim and requests anonymity.
Now able to share her story, Flor de Lis was also left with physical scars. After giving birth to her baby girl, who is now five years old (Flor’s relationship with her daughter’s father has already ended), by cesarean section, she was unable to breastfeed her daughter because of an infection in her breasts. Then, Flor was told that she would not be able to have any more children. She says that she is not resentful; she just wants a happy life. She wants to work in “whatever [job] she can get” to support her little girl. But she also demands more public support for survivors. “They make promises to us, but they don’t deliver.” There is only one shelter specifically for sex trafficking victims; it has a 24-person capacity. Social services do not always help minors for the necessary amount of time because, in this conservative Catholic society, people believe that these sexualized girls will be a bad influence on the rest of the children, the director of Save the Children says.
The director of the NGO notes the need to go further in preventing sex trafficking in the first place. Flor de Lis and other survivors, including boys, have organized a network. They not only support each other, but also help the organizations to do the work of raising awareness in Dominican communities so that girls do not fall for the lies of recruiters, who take advantage of the vulnerability of adolescents and adults in desperate situations.
To strengthen the socioeconomic stability of these girls and women and their families, as well as involve Dominican institutions, security forces and the hotel sector in this fight, the Spanish Agency for Development Cooperation - which provided the logistical support to prepare this report - will allocate €600,000 from 2018 to 2025; Spain’s autonomous communities and municipalities will provide another €437,500 between 2020 and 2023.
In the entire country, there is only one shelter specifically for the survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation, and it has only 24 places
Save the Children will be one of the organizations in the Dominican Republic that puts some of these funds toward the “comprehensive protection of girls, adolescents and women against trafficking in tourist areas of the Dominican Republic,” the director explains. In addition to working with at-risk girls “for the development of self-protection skills, access to complaints and restitution of rights,” they will also include men and work on “issues [related to] new masculinities and equality. Because you can’t change reality if you don’t address the root cause,” Rodriguez says.
Her program plans to continue working with the hotel sector, which represents 25% of the country’s GDP. “The sex tourist comes because the supply already exists in the country,” Rodriguez explains. In turn, sex tourism contributes to perpetuating this criminal practice. David Llibre, the president of the country’s Association of Hotels and Tourism (Asonahores), emphasizes that the organization’s members are committed to fighting this scourge. One of the rules they strictly enforce is that no child can be checked into a hotel by anyone other than their parents. “But digital platforms don’t have this type of control” to keep guests from entering the rooms with girls for the purpose of abusing them, he notes.
“In cases of the sexual exploitation of minors, WhatsApp chats and social media are used to lure children,” the US embassy notes in its analysis. Rodriguez mentions another trick that sex traffickers use: “We know that they pay the families to stay in the hotels and, once they clear the check-in hurdle, they switch rooms to sleep with the minors.” But the “big hotels and resorts” are not the main problem, she says; rather, it’s the services that are offered all around them: excursions, transportation, leisure... and sex with girls.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition