Slaying of journalist reveals Dominican underworld

September 2, 2011 - 1:45 AM
Dominican Republic Slain Journalist

This picture taken in 2010 shows Dominican Republic's journalist Jose Agustin Silvestre, third from right, posing with unidentified members of the Dominican Human Rights Committee in La Romana, Dominican Republic. Silvestre promised to reveal a bombshell in the next edition of his magazine, a story of drugs and corruption involving local businessmen, but he was kidnapped and killed on Aug. 2, 2011 before he could publish his expose. (AP Photo/Alberto Calvo)

LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic (AP) — Dominican journalist Jose Agustin Silvestre promised to reveal a bombshell in the next edition of his magazine: a story of drugs and corruption involving local businessmen. He never got the chance. Before he could publish his expose, Silvestre was kidnapped and shot to death. His body, with three bullet wounds, was found along a busy road outside La Romana, a fast-growing town next to one of the country's best-known Caribbean resorts.

While attacks on journalists covering drug trafficking are common throughout much of Latin America, they are rare in the Dominican Republic, although the country has become a conduit for drugs bound for the U.S. and Europe. Silvestre's death, which prompted a police investigation that quickly yielded arrests, opened a window into the country's growing narco-culture, with allegations of corruption that circled back to the slain journalist himself.

Carlos Lauria, senior Americas coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, expressed alarm at the killing despite the allegations of possible wrongdoing by Silvestre that emerged after his slaying.

"Unfortunately, the trend, not only in the Americas but in the world, is that most of these crimes (against journalists) go unpunished," Lauria said.

Police so far have arrested five people in the case but not the alleged mastermind. He has been identified as Matias Avelino Castro, the 40-year-old owner of a resort hotel on the Samana peninsula as well as other businesses, said Frank Soto, the prosecutor leading the investigation.

Avelino is an alleged drug trafficker who goes by the name "Daniel" or "Daniel the Big Gun of Samana" and was the subject of the story planned for Silvestre's loosely edited magazine, The Voice of Truth, and his TV show by the same name, Soto said.

In recent months, authorities had been investigating an alleged drug trafficker in Samana whom they knew only as "Daniel." Police and drug enforcement agency didn't know his real identity until they began looking at Silvestre's killing and learned what the journalist had been about to publish, said Maximo Baez, a police spokesman.

Police have since started to unravel Avelino's alleged drug ring in Samana and La Romana, which is about 155 miles (250 kilometers) from the capital Santo Domingo, Baez and other officials said.

German Miranda, director of the anti-money laundering division of the attorney general's office, said they have seized control of a number of bank accounts and begun tracking assets that Avelino allegedly obtained through drug sales. Among those, he said, are a 26-room, high-end boutique hotel at Las Galeras in Samana and a 50-room hotel and sports complex that has not yet opened in San Cristobal, about 18 miles (30 kilometers) west of the capital.

No one answers the phone at the larger hotel, which has been searched by police and may be confiscated if authorities determine it was paid for with drug proceeds, Miranda said.

Among Avelino's alleged business partners is Jose Rijo, a former major league pitcher, who has been questioned repeatedly in the case but has not been detained. Rijo, who pitched for the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics, did not return messages seeking comment.

Avelino, apparently fearing that Silvestre was about to reveal his real name, allegedly arranged for the journalist to be kidnapped and he was fatally shot while resisting being forced into a car, Soto said.

Silvestre knew he had a high-risk story on his hands. "He said this was going to be a big deal," said the journalist's brother, Juan Silvestre.

Before the slaying, Silvestre was perhaps best known in the Dominican Republic for being accused of defaming a prosecutor by accusing him of taking bribes in his twice-monthly paper, which had a print run of about 100 copies. As a result of that complaint, Silvestre spent six days in jail before he paid a bond and was released. The case was pending when the journalist was killed.

Dominican authorities were critical of his work.

Soto said that Silvestre, 59, was apparently playing a dangerous game, taking payments from drug traffickers to publish accusations against perceived enemies in the sensationalist pages of his paper.

Information about these alleged payments came from several people interviewed during the investigation, Soto said. Prosecutors have evidence that in the last two years, Silvestre received $13,000 and $6,600 in separate payments, he said.

Some of Silvestre's journalist colleagues are also critical, accusing him of being sloppy at best.

In the magazine's last edition, published in July, Silvestre used 31 of 44 pages to describe four alleged drug trafficking groups and their alleged links to government and justice officials. The story carried an accusatory tone and did not include any type of sourcing.

"Silvestre showed me his magazines and (TV) show and I told him, 'Silvestre, this is not journalism,'" said Aurelio Henriquez, president of the Dominican Journalists Association.

Silvestre faced repeated accusations of slander and defamation.

"He was a character who was constantly in court," said Jose Polanco, the prosecutor who filed a complaint against Silvestre in May after the magazine accused him of drug-trafficking ties. Polanco denies the allegations.

The 6-foot (1.8-meter) tall Silvestre never studied journalism, but in 1975 he launched a daily TV program where in a casual shirt and with a strong voice he strongly criticized government officials and business owners for alleged corrupt practices.

In 1982, he launched his bimonthly magazine to denounce corruption but left several years later for the United States because of economic problems. While in the U.S., Silvestre was arrested three times on unrelated charges, including shoplifting and drug and weapon possession.

He returned in 2005 and resumed the magazine's publication.

Silvestre caught the public's attention in 2010 when he transmitted on his TV program a video of police officers executing a robbery suspect. Authorities later used the video in their investigation.

Lauria, at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said any allegations that Silvestre's reporting was tainted should be investigated and the results made public. But he also cautioned about speculating on journalists' alleged corrupt activities if concrete evidence is not presented.

He said that recently in Mexico, just hours after a female reporter was found beheaded, prosecutors accused her of having ties with drug traffickers without presenting much evidence.

"That was really irresponsible," Lauria said. "It's important that a thorough, complete, exhaustive investigation is conducted."

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Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.