Earlier this week, a fire at La Victoria National Penitentiary, the largest prison in the Dominican Republic and the single largest prison facility in the Caribbean, claimed at least 11 lives.  The tragedy worsens a humanitarian crisis that is already at a high level of desperation.

Initially, the Dominican government reported three deaths, which was later increased to eleven. Manuel María Mercedes, President of National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH-DR), a leading Dominican civil society organization, stated that due to the cramped and crowded conditions within this part of the facility, the death toll is likely much higher.

La Victoria is the epicenter of the DR’s preventive detention crisis. The cramped and crowded conditions that made this fire so deadly are a direct result of the excessive use by which the Public Ministry implements preventive detention. In its 2022 Human Rights Report on the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo called out the “gross overcrowding and unsanitary conditions” in “old-model prisons” including La Victoria, which held “7,761 inmates, although it was designed for a maximum capacity of 2,103.”

The U.S. State Department has known about life inside La Victoria and other prisons throughout the Dominican Republic for decades, an existence that is amplified if you are one of the many inmates who is held on a preventive basis without any formal charge or trial. According to the State Department, “reports of harassment mistreatment and violence” are common in Dominican penitentiaries, and some facilities “remain effectively outside the control of authorities,” with “wardens often controlling only the perimeter, while inmates controlled the inside with their own rules and systems of justice.”

It is clear that the Public Ministry is incapable of implementing and upholding basic standards of due process that are in line with the rule of law and international human rights protections. In a statement, Attorney General Miriam Germán Brito stated she was “deeply dismayed by the situation that as occurred” and that her office was investigating the fire to “rule out the existence of other victims.”

While the Public Ministry attempts to regain control of a situation that is clearly out of their hands, Dominican civil society organizations have been crying out for accountability and justice. In his statement to the media, Mercedes called for a “deep investigation” that begins with determining whether the fire was deliberately set or the rest of criminal neglect by the Public Ministry. Rodolfo Valentin Santos, Director of the National Public Defense Office (ONDP), expressed “deep concern about the critical situation” in La Victoria and stated it is “imperative that the executive branch intervene” since “neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the Director of Prisons have a plan to resolve this sad reality.”

A Powder Keg of Injustice

The signs have been clear for years to human rights observers in the Dominican Republic that the situation in La Victoria was preventable. As far back as 1997, Human Rights Watch reported on the desperate situation within La Victoria’s walls, where “approximately 90 percent of the detainees had never been tried.” In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners rioted after authorities refused to do anything to prevent the spread of coronavirus. And just last month, another fire broke out – a preview of the deadly fire that broke out this week.

This week’s tragedy is the unfortunate but inevitable end product of Dominican prosecutors in the Public Ministry like Yeni Berenice and Wilson Camacho, who deny that the country has a preventive detention crisis and enthusiastically defend its use as a “strategic persecution tool” of “Dominican-style justice.”

The first victim from Monday’s fire was Francis Michael Paredes, a 20 year old who was under a preventive detention order in La Victoria. Aracelis de la Rosa slept outside the prison overnight just so she could get a glimpse through the prison of her son, who has been held in the prison for eight months without a trial.

Were U.S. Nationals Among the Victims of the Tragedy at La Victoria?

The tragic stories of these families will continue to become public. Relatives of inmates from La Victoria are reporting that the names of their loved ones do not appear on among the list of dead, injured, or those who were transferred.

What is also undetermined is how many of the victims are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. In his letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul detailed his concern that the State Department does not have a “complete accounting of the number of Americans” detained in the Dominican Republic and that there was a “disconnect” between the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo and the State Department headquarters in Washington. Chairman McCaul warned that preventive detention is an “endemic issue clearly impacting Dominicans, and very likely, Americans as well.”

The tragedy at La Victoria thrusts Chairman McCaul’s questions – still unanswered – into the spotlight. How many Americans were detained at La Victoria? Has the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo given U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who are detained in the Dominican Republic the consular services that they are rightfully owed?

The truth must come out and the families affected deserve answers and accountability for this escalating human rights scandal. The U.S. government cannot continue sending millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to a broken justice system that arbitrarily arrests people, denies them due process, then crowds them into prisons where they are dying.

The Biden Administration must end the silence and publicly denounce the systemic violations of human rights by the Public Ministry of the Republic that has led to tragedy after tragedy. The U.S. can bring pressure on the Dominican government to take responsibility for its errors and to take dramatic steps to end the preventative detention crisis.